Worried about anthrax scare, equality of care

October 29, 2001|By Angela Maria Arboleda

WASHINGTON - I may have been exposed to anthrax.

On Oct. 15, I was doing what I do every day: running from meeting to meeting on Capitol Hill, talking with legislative aides.

Life since then has been anything but ordinary.

The next day, I was tracked down by one of my coalition partners and learned that everyone who was at the meeting at the office of Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania had to get tested for anthrax exposure.

At first I panicked.

It all seemed so surreal.

I tried to reassure myself that I was fine and that there was no reason I would be contaminated with the bacteria.

I was in denial.

Congressional health officials took us to the second floor of the Hart office building that Tuesday afternoon to get tested.

I stood in line with hundreds of other people with worried looks on their faces, all of us hoping for the best.

They gave each of us a plastic container with a swab dipped in a clear solution on the end of a pen-like tube.

My nose was swabbed. I was given a three-day supply of Cipro and was told to wait until Thursday for my lab results.

Those two days were the longest of my life.

People would stop by my office at work to ask how I was feeling. My response seemed to change every couple of hours.

Sometimes I felt fine both physically and emotionally, and other times I felt dizzy, nauseous and scared. The uncertainty was overwhelming.

Finally, Thursday came - but I was told that the results would not be available until the next day.

I spent part of Friday morning dialing a number that was constantly busy, until I finally decided to go in and pick up my results.

They came back negative.

I felt relieved, but that didn't last long.

The doctor told us that anyone who was on the fifth or sixth floor on the southeast quadrant of the Hart office building had to stay on Cipro for an additional 60 days.

I had not been on those floors but my elevator could have quite possibly stopped on those "contaminated floors," since I had made my way up to the seventh.

We were recommended to take the full 60-day dosage of Cipro as a preventive measure.

The doctor explained that although the test came back negative, there was a chance that the anthrax spore was dormant and could not be detectable either through the swab test or by blood work.

Although I am not completely in the clear, I feel fortunate.

I think about the postal workers who died and about their families. I think about the photo editor who died. And I think about others who have been infected and those who may now be ill with the bacteria.

Even though I had the government's full resources for detection and treatment, I wonder about future anthrax outbreaks, or any other bioterrorist attacks, and how the government would respond if they were on a larger scale.

What would happen if someone did not have these resources available to him or her?

And what about those who cannot read English, since the fact sheets I received were all in English?

If I had not been able to read it, how would I cope with the uncertainty? I can only imagine the distress.

As a Latina, I also fear for the more than one-third of Latinos in the United States who do not have health insurance.

In the case of future, more widespread attacks, what would happen to those who do not have access to the best medical care available?

Congress and health officials need to be prepared to ensure that, in the unthinkable event of future attacks, everyone has access to both information and antibiotics.

We can't forget about the 38 million people who don't have access to health care, including millions of children.

While I may be stuck taking antibiotics for the next two months, it pales in comparison with the millions of people who could be stuck in the rut of our nation's health-care system in the case of a massive bioterrorist attack.

Angela Maria Arboleda is the civil-rights policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703.

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