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My anthrax survivor's story

Casey Chamberlain was working for 'NBC Nightly News' Anchor Tom Brokaw in Sept. 2001. She first opened the anthrax-laced letter sent to the anchorman and fell seriously ill as a result. This is her story, in her own words.

Every September, like many, I feel sick and frightened around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But it was the weeks following September 11th that would forever change my life. During that time, I was the victim of terrorism when I opened a letter containing a lethal amount of anthrax.

You may remember hearing about Tom Brokaw’s assistant who got sick after coming in contact with a letter containing a deadly amount of anthrax. I was the person who first opened that letter, before Tom's assistant became sick. You have not heard my story.

Around September 18, 2001, I headed to work as a desk assistant at ‘NBC Nightly News.’ One of my jobs was opening Mr. Brokaw’s mail. There was one letter that looked as if it were written by a child. Something seemed unusual. I’d never seen a letter containing a granular substance. I mentioned the strange letter to my friends.

Nothing happened for about 10 days. Then one Friday night my throat began to swell up. A cold, I thought. But it worsened over the weekend. My glands were soon enormous. Monday morning came and my face was barely recognizable. I went to the doctor, who said it was a reaction to my Accutane medication, and I should rest in bed. For the next few days, I felt like an awful virus was running through me.

A few days later, I went back to work, but I still felt a bit off. My glands were still swollen. A week or so after I was sick, Mr. Brokaw’s assistant became sick. Both of our symptoms were unusual. Authorities became involved. When Bob Stevens died at the American Media Building in Florida at the end of September, the pieces slowly began to come together.

On Oct. 12, having planned on heading into the office late after an appointment, I was surprised to hear from one of my bosses early in the morning. She asked that I head into the office as soon as possible. Immediately, I knew there was something about the letter that was terribly wrong. I soon learned why I had been sick — anthrax poisoning. Like Mr. Brokaw’s assistant, I had contracted cutaneous anthrax.

The events over the next few months changed my life. I had carried anthrax back on my clothes and had contaminated my home. I chose to have all of my things destroyed. I lost my most personal belongings. All my precious pictures and mementos. I worried I might die. I’ll have to see doctors the rest of my life.

Every day I wonder: Who sent the letter? There have been some leads. But the case remains unsolved. If authorities find the person who sent this letter, I hope I have the opportunity to tell him how my life was changed forever. Every time I hear the word terrorism or anthrax, it makes me sick. I often become a bit paranoid and feel as if people are staring at me. Whenever various media outlets alert Americans about “a white substance” that was found or some chemical smell or spill, the speculation that these things might be anthrax conjures up many negative emotions. I’ll never have an overall sense of security again. That’s what I lost. But what I gained was the deep, true appreciation for my family, friends, and co-workers, whose support was incredible.

Despite the hardships, I know I’m the lucky one. I survived 9/11. I survived anthrax. Five people died from inhaling anthrax, and others contracted both inhalation anthrax and cutaneous anthrax.

With the case unsolved five years later, I feel compelled to share my story. I have never gone public before, never wanting to draw attention to myself. Only those close to me before knew my story. Simply writing this story is cathartic, because I feel I am a voice for those anthrax victims who are no longer living. They do not have the chance to remind the world that this case remains unsolved.