Ernie Blanco's battle with anthrax

  1. Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

    Tabloid worker strives for understanding
    `God chose me as an example to serve as spokesman to humanity to not be afraid'

    BY OSCAR CORRAL
    ocorral@herald.com
    http://www.miami.com/herald/special/...ocs/101346.htm

    Ernie Blanco sauntered across his living room Wednesday, dressed in a striped bathrobe and blue socks, and shook his head, trying to make sense of the weeks he spent battling anthrax.

    He was released from Cedars Medical Center in Miami Tuesday night, making him the first inhalation anthrax victim to leave a hospital alive during this month's outbreak of the disease. He believes his role now is clear.

    ``God chose me as an example to serve as spokesman to humanity to not be afraid,'' Blanco said in an interview with The Herald. ``We feel satisfied that at least we've won one point in this battle. We know this can be beaten.''

    Doctors have ordered Blanco, a mailroom worker at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, to continue taking the antibiotic Cipro for two more weeks. He said he feels a little sluggish, and occasionally coughs, but expects to be back to normal in a couple of days.

    Blanco has no idea how he became infected. With so much mail to sift through every day, he says it could have come from any one of thousands of letters.

    Blanco's case posed a challenge to doctors. They initially said he tested positive for anthrax exposure but had not contracted the disease. Then, following further tests, they announced Oct. 15 that he did have inhalation anthrax, the most serious form.

    Dr. Carlos Omeñaca, a local infectious disease specialist called in early in the case, said he was baffled by what he perceived to be pneumonia-like symptoms.

    ``It's something new for me,'' Omeñaca said. ``We don't have clinical data on this disease, only preliminary data. We knew that this disease was very, very severe. The mortality was very high.''

    Working with old data on anthrax, Omeñaca estimated that Blanco had only a 20 percent chance of living. Without treatment, he had only a 10 percent chance of living.


    A GRATEFUL MAN

    Blanco, 73, is extremely grateful to his doctors and says he sometimes has to pinch himself to make sure he's still alive. But he says his sense of awe will not change the way he lives his life.

    Once he feels normal again, Blanco said he wants to go back to work at the mailroom of American Media, the company that publishes supermarket tabloids the National Enquirer, The Globe and The Sun, among others.

    He expressed his regret over the loss of his ``close friend,'' Bob Stevens, a photo editor at The Sun who died of inhalation anthrax Oct. 5.

    Blanco, a hard-line anti-Castro Cuban exile, sipped a shot of café in his North Miami-Dade home Wednesday as he recalled his brush with bioterrorism.

    He knew something was wrong the moment he had to sit down at work, wasted with flu-like fatigue. The head of American Media's security gave him a ride to his car at the Tri-Rail station, where he usually leaves it in the morning. When he got home, Blanco collapsed in bed and slept for almost two days.

    ``I was very tired from early in the week,'' Blanco said. ``I never get tired or complain at work. I felt very bad.''

    His wife, Elda, insisted he go to the hospital Oct. 1. Two days later, authorities determined that Stevens was gravely ill from anthrax. American Media's vice president frantically called Cedars and demanded that Blanco be tested fore it and treated.

    Local doctors called public health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A sample from Blanco's nasal cavity was flown immediately to a lab in Atlanta for analysis.

    Four days later, doctors shoved a tube up Blanco's nostrils to his lungs to take a deeper sample. Despite anesthesia, the procedure hurt.


    UNAWARE AT FIRST

    Through all that, doctors kept Blanco in the dark. Even after the nasal sample tested positive, they didn't tell him what he was facing.

    ``They never told me I had anthrax,'' Blanco said. ``I heard it from watching television.''

    The discovery terrified him. ``I felt that at any moment, I was going to die. I physically felt the arrival of death.''

    Heavy antibiotics, lack of appetite, and symptoms that ranged from fever to delusion left him dazed.

    ``I didn't know when it was morning, noon or night. I was in a semi-coma, a state of confusion. Certainly, they were symptoms of anthrax. I couldn't even remember if I had eaten breakfast.''

    Doctors were evasive with information until the end, he said. Local doctors would tell him one thing. Government doctors would tell him that there was too much media coverage and they couldn't divulge too much. They told him his condition had been leaked to the media.

    Blanco knew things were improving when visitors no longer had to wear masks.

    When he got home Tuesday, there were dozens of messages from reporters. By Wednesday, his yard was a parking lot for media trucks.

    After spending a night on his waterbed, Blanco said he has decided not to hate whoever infected him, even if Fidel Castro had something to do with it, as he still believes.

    ``I forgive them, I'm no one to judge,'' Blanco said. ``God is the only one that can judge. People shouldn't be afraid. If I'm standing and ready to do battle in life again, others can do the same.''

    Blanco hung his head, covered in bushy salt-and-pepper hair, and blew his nose.

    ``Don't worry,'' he said. ``It's not contagious.''
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