Union Tribune

December 31, 2001

S.D. native's exposure to anthrax tale of fear, survival

He was there when co-worker opened letter to Sen. Daschle

By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 


WASHINGTON -- Tim Mitrovich remembers looking over a
co-worker's shoulder and seeing the open letter lying on the
floor.

He didn't see any powder, just a harmless-looking envelope. All the while he was breathing -- unconsciously, steadily, normally -- sucking in the invisible toxin floating in the air around him.

"Had we known at that point what we know now, maybe there would have been a little more sense of panic, a little more anxiety about it. We didn't really know what we were exposed to," the San Diego native recalled.

Mitrovich is one of 23 aides to Senate Majority Leader Tom
Daschle who were exposed to anthrax when a fellow staffer
unwittingly opened a letter to Daschle loaded with the deadly bacteria.

In a recent interview, Mitrovich, who turns 37 tomorrow,
provided a rare firsthand account of what happened in Daschle's office that day, and the aftermath for those involved.

Though the incident occurred more than two months ago, for Mitrovich and thousands of others who were exposed -- on Capitol Hill and at post offices in Washington, New York and New Jersey -- anthrax is still a pressing concern, an uncertainty to contend with every day though they remain healthy.

A San Diego State University graduate, Mitrovich went to work for Daschle in May 1992, drawn by a love of politics. As director of information technology for the South Dakota Democrat, he is responsible for the office computer system, Daschle's Web site -- and the mail operation.

Normally, two or three lower-level staffers are assigned to plow through the 700 to 1,000 letters that pour into Daschle's office on a typical day. And Oct. 15 looked typical enough, even as concerns about mailed anthrax were mounting.

Mitrovich reckons he had been at his desk on the sixth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building for about 10 or 15 minutes when he was approached by a staffer and asked whom to call to report a suspicious package.

"They said someone had just opened a letter with white powder in it," Mitrovich recalled. "My initial thought was it was a hoax. But not knowing, we all followed protocol."

The protocol had been explained to Daschle's staff just three days earlier, after news broke that an NBC employee in New York had developed skin anthrax, probably from a tainted letter. Remain calm. Call the Capitol Police. Don't leave the area. Try to keep others out.

Within a half-hour, the substance that spilled out of the letter had been field-tested and the results were positive for anthrax. Mitrovich and his co-workers were led out into the hallway, given nasal swab tests for exposure and handed their first doses of Cipro, a powerful antibiotic known to keep anthrax at bay.

Calm prevailed, albeit an anxious calm. Mitrovich found a pay phone and called his wife to let her know what was happening and tell her not to worry.

Before they were allowed to go home for the day, the staffers were given the option of retrieving some of their personal effects, which would be decontaminated with a bleach solution. Mitrovich caught a glimpse of a worker in a hazardous-materials suit.

He decided to leave his things -- cell phone, Palm Pilot, work bag -- where they were, at his desk.

Two days later, Daschle chief of staff Peter Rouse called
Mitrovich at home and delivered the bad news: Mitrovich had tested positive for anthrax exposure. He was told to come to Capitol Hill for a briefing on the situation and to get more Cipro.

"That was probably the worst day of this whole event," Mitrovich said. "Driving to the office that day was the longest drive I've ever had. You think about a lot of things: What can happen next? What does this mean?"

He worried about his wife and two young daughters: "Could I have impacted my family somehow? Did I bring it home? Could it have been on my clothing?"

The briefing helped calm him. Cipro is known to be very effective against anthrax. He had done the right things when he got home from the office the day he was exposed -- showering, washing his clothes -- so his family wasn't in danger.

"I felt relatively secure in the fact that we would all be fine," he said.

After two weeks passed with no sign of anthrax infection,
Mitrovich started to relax more. The hardest thing, he said, was remembering to take his Cipro twice a day.

But health experts acknowledge significant gaps in their
knowledge of the long-term effects of the first mass human
exposure to anthrax in U.S. history. When is enough Cipro
enough? Can the spores remain dormant in the lungs for a long time, awaiting a chance to germinate? When will the danger finally, absolutely pass?

The uncertainty prompted officials to extend the antibiotic
course for those who are thought to have been exposed to the largest amounts of anthrax -- and to offer them a controversial, still-unlicensed vaccine.

Mitrovich, who is on a 90-day course of Cipro, lined up with
other Daschle staffers Dec. 20 for the first of three doses of the vaccine.

"It's anybody's guess how much we actually sucked into our
lungs," he said. "You would have to assume that it would have to be in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of spores. "This (vaccine) may be a way to put a seal on it once you've stopped the antibiotics.

"I'd rather have that peace of mind, maybe go with what I feel are the minimal risks of getting the anthrax vaccination as opposed to not having anything after 90 days, just stopping cold turkey."

During the two weeks he was off work after the incident,
Mitrovich spent a lot of time with his daughters, walking the eldest to elementary school every morning.

"It's changed my life in a lot of the same ways that Sept. 11 changed my life," he said of his brush with anthrax. "You
re-evaluate your life and you try and concentrate on the things that are most important to you. That's obviously my family, my wife and my daughters. I've put things in perspective, rioritizing my life from my family down."

He thought about giving up his job and staying home to take care of the kids. Ultimately, though, he went back to Capitol Hill. He is working out of temporary quarters in Daschle's leadership office at the Capitol while the Hart building is methodically purged of anthrax.

"I don't view this as a high-risk job," Mitrovich said. "I have a certain amount of faith that they'll set up a system to try to (prevent) this from happening again. But you can't live in a bubble, either.

"In the end, I enjoy what I do very much. I love working in
politics. Eventually, when they open the Hart building, after
they do what they need to do to our office, I'll be prepared to go back -- and sit in the same place and do the same things I did before Oct. 15."