Emotional Wounds Linger For Anthrax Survivor

FBI Director Robert Mueller prepares to give testimony before a House panel. i i

hide captionFBI Director Robert Mueller prepares to give testimony before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
FBI Director Robert Mueller prepares to give testimony before a House panel.

FBI Director Robert Mueller prepares to give testimony before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The Trenton post office was closed after anthrax was found there. i i

hide captionA woman walks outside the Trenton Post Office in Hamilton, N.J., on its first day open three years after anthrax was found in letters there.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
The Trenton post office was closed after anthrax was found there.

A woman walks outside the Trenton Post Office in Hamilton, N.J., on its first day open three years after anthrax was found in letters there.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

FBI Director Robert Mueller is testifying this week before Congress about the 2001 anthrax attacks. The agency said it considers the case closed after its sole suspect, scientist Bruce E. Ivins, committed suicide in July.

One man closely watching the hearings is Patrick O'Donnell, a postal worker from Levittown, Pa., who got sick after handling a letter containing anthrax.

O'Donnell has not been back inside the Trenton, N.J., post office since. Six years, nine months and 23 days later, he stands in the parking lot of the building — a few miles off the turnpike — and looks in the window.

"I'm speechless," he says. "I feel anxiety. I just don't even want to be around here."

Before the attacks, O'Donnell thought of himself as an easygoing guy. He loves golfing and music; he's a fan of the Grateful Dead, and he's been to dozens of their shows.

He grew up in the area and says he has so many friends, he's never seen any reason to leave. But he's a different man now. He still sorts mail — he works in an office just a few miles away. But these days, if someone cuts him off while driving or annoys him at work:

"I'm ready to rip the guy's head off," he says. "Where I used to just laugh and say, 'You're a tool, see ya.' Ya know? And now it's just like I just want to grab the guy by the neck, and that's not me. And that drives me crazy."

'I Don't Know If I'm Coming Back'

In October 2001, O'Donnell had been a mail sorter for 12 years. When he got the gig just a few years out of high school, he was thrilled: plenty of vacation time and holidays, good money. Usually he unloaded flats of magazines, but one day, his boss asked him to fill in for an hour sorting first-class mail. A week later, he woke up feeling terrible.

"I went and looked in my bathroom, in the mirror. And I was like, 'Oh my God.' My neck was 32 inches ... and I had a big lump in my chest. So I came out here, gave my mom a kiss, said, 'I love you, I don't know if I'm going to be back.'"

O'Donnell checked himself into the hospital just as the anthrax story was unfolding. Five people were killed and 17 injured before it was over. The staff walled off his room. For a week, he watched doctors, nurses and people from the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coming and going — all through the haze of a morphine drip.

"There wasn't one person who walked in without being fully suited up, from head to toe," he says. "I'm like, 'What is going on?' And I'm just sitting there watching TV, because that's pretty much all I had. Everything's breaking loose, and people are dying now, and I'm watching, and my co-workers are sick."

Changed Man

Now, every morning, O'Donnell gets up and takes his pit bull, Otis, to the park. He lives alone. Dating, he says, is not something he thinks about since the attacks. He says the things that keep him calm are golfing, the antidepressant Xanax and his dog.

"I don't know what I'd do without him," he says. "I'd probably be going nuts. I probably would have hung myself."

One bright spot is his group of close friends. Jim Chamberlin has known O'Donnell for more than 20 years. They went to high school together.

"As soon as you get to a Phillies game, he's ready to turn around," Chamberlin says, "and it's the third inning."

He said O'Donnell doesn't stay out with the guys like he used to.

"But it's Pat," he says, laughing. "You just learn to accept it."

'A Long, Strange Trip'

But accepting is what O'Donnell can't bring himself to do. He's been in a lot of therapy. He knows he has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. What he doesn't know is how to move on. Standing outside with his friend, O'Donnell laughs at his obsession with the attacks, and says a song by the Grateful Dead pretty well sums up the past seven years:

"What a long, strange trip it's been," he sings.

And it's a trip that's not over. O'Donnell says it was a relief when he learned that the FBI had closed in on a suspect. But he knows this development can't solve all his problems. He says he's happy just to go a whole day without thinking about anthrax. But those days are rare. As the Dead song goes, "Sometimes the lights all shining on me. Other times I can barely see."

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