A Death by Anthrax
By Jeffrey Page
Six days after she inhaled the spores, Kathy T. Nguyen was dead, the only New Yorker to die in the anthrax attacks that terrorized the nation in the weeks after 9/11. From the time she took sick on Oct. 25, 2001 until her death six days later, the press usually referred to her as little more than a lonely woman living in a rented apartment in the Bronx.
Last week, the FBI announced the conclusion of its nearly decade-long investigation into the anthrax terror with a finding that an Army biologist, who committed suicide in 2008, mailed the spores that infected 22 people and killed five. And even last week, Nguyen was mentioned in news accounts as “a hospital employee.”
In 2001 I was a reporter at The Record in Hackensack. In the fearful days after the 9/11 attacks, when anthrax spores were mailed to senators and news organizations, my editor and I agreed that no one should go to her grave with just a job title as her obituary. This is what I learned about Kathy Nguyen.
Who was she? Nguyen was one of the few Asians living in Crotona Park East, a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood. One of her neighbors, Ana Rodriguez, recalled that she and Nguyen cooked for each other in their own ethnic styles. “She used to make me Vietnamese wonton soup and I used to cook Puerto Rican for her,” Rodriguez said. “She was a beautiful woman. She didn’t socialize or go out a lot.”
Others said she was an easy touch for neighbors in need of a few dollars and that she most likely died with some money owed her.
Gina Ramjassingh and Kathy Nguyen had become best friends when they worked at a downtown clothing factory. Nguyen was in charge of distributing patterns and fabrics to Ramjassingh and the other seamstresses. The two friends used to go out to the movies on Friday nights, and for a while, Ramjassingh lived in Nguyen’s building on Freeman Street until she got married and moved to Queens.
Kathy Thi Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1940 and raised by an uncle after her parents died, Ramjassingh said. She married a man who was later killed in the war; Ramjassingh didn’t know on which side he fought. Nguyen told her friend she had owned a tavern in Saigon and that she got on well with the Americans.
Nguyen and her husband had a son. In one of the mysteries of her life, Nguyen turned her son over to a cousin – the son of the uncle who had raised her – left Vietnam, and traveled to the United States. Her priest and most of her friends said this was around 1979. She sent money to her cousin for the care of her son. Later she got word that her son had died, Ramjassingh said.
After she became a U.S. citizen Nguyen married a man in California. Ramjassingh said Nguyen told her this was a marriage of convenience to a Chinese man who wanted quick citizenship. After he got his papers, he disappeared.
Eventually, around 1991, Kathy Nguyen left the clothing factory and got a job as a stockroom clerk at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In the next 10 years of her life, she established an exemplary attendance record at the hospital, and it was this devotion to her employers that might have contributed to her death.
On a Thursday in late October, just 44 days after Sept. 11, Nguyen experienced chills and muscle pain. The next day, she still felt very sick, but instead of getting herself to a doctor or an emergency room, she insisted on going to work because in her decade at Manhattan Ear and Ear she had never called in sick.
On Saturday her condition worsened.
On Sunday she had shortness of breath, a bad cough and chills. A friend took her to the emergency room at Lenox Hill Hospital where she was admitted when her illness was diagnosed as inhalation anthrax, the most serious form of the disease.
She had reduced liver function on Monday and had trouble breathing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she died.
Because Nguyen was unconscious much of the time during her illness, authorities never interviewed her. Where could she have contracted anthrax? They searched her apartment, examined her mailbox, her workplace. Nothing. Then they checked her clothing and found a few spores on a coat. One line of reasoning at the time held that she might have picked them up on a crowded subway train. Or maybe a benign letter addressed to her had come in contact, in the vast postal system, with an envelope containing anthrax spores on its way to someone else.
There are no public monuments to the memory of this lost New Yorker save her gravesite in the Holy Cross section of St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
A lonely woman? Kathy Nguyen had no family left, but 400 people crowded into St. John Chrysostom Roman Catholic Church for her funeral mass. They were her friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even her landlord, officers of her union, Local 1199 of the Health and Hospital Workers, and officials of the hospitals where she worked and where she died.
Jeffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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