When the plague came to New York


It was November 2002, little more than a year after planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and anthrax mailings had killed five Americans. New York City was still in a state of high alert for suspected terrorists.

Suddenly all eyes were on a middle-aged married couple from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a brief vacation to New York, who had the remarkably ill luck to come down with the city's first case of bubonic plague in more than a century. Television news trucks surrounded Beth Israel Medical Center North, where they had dragged themselves after being stricken in their hotel room with rampaging fevers, headaches, extreme exhaustion and mysterious balloon-like swellings.

It took just over a day for public health officials to dispel fears about bioterrorism; there had been no unusual rise in the number of very high fevers that could have suggested an attack. It turned out that the couple, Lucinda Marker and John Tull, had been bitten by fleas infected with yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Their home state, New Mexico, accounts for more than half of the average seven cases of plague in the country every year.

"It was an absolute fluke," Marker, now 57, said during a recent visit to New York. "Just rotten luck." Like most people who contract the disease and are quickly treated with antibiotics, she recovered in a few days. But 10 years later, her husband is still badly scarred. In the days after they were bitten, Tull, a burly, athletic lawyer—a former prosecutor who volunteered with search-and-rescue teams—developed septicemic plague, as the infection spread throughout his body. His temperature rose to 104.4, his blood pressure plummeted to 78/50. His kidneys were failing, and so much clotted blood collected in his hands and feet that they turned black.

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