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ANTHRAX SURVIVOR FELT DEATH NEAR

Ernesto Blanco could feel his life slip away as he lay on a hospital bed with inhalation anthrax, a deadly form of the disease that had killed a co-worker.

"I was near death. I felt physically, and in my soul, that I was leaving this world," Blanco recalled Thursday in an interview with the Associated Press at his Florida home.

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

Blanco, a mailroom worker at tabloid newspaper publisher American Media, was hospitalized nearly three weeks and is the first to survive the inhaled form of the disease. The 73-year-old grandfather was released Tuesday from Cedars Medical Center in Miami.

"Considering the circumstances, I feel good," Blanco said between intermittent bouts of coughing and calls from well-wishers. "Of course, I have my problems. I feel tired still, and I've lost 16 pounds in about 14 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 of thousands of letters.

He knew something was wrong the moment he had to sit down at work, wasted with flulike fatigue. 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 a co-worker was gravely ill from anthrax.

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

As Blanco visited doctors Thursday, more environmental tests were being taken at American Media's Boca Raton headquarters, which has been shuttered for more than two weeks.

Blanco's doctors told him he will eventually recover fully but only after extended treatment. He must keep taking antibiotics and resting.

"Who wouldn't be happy to be home after the odyssey that I went through?" Blanco asked, laughing as his wife served him up a cup of Cuban coffee. "I had many difficult, difficult days in the hospital, but I'm here."

Blanco's hospital stay saw his condition fluctuate, from sitting in his bed chatting with family members to grasping onto life with tubes draining fluid and blood from his lungs.

"I never told my wife, but in a certain moment, I felt that I was going and that I was helpless," Blanco said. "How about that?"

When lucid, Blanco would watch television, and he admits learning that he had full-blown anthrax from the TV news. He also caught a couple of baseball playoff games.

Doctors initially believed Blanco's symptoms were from pneumonia. A test later showed he had been exposed to anthrax, but he wasn't diagnosed with the disease until two weeks after entering the hospital Oct. 1.

"I never asked, 'Why me?' " Blanco said. "Someone else gets hit by lightning because they're standing under a tree. It hit me because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Anthrax has killed three people in the United States this month, an outbreak authorities suspect is linked to mail. The first victim was one of Blanco's co-workers, Photo Editor Robert Stevens, 63, who died Oct. 5. Two Washington postal workers died this week.

"In my case, there is no need for fear, for panic, for alarm," said Blanco, a Cuban exile and American citizen. "When you become panicked, you complete the game for the enemy. That's what they want."

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