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Denise C's Story

Three Years Later, Denise Chapman is Still Fighting

By Alan Saly

.... If you want an expert on Lyme disease, you couldn't be better advised than to go to EMT Denise Chapman. Three years after her on-the-job infection with the tick-borne spirochete b. burgdorferi in the Bronx, she lives in a shuttered room in her mother's apartment in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn.

Diagnosed with chronic late-stage Lyme disease, she has a permanent reservoir for medications called a "lifeport" in her chest, emptying into her left subclavian vein, attached to a catheter and IV bag. Once a week, a nurse inserts a needle through her skin into the lifeport, alternating sides so she can continue on her regimen of doxycycline, an antibiotic. Besides being sensitive to light, unable to leave home except for doctor's visits, Chapman, 32, feels tired all the time, has splitting headaches, and suffers from joint and muscle pain. It's routine for persons with late-stage Lyme disease.

On May 11, 1996, Chapman, then an EMT working out of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, and her partner, Allison Fry, responded to CAD # 2238 for a severely ill homeless man. Immediately after the call, Chapman filled out an Exposure Report Form, signed and witnessed by Lt. Ben Bufalmante, indicating she was exposed to feces and body fluids, and that she had been bitten by bugs. Although Chapman and Fry had gloved up on the call, they were exposed to lice and ticks as they took vitals and performed a patient assessment prior to ambulance transport.

Supervision told both EMTs to shower and use lindane (Quell) to kill the lice. As Allison Fry later wrote in a supplementary statement to Chief Pascale: "After receiving Quell shampoo from the hospital staff, we were advised to take showers and partner had these insects all over her shirt, hair, and arms." After showering with Quell, Chapman took her uniform home to launder. That night, she pulled two small embedded ticks from her skin, and the next morning, she found two more.

"Red pinholes were still visible on my skin after removing them," she later wrote in her workers' comp statement of injury. The following morning, Chapman's mother called Station 21 in a panic. But when Chapman got to work, she says, "they were doing the sign of the cross on me like they were joking. I still had lice. I had to pick up a bottle of Rid on the way home." Chapman had the highest academic average in her 1995 EMS cadet class. Her career as a pre-hospital care provider was almost over, but she didn't know it yet.

As she continued to work as an EMT, she began to feel ill and weak, but put it down to allergy season. "They thought I had pneumonia. I was getting a type of bronchitis and headaches, they got so bad I wore sunglasses all the time. I always had a headache, to the point where I was throwing up. I started taking off from work frequently with bronchitis, sinus infections, stomach problems, and fevers, and when I returned to duty, BHS kept sending me home saying I couldn't go back to work."

But the symptoms did not go away, persisting through the summer and into her refresher course in September of 1996. "I went to the refresher with fevers and sweats," she remembers, "and half the time I almost couldn't make it up the hill." She was hospitalized with severe bronchitis, but completed the refresher. Forced off payroll by BHS, Chapman lost her apartment, moved in with her mother, and pawned her jewelry. Her car was repossessed.

Sent to a psychiatrist for depression, Chapman got a referral to Dr. Ernest B. Visconti, Chief of Infectious Disease at Lutheran Medical Center. His diagnosis, in February of 1997, was Lyme disease. In a letter written in July of 1998, Visconti stated, "Denise Chapman was first seen by me during February of 1997.

At that time she presented with severe incapacitating extensive work-up was conducted and the results revealed that Ms. Chapman apparently been excreting Lyme [spirochetes] in her urine....her case was reported to the New York City Department of Health...I disagree with the opinion of certain physicians working within the NYC-FDNY that Ms. Chapman never had Lyme Disease.

For one, she dramatically improved with the first course of intravenous Rocephin....Ms. Chapman is to be admitted again to Lutheran Medical Center on 4/7/98 for the administration of an intravenous pic line....her prognosis is very poor at this time."

Based on Visconti's diagnosis of Lyme disease in February, Chapman filed for workers' compensation and LODI on March 13, 1997. LODI was denied and the comp claim was controverted by the New York City Law Department. Chapman filed a formal complaint against the Fire Department through the New York State Department of Labor's Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH), which was sustained.

PESH cited FDNY for violations of safety and health standards at Station 21. She began a fight for workers' compensation benefits that resulted in four hearings before the comp board, numerous additional medical tests, but still, at this writing, no final determination from the City of New York. Chapman spent her time at home becoming an expert on Lyme disease, and brought information from a medical journal to FDNY proving the presence of Lyme carrying ticks in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. In July of 1997, then Local 2507 President Kevin Lightsey wrote to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, asking that he grant LODI benefits to Chapman.

The letter was never acknowledged, and a follow-up letter last year from Executive Board Member Richard McAllan also went unanswered. Local 2507 covered prescription drug benefits for Chapman from April through June of 1997, and DC 37 continued coverage for an additional period. During that summer, Chapman relied on donations of food and got clothes from church charity drives. "It was humiliating," she says. In September, her medical coverage lapsed and Chapman went on welfare.

The Local supported a 10-13 fundraiser for her which raised $1,000 in April of 1998. But shortly before the 10-13, on March 18 of 1998, Chapman was fired by letter by FDNY Personnel Director Sherry Ann Kavaler, under Section 71 of the Civil Service Law. Today, Denise Chapman has had 14 hospitalizations and can't pay for her prescription drugs. Dr. Visconti is attempting to re-admit her to Lutheran as an outpatient under medicare. She is on social security disability. Most of the time, she feels tired and complains of headaches, muscle and joint pain. She suffers from chronic infections, and has had blood clots and phlebitis.

This year, Local 2507, by a vote of the Executive Board granted Chapman $600 for intravenous medications, but it is nowhere near enough. "I've had so much stress from fighting FDNY for my money, not knowing I had Lyme disease from the beginning, stress from coming out of the hospital without any medications when my insurance was terminated," she says.

In August of 1999, the New York State Department of Labor told Local 2507 that they had sustained a complaint from Chapman, agreeing that she had been retaliated against by FDNY after filing her health and safety complaint against Station 21 two years ago. The retaliation took the form of the denial of a requested transfer out of her command before she became too sick to work.

Inspector Raynard Caines told the union that PESH was in the process of forwarding the case to the office of the State Attorney General.

You can access Denise's Web site here: Denise Chapman

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