NEW YORK – The 61-year-old woman who died of inhalation anthrax Wednesday fled Vietnam 24 years ago, leaving behind her possessions and relatives and adopting her Bronx neighbors as her extended family.
Kathy T. Nguyen came to the United States with the aid of a soldier who was a New York City police officer, co-workers and neighbors said. She settled in the Bronx and found a job as a hospital stockroom clerk.
She held similar jobs throughout the past two decades, the last 10 years at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital where she was working when she was diagnosed with the city's first case of inhalation anthrax. She died Wednesday at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Friends and neighbors said Nguyen always had a ready smile and time for a friendly exchange. She also would show appreciation for the little jobs they did for her with small gifts.
"She had a very sweet, low voice. She was a happy person. All the time, she greeted you, she had a smile," said neighbor Yvette Lebron.
Nguyen lived alone, but neighbors said she had a lot of friends. Her only son died in a car crash years ago, neighbors said, and her ex-husband, an American, is believed to live in Germany.
Eduardo Rivera, 19, an upstairs neighbor, remembered Nguyen as a friendly lady who always stopped to ask him about his life.
"I saw her in the elevator most of the time," said Rivera. "She would ask me if I'm still in school, if I'm working."
"She'd come around for holidays and Christmas, and she might bring a little something upstairs for us," Rivera said.
Nguyen loved to shop and cook, and was known for making Thanksgiving dinner for neighbors -- homemade baked salmon, won ton soup, crispy duck.
Recently Nguyen started talking about moving in with a co-worker, Lebron said, "because it was hard for her to save money and she never took a vacation. She struggled. She made sure she was on top of her bills."
Lebron, who often sat on a bench outside the building, frequently greeted Nguyen on her way to and from work. A petite woman, Nguyen dressed neatly, with an Asian accent to her outfits.
"She wasn't a person who would go out. She was a home person," Lebron said.
Late last week, Nguyen complained to her neighbors about respiratory problems that she thought were just a cold.
Hattie O'Neil, who works in admitting at the Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, said Nguyen was "always very pleasant and always jovial, but I saw her on Friday, she wasn't herself. She was pale and all bundled up."
Thomas Rich, who also works in admitting, said Nguyen accepted equipment that came into the hospital and made sure it got to the right office. "Almost everyone in the hospital came in contact with her," he said.
Her neighbors said she worked afternoons and nights, going to work by subway and coming home close to midnight.
"We don't know how Kathy got this," said Anna Rodriquez, manager of Nguyen's building. "It's not like Kathy traveled a lot or visited a lot of people. She was a person who concentrated on work and home, work and home," she said.
Edith Navedo, a former neighbor, told The New York Times that Nguyen had told people she came from a well-to-do family in Vietnam, that her mother was a teacher and her uncle rented rooms to American soldiers during the war. She spoke of a beautiful house by the water in Vietnam.
Not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, Lebron and some friends were outside discussing their fears. Nguyen happened along and joined in.
"She said the best thing that everyone could hold onto is to go to church and pray."