New York Daily News
1st city EMT to contract HIV on job
TRACEY ALLEN LEE gave her life caring for sick strangers and then found herself abandoned by the city she sacrificed so much for.
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the FDNY emergency medical technician’s death from AIDS at the age of 34. She was the first emergency medical service worker in the city and one of the first in the country to contract HIV while treating a patient.
A memorial will be dedicated to Lee outside an East Harlem EMS station Monday. Her legacy still looms large among city paramedics and EMTs.
“I still think about her every day,” said retired EMS Lt. Adelaide Connaughton, 58, who worked closely with Lee. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It seems like yesterday.”
On Nov. 1, 1989, just 17 months into her career, Lee rushed to help an AIDS patient who was bleeding to death in a cramped room on E. 34th St. in Manhattan. The room was so small the medics had to treat him outside.
Lee’s gloved hand got caught on a nail as she helped pull the man into the hallway. She ignored the injury and kept working. When she was done, she noticed her glove was torn and her thumb was cut — her blood mixed with that of her patient.
Her lifesaving efforts were in vain — the man died at the hospital.
Worried she may have been exposed to HIV, Lee immediately filed a report and prayed she would remain virus-free. In May 1994, she tested positive for the disease. The diagnosis shattered any dreams the 30-year-old and her husband, Victor Lee, shared.
“I was 31 when she died,” he told the Daily News in his first interview since he lost his wife. The two were sweethearts at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan.
“When you’re that age, you think you’re invincible. We were going to grow old together and have kids.”
Instead, Lee watched his wife suffer from her illness and then the indignities the city put her through when her request to have her the sickness designated as a line-of-duty injury was denied. That would have given her additional medical benefits.
“Going through that whole process was really frustrating,” said Victor Lee, 51. “They said she was lying, but she always meticulously documented everything.”
Initially, the FDNY wanted to place her on sick leave, but former Chief of EMS Robert McCracken arranged it so Lee could keep working in the office.
Being kept inside was difficult for Lee, who was respected by her colleagues in the field.
“Having a devastating illness and at the same time not being able to do something you love, that’s heartbreaking,” Connaughton said.
During an August 1996 trip to Florida, as they sat on a beach with a cooler full of anti-viral meds — under doctors’ orders not to swim — Tracey had an epiphany, her widower told The News. Determined to live life in all its glory, she went in the water anyway. And she stopped taking the medicine that only made her feel sicker.
“She decided not to take it anymore,” her husband. “She was going to live her life to the fullest, and that’s what she did. That year is something I’ll always cherish. Twenty years later, my eyes still tear up.”
On Sept. 24, 1997, seven days after falling into a coma, Tracey Allen Lee died with her husband by her side.
“It was kind of the end of the world for me,” Victor Lee said. “I took up drinking and did some stupid things. I couldn’t see that life goes on.”
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani initially resisted giving EMT Lee a full city-funded funeral, but later thought better of it. She was buried with full honors.
Only after she died did she get the line-of-duty designation.
“They fought her for years,” her husband said. “It was too little, too late.”
In 1998, the state Legislature passed a law requiring that all rescue workers infected with HIV on the job automatically get the line-of-duty injury designation. “Tracy Allen Lee was the genesis of getting that bill done,” said Robert Ungar, a lawyer for union Local 2507, which represents city EMTs and paramedics.
Eight years after Tracy died, Victor remarried. He and his wife have two children.
“Looking back, I think about who she was as a person,” Victor said. “She was a hero. She gave everything she could. She is sorely missed by everyone.”
He will be on hand at 11 a.m. on Monday, at FDNY EMS Station 10 on First Ave. near 99th St., where a memorial stone marker will honor EMT Lee.
Tracey Allen Lee left a memorial of her own, a letter in her locker that was read at her funeral. “Each of you will forever be part of me now for our souls have gently touched one another,” she wrote. “You make a difference every day.”