Dressed in khakis and a dusty green canvas jacket, Rich Richmond enters the medical center with an easy gait and bright countenance, like a country gentleman returning from a brisk jaunt in a wintry woods. Certainly no one in the waiting room would suspect that just four months earlier this man nearly became a fatal victim in Washington's anthrax attacks.

"It was a Friday," he recalls, sinking into a chair in Dr. Michael Nguyen's office in Woodbridge, Va. "Just like today."

On that afternoon, Oct. 19, 2001, Rich left his job at the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Washington, pulled into the parking lot of this same medical center and slumped over his steering wheel. It was a struggle to get out of the car. While he waited for an opening in his doctor's calendar, anthrax toxins ransacked his system, nudging him closer and closer to death.

Ask him how he is on this brilliant February morning, and his response is relaxed and amazingly carefree. Rich does not hesitate. "I am well, thank you."

He has a team of doctors who speak cautiously of a full recovery. X-rays show clear lungs and no evidence of internal scarring. His kidney, liver and stomach have suffered no residual damage. Doctors see no trace of the blood disease that caught them unaware. At 140 pounds, Rich is thin but close to his normal weight. He walks a mile a day and shows up for appointments cheerful and talkative.

Along with Dr. Nguyen, his primary care physician, whom he will see today, even the most skilled specialists assigned to the case express optimism.

"From what I've seen of other infectious diseases, I'd say he's through it, and he'll be fine," said Dr. Jonathan Rosenthal, the infectious disease specialist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group who helped coordinate Rich's treatment in the hospital and guides his treatment today. "The only caveat is we don't know whether some people who have serious problems with anthrax will have problems related to it five or 10 years later."

His future looks so bright that Rich has decided to play a more public role as an anthrax survivor. He agrees to nearly every media request for an interview, hoping his example will comfort Americans who still fear that anthrax cannot be managed. One week he appeared on Inside Edition; the next, he talked to the New York Times. On Jan. 24, Bayer Corp. executives opened the New York Stock Exchange, as the company's stock went public for the first time, and Rich joined them as an invited guest. Three months after he lay dying at Inova Hospital, he stood on Wall Street applauding the effectiveness of Bayer's Cipro antibiotic.

The gratitude he feels also extends into small acts of service. When he learned that researchers wanted blood from anthrax victims to make a better vaccine, he donated 10 vials to the military's premiere anthrax scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick. When he visited a local blood bank a few weeks before, he thanked every donor.

His doctors marvel at his recovery. No doubt, some say, it is due, in part, to a positive spirit and sense of mission.

"Life is not fair, and sometimes you get the small end of the stick," Rich tells people, "but at least you still have a stick. It's a beautiful life out there. You have to do something to make a difference."

But today, as Dr. Nguyen escorts him to an exam room, the doctor will learn that Rich's public facade does not square with what his wife, Susan, has detected at home. Rich wears out after playing soccer with their son; on a bicycle, he is breathless in a few minutes; Susan and he have all but given up one of their favorite pastimes, dancing, because he tires so easily. It will soon become apparent that the full mystery of Rich's illness has yet to reveal itself. Something corrosive and indistinct continues to play havoc with his body.

For Rich, an admission that all is not well has come slowly. For all her efforts, it was not Susan's prodding that brought him to this point, though. It was meeting other anthrax survivors.

At a television appearance in New York, he was introduced to Norma Wallace, a postal worker who contracted anthrax at the Hamilton, N.J., post office. As they chatted, Rich learned that Norma was plagued by persistent physical problems, aching joints, memory lapses - the same kind of insoluble ailments Rich has tried to ignore. Shortly afterward, he renewed contact with "George Fairfax," the anonymous Brentwood supervisor and anthrax survivor, who confessed that he is so debilitated he can barely function.

So today, four months since his battle against anthrax began, Rich is willing to admit what he had tried to deny. He is still sick.

In public, Rich will continue to present himself as a good citizen soldier, not complaining, not casting blame. He does not want to cause trouble. But with the doctor, he speaks plainly: He is weak. He tires easily. His mind sometimes stalls out and loses connections.

After conferring and reviewing X-rays, Dr. Nguyen contacts Dr. Rosenthal and orders more tests. With this elusive disease, doctor and patient agree, they cannot afford to overlook a single detail.

An uneasy routine

"Can't cheat! Can't cheat!" yells Quintin. The boy has his dad squirming over a game of Uno in the living room. In the kitchen, Susan reaches for the phone but keeps an eye on a platter of fish in the oven.