TravelGuides – 3 years of headaches, early retirement, and a fight for care

TravelGuides – 3 years of complications, early retirement, and a fight for care

Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer, believes he was attacked in Moscow in 2017. Marc Polumeropoulous; Sergey Alimov/Getty Images; Gary Hershorn/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Insider

Once a week, Marc Polymeropoulos goes to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for artwork remedy and acupuncture. The interventions goal to deal with the identical drawback: Polymeropoulos has had a persistent headache for years, which he can hint again to a fateful journey to Moscow in December 2017.

“It’s been three years of a splitting migraine,” he instructed Insider. “I have pressure on the top of my head and in the back of my head all the time.”

Polymeropoulos, now 52, was working for the CIA when he went to Russia – he stated the company despatched him on a 10-day go to.

Marc Polymeropoulos

Marc Polymeropoulos in Moscow’s Red Square, December 2017. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

“Ultimately, probably a trip I wish I hadn’t taken,” Polymeropoulos stated.

One evening, he woke with a begin in his lodge room. His ears began ringing and the room spun. He was beset with vertigo.

“I was falling over. I had no control,” he stated. “Everything was spinning so wildly.”

Polymeropoulos did not know what to name his set of signs on the time, however they’ve since earned a nickname: Havana Syndrome, a reference to the placement of the primary reported instances. At the US embassy in Cuba in late 2016, diplomats and their households began experiencing complications, vertigo, and listening to loss after listening to buzzing or clicking sounds. Examinations revealed unusual and unexplained mind accidents.

Since then, greater than 130 US diplomats, intelligence operatives, and other personnel stationed primarily in Russia, China, and Cuba have skilled the identical mysterious points. But the trigger and mechanism proceed to stump medical specialists. Theories have ranged from pesticides to a microwave weapon to mass hysteria.

But after the quantity of Havana Syndrome studies grew – two latest instances began in Washington, DC, with one within the environs of the White House – President Joe Biden tasked two panels with discovering its origin.

Meanwhile, these experiencing the situation say they proceed to wrestle with signs, and many suppose they have been ignored. Earlier this yr, 21 US officers with the syndrome wrote a letter to the State Department saying they’d been denied correct medical care and that their proof had been pushed apart.

“You suffer the physical wounds, there’s also the moral injury of not being believed by an organization that I still do love to this day,” Polymeropoulos stated.

‘I’m telling you, one thing’s occurred to me’

red square moscow kremlin

The Kremlin towers, Spasskaya tower, and Saint Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. Getty

After Polymeropoulos returned residence to his spouse and children following the Moscow journey, his vertigo improved, however he developed complications and had a arduous time remembering issues.

“I couldn’t drive. I lost my long distance vision. I had brain fog. And honestly, the headaches that I developed, I still have to this day,” he stated.

Polymeropoulos had heard in regards to the diplomats from Cuba with related signs, so he stated he tried to hunt medical care by the CIA.

“Initially, they kind of they told me that I didn’t look like the victims, you know, the officers who would have been affected by something in 2016,” he stated.

A study of some of these preliminary instances of laid out a typical Havana Syndrome sample: Most sufferers reported a vary of signs together with stability points, visible impairment, tinnitus, bother sleeping, complications, and issues with considering or remembering. The researchers concluded that the sufferers had skilled mind accidents in step with head trauma.

havana syndrome cuba embassy

The US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, in October 2017. Gary Hershorn/Getty

Some Canadian diplomats and their households who’d been stationed in Cuba on the identical time skilled related points.

“My wife, she isn’t the same anymore,” a profession diplomat told Radio-Canada last year. “She picks up the telephone to make a call but forgets why, enters rooms without reason.”

Polymeropoulos was satisfied he’d been a sufferer of the identical mysterious assault.

“I’ve been in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been shot at, and I’m telling you something’s happened to me,” he stated.

Crickets? Mass hysteria?

havana cuba aerial shot

An aerial view of the Malécon roadway in Havana. Getty

After the quantity of Havana Syndrome instances grew to 25 in Cuba, the US evacuated a majority of its embassy employees in September 2017.

But studies have been coming in from different components of the world, too. Mark Lenzi, an engineering officer on the US Consulate in Guangzhou, China reported intensifying complications and bouts of forgetfulness in late 2017 and early 2018.

“Twice I thought I was going to die from these headaches,” he told UNH Today a yr later.

Lenzi stated his entire household was affected. He and his spouse each began to overlook the names of instruments and vital telephone numbers. Their kids acquired mysterious nosebleeds. So they, too, have been evacuated to the US in June 2018. Experts concluded Lenzi had gotten a delicate concussion with out having hit his head.

Since the earliest instances surfaced, scientists have put ahead a handful of hypotheses as to what’s behind the mysterious sicknesses.

The first was that syndrome may have been brought on by a sonic assault – a mysterious weapon that directs loud, excessive-pitched sound towards a sufferer’s head to trigger ache. But scientists shortly threw chilly water on the idea.

“To harm someone from outside a room, a sonic weapon would have to emit a sound above 130 decibels,” Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, a Cuban ear-nostril-and-throat specialist, told Vanity Fair in 2019. That quantity of sound is similar to a “four jet engines on the street outside a house,” he famous, so it might hurt way more folks than its meant targets.

Then in October 2017, the Associated Press revealed a recording of the noise believed to be half of the assault. But scientists recognized the sound because the mating name of a native cricket.

cricket species havana cuba

In 2019, some researchers suggested yet another option: that low ranges of pesticides toxic to people may clarify the signs.

But others query whether or not Havana Syndrome is absolutely a syndrome in any respect. Some specialists suppose it may be chalked as much as mass psychogenic sickness – a phenomenon wherein a group of folks will get sick on the identical time regardless that there isn’t a bodily or environmental trigger. This is often known as mass hysteria. Past research have proven that an intense worry of getting sick may end up in measurable, seen signs.

“Think of mass psychogenic illness as the placebo effect in reverse,” Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist, told Vanity Fair. “You can often make yourself feel better by taking a sugar pill. You can also make yourself feel sick if you think you are becoming sick.”

According to Sergio Della Sala, a professor of human cognitive neuroscience on the University of Edinburgh, the syndrome would possibly even simply be a false grouping of frequent pathologies.

“Those data do not support the existence of a new syndrome. If there is no syndrome, it is rather in vain to discuss its potential cause,” he instructed Insider.

‘Begging for healthcare’

Marc Polymeropoulos

Marc Polymeropoulos in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

Polymeropoulos estimated that he visited 10 to fifteen specialists between 2018 and January 2021 as he sought remedy – together with a neurologist, sleep physician, infectious-illness professional, ophthalmologist, and allergist, although Insider couldn’t independently confirm that listing.

“I’d tell them ‘my head got zapped in Moscow,’ and they looked at me like I was an alien,” Polymeropoulos stated. He estimates he paid as much as $10,000 out of pocket for the care, although he declined to share payments or receipts.

“We wish we had a visible wound. We would’ve rather had gotten shot,” he stated. “Because so many people didn’t believe us.”

Polymeropoulos determined to retire from the CIA when he was 50.

“That’s not a typical retirement age,” he stated. “They were begging me to stay, and I said, ‘No, I’m out.'”

Then a yr later, Polymeropoulos heard the CIA had began sending energetic officers to Walter Reed for remedy, so he requested to take part. The CIA did not ship him.

“So I decided in October of 2020 to go public, just begging for healthcare,” Polymeropoulos stated. He gave interviews to GQ and NPR.

“After that, they kind of were shamed into sending me to Walter Reed,” he stated, including, “I was apoplectic before this.”

The CIA declined to touch upon Polymeropoulos’ case, however Tammy Thorp, the company’s Director of Public Affairs, instructed Insider, “as Director William Burns has said, nothing is more important than taking care of CIA officers – both by ensuring that they get the care and treatment they deserve and making sure that we get to the bottom of what caused these incidents.”


After a month of care at Walter Reed beginning in mid-January – 10 hours a day, 5 days a week – Polymeropoulos’ docs recognized him with a delicate traumatic mind harm.

“It was huge,” he stated. “All of a sudden, now I have this tangible thing.”

Since then, Polymeropoulos’ remedy has concerned largely various therapies like meditation, deep respiration, and artwork.

“Art therapy has been incredible. It allows you to express yourself but not in words,” Polymeropoulos stated. “It’s also a support group.”

As half of that artwork remedy, Polymeropoulos as soon as made a Superman masks with an ice choose jammed its eye.

Marc Polymeropoulos mask

A masks Marc Polymeropoulous made throughout an artwork remedy session at Walter Reed. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

“Before, the kids thought of me as Superman. The ice pick is the headaches,” he stated.

Polymeropoulos mounted the masks on a plaque with the CIA brand cracked in half.

A debate over microwave weapons

In December, a group of specialists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offered a new theory in regards to the almost certainly trigger of Havana Syndrome: an assault utilizing a microwave weapon. Such a weapon may, in concept, draw power from a battery or different energy supply, convert it into electromagnetic power, then direct it at a goal.

No one has ever seen such a weapon – at the very least not that we all know of – however Polymeropoulos stated he is glad fewer scientists suppose it is all in his head.

“We’ve moved away from, ‘This is something that’s psychosomatic and people are making up’ to ‘Something really bad has happened, we got to find out what it is,'” he stated.

Last month, Politico reported that US intelligence believes the GRU, Russia’s army intelligence company, could also be behind the incidents.

gru headquarters.JPG

The headquarters of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, previously often known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), in Moscow, October 2018. Reuters

In a 1962 paper, American scientist Alan Frey steered a microwave weapon might be used to boost the temperature inside a individual’s ear by a millionth of a diploma. That could be sufficient to trigger water molecules within the internal ear to broaden, generally producing a clicking sound. It would trigger a sufferer to really feel dizzy or nauseous, or expertise stress of their heads.

But many specialists are skeptical. Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, stated that if diplomats had been attacked by a microwave weapon, docs would see different bodily clues.

“The evidence would be on the outside of their body,” she instructed Insider. “It would be like a thermal burn, if you want to get really grisly.”

That’s as a result of water within the internal ear and head that absorbed microwave power would additionally warmth up, inflicting seen scarring.

What’s extra, Rofer wrote in a Foreign Policy article final month, a microwave weapon that might penetrate by partitions and home windows would require a energy supply so huge that it might be inconceivable to overlook.

“It’d be equivalent to 200 laptop batteries,” she stated. “Obviously that wouldn’t fit in a backpack. The thing would have to be in a van or building.”

But David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who led the National Academy of Sciences group, instructed Insider that in his view, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

‘People who serve abroad have to really feel secure’

people standing on CIA logo in CIA headquarters

CIA employees stand on the company’s seal at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, 2001. David Burnett/Newsmakers/Getty

Because specialists cannot rule out that Havana Syndrome is the work of a international adversary – Polymeropoulos even referred to as it “an act of war against US officials” in a recent CBS interview – there was little worldwide scientific cooperation to unravel the thriller.

“It is always a problem when politics interferes with science, and this is a case in point. Collaboration efforts between scientists from different countries would bear fruit,” De Salla stated.

But Polymeropoulos thinks the precedence needs to be serving to US officers and brokers who’re experiencing signs, so he was happy when the Senate handed a bill this month giving monetary assist to injured diplomats and personnel.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who are injured by this, and so it’s getting to be kind of a crisis point for the US government because people who serve overseas need to feel safe,” he stated. “Like if you have a car accident, and someone’s hurt, and the police have been wondering who’s at fault, you don’t wait to figure it before you get to the hospital.”

Marc Polymeropoulos

Marc Polymeropoulos. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

The CIA, in the meantime, says it has been working with the Department of Defense to scale back the time it takes to get officers into the army healthcare system. In an April House committee hearing, CIA director William Burns stated he is met with Havana Syndrome victims and is making their remedy an company precedence.

Polymeropoulos stated that in his view, Burns has certainly helped intelligence officers get higher care.

His personal remedy, Polymeropoulos added, has been serving to. He’s began to train extra – lifting weights, enjoying catch along with his son, and going for walks. And he is written a e book in his retirement, “Clarity in Crisis,” about his expertise within the CIA.

“Walter Reed has really helped me cope,” he stated. “They gave me tools and hope.”

But his mind harm is ever-current.

“People say, ‘You seem fine.’ And I say, ‘I just have a f-cking headache all the time,” Polymeropoulos stated.

In conventional instances of delicate traumatic mind harm, a majority of folks get better shortly, however about 5% have lengthy-time period complications, anxiousness, and listening to issues.

“It’s something that I got to live with,” Polymeropoulos stated, “so that’s part of me now.”

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TravelGuides – 3 years of complications, early retirement, and a fight for care