Some described hearing a mysterious sound like “sheet metal in the wind” just before their noses began to bleed.
At the time, the Canadian diplomats posted in Cuba didn’t know what to make of it, says the Ottawa doctor now treating many of them for acquired brain injuries.
Today, some of the injured diplomats are struggling to cope with daily life, while others have been able to return to work, said Dr. Shawn Marshall, medical director of The Ottawa Hospital’s acquired brain injury rehabilitation program.
They have all reported a range of symptoms consistent with traumatic head injuries, from dizziness and difficulty walking to headaches and an inability to concentrate.
They are among 13 Canadian diplomats, staff and family members suffering from the kinds of symptoms that usually appear in patients with post-concussion syndrome, although none of them suffered any physical trauma.
It is being called Havana syndrome and officials in Canada and the United States, where more than 20 diplomats have been affected, are trying to identify the cause of the injuries.
Marshall, who was approached by Global Affairs Canada to treat many of the affected Canadians beginning earlier this year, compares their symptoms to the kind of head injury people might suffer as a result of a car crash “where you have gone high speed to stopping instantly with air bags deploying,” or falling hard on the ice with an unprotected head.
This week, Global Affairs Canada confirmed a 13th case of “unusual health symptoms reported by some Canadian diplomatic staff and dependents posted to Havana, Cuba.”
Diplomatic staff who are currently posted in Cuba are being allowed to return to Canada. A delegation of federal officials is scheduled to travel there next week to review operations and “assess how to further reduce risks to our diplomatic personnel.”
Some researchers in the U.S. have pointed to microwaves used as unconventional weapons as a possible cause, although no cause has been confirmed.
That uncertainty is adding to the distress and anxiety experienced by some of the patients, said Marshall, and makes it more difficult to come up with a prognosis.
“I know many different things can cause injury to the brain … however, this sounds and looks like trauma. It looks like a concussion. What caused it, I have no idea.”
Marshall began treating the diplomats earlier this year. Their symptoms were cumulative and “evolved over time,” said Marshall.
He has been left with the impression that there was more than one exposure, in some cases.
Marshall said the incidents happened at night when the diplomatic staff were in their own residences.
Some of the patients told him they began having difficulty walking, would stumble, couldn’t tolerate light and noise and had sleep problems.
As a group, their symptoms are improving, said Marshall, but more than a year after their exposure, the syndrome is still affecting some of the patients dramatically.
Some are still unable to work and even have difficulty completing daily tasks such as meal preparation and grocery shopping.
They have been treated with therapies including pain medication for headaches and sleep difficulties, counseling for irritability and mood problems, vision therapy and physiotherapy.
Marshall has been in touch with researchers in the U.S. “I am interested in the cause. Normally the trauma is easy to identify. It helps me with prognosis. With this I can’t even speculate, I just don’t know the trauma.”
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