/stories/2018/12/um-doctors-unveil-details-of-u.s.-embassy-staff-ailments

UM doctors unveil details of U.S. Embassy staff ailments

Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, professor of otolaryngology and neurological surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, headed up a medical team that examined personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By UM News

Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, professor of otolaryngology and neurological surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, headed up a medical team that examined personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

UM doctors unveil details of U.S. Embassy staff ailments

By UM News
During a news conference Wednesday, a UM medical team talked about the clinical findings after examining personnel living at the embassy in Havana.

It was in February 2017 when Dr. Michael E. Hoffer took the call. 

“This is the State Department,” the official said. “We have a problem.” 

Hoffer, a professor of otolaryngology and neurological surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was not surprised by the call. He had spent 20 years in the military, is an expert in blast trauma, and continues to hold a government security clearance. And, he is in Miami, close to the location of the “problem.” 

The caller talked about an individual assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, and how that person wasn’t feeling right. The person reported hearing a loud noise, and then feeling intense ear pain and dizziness. 

Over the next several months, Hoffer and his medical team — Hillary Snapp, associate professor of otolaryngology and chief of Audiology at the Miller School; Bonnie E. Levin, professor of neurology and director of the Division of Neuropsychology at the Miller School — identified 25 diplomatic personnel living in the U.S. Embassy in Havana who had experienced severe neurosensory symptoms after exposure to a unique sound and pressure phenomenon. They later consulted with Carey D. Balaban, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a long-time collaborator of Hoffer’s.

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Read: Findings from Havana embassy phenomenon

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At a news conference at the Miller School Wednesday attended by nearly 50 members of the media, the medical team described their diagnosis and findings, which are included in the study, “Acute Findings in an Acquired Neurosensory Dysfunction,” which was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology. Hoffer is the lead author.

Before a bank of news cameras, Hoffer and his team each explained their role, and the examination process of the patients. They determined those experiencing symptoms had suffered an injury to the ear, but what caused the injury remains unknown. The symptoms were similar — moodiness, trouble problem-solving, anxiety, and balance issues. 

As the first medical team to examine the embassy personnel reporting symptoms — sometimes just days after the initial incident — the team’s findings were not impacted or affected by a long lapse of time, by previous treatment, workman’s compensation claims, or by media coverage of the exposure which could influence descriptions provided by the patients on how they were feeling. 

“We have objective evidence they had an abnormality,” Hoffer said. He said the patients all felt a little “off.” 

“They came from the same place with the same symptoms,” Hoffer said. “X happened — pressure or noise — and then the symptoms.”

Havana embassy phenomenon press conference