A team of U.S. doctors, headed by a University of Virginia professor, secretly flew to Vienna in mid-December to assist in the treatment of then-Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, according to U.S. officials, two of the doctors and the head of the Austrian clinic visited by Yushchenko.
The team's role in Yushchenko's recovery from an apparently deliberate case of massive dioxin poisoning has been undisclosed until now, largely because U.S. officials and the doctors did not want to appear to interfere in the political drama of the Ukrainian elections. Yushchenko, whose once-youthful face was mysteriously transformed into a blotch of lesions after the poisoning, visited the private Rudolfinerhaus clinic between the election that was declared fraudulent and the election that resulted in his presidential victory.
Viktor Yushchenko as he appeared in July 2004, left, and in December, right, after his face was disfigured by what was later determined to be massive dioxin poisoning.
(Efrem Lukatsky -- AP)
Yushchenko's election was a bitter blow to the Russian government, and even today U.S. officials are reluctant to officially say they assisted the medical team. Gregory Saathoff, the lead doctor and executive director of U-Va.'s Critical Incident Analysis Group in Charlottesville, would confirm only broad details after saying he received permission from the family to discuss it "on a very limited basis." He said the U.S. government was not involved in his team's work.
"It was clear that the U.S. government had no interest or ability in being involved in this situation because this would be interference in the election of another country," Saathoff said. "The U.S. government was notably hands-off."
But a senior U.S. official directly involved in the operation said it began with a request from Yushchenko's family for assistance, via an official in the Pentagon, and the State Department provided logistical support during the doctors' overseas trip. He said Saathoff kept in touch with the State Department in Washington, at one point informing officials they suspected they were being followed -- by police or even Russian intelligence agents -- and would cut their stay in Vienna short by a day.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John E. Herbst, and the U.S. Embassy in Vienna also provided assistance, officials said. Herbst declined to comment yesterday.
Michael Zimpfer, director of the clinic, said it was not experienced in treating poison cases or bioterrorism and initially did not detect the dioxin when Yushchenko first fell ill in September. He said the U.S. team provided expertise for a "difficult, vexing case" and also a "qualified second opinion" that helped determine Yushchenko's treatment.
Zimpfer was the public face of Yushchenko's care at the clinic, frequently briefing the press. "He was the greatest cover because he was so willing to take credit for everything," the U.S. official said.
Saathoff was recruited by Washington lawyer Robert A. McConnell and his wife, Nadia, who runs the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation; the couple have been friends with Yushchenko for more than a decade, McConnell said yesterday. He said he found Saathoff through an informal recommendation from someone in government, whom he declined to name.
"When the poisoning took place, they were having trouble getting any breakthroughs in Europe, so they asked us if we could help," McConnell said.
In the fall, a member of the Ukrainian parliament traveled to Washington to meet with McConnell and his wife, and also gave hair, nail and blood samples from Yushchenko to Saathoff for analysis.
"They didn't want it to be known it was being done in the United States because a major part of the campaign against him was anti-Americanism," McConnell said. The CIAG, located within U-Va.'s School of Medicine, is a think tank that focuses on helping the public and government respond to emergencies. Saathoff said he organized a team of about six U.S. doctors in various specialties, including dermatology, neurology, toxicology and neuroradiology. He would not name the other doctors, except for the toxicologist -- Christopher Holstege of U-Va.
After reviewing Yushchenko's records with the help of interpreters from U-Va.'s language department, Holstege said he sent an e-mail to Saathoff on Oct. 31, in which he said dioxin was at the top of his list of culprits. "It's not every day that you're asked to evaluate someone of this stature. It's probably the poisoning of the century," he said.
In December, Saathoff, Holstege and another doctor traveled to Vienna to meet Yushchenko and consult with his doctors. During the trip, Holstege's diagnosis was confirmed by a lab in the Netherlands.
Dioxins are organic compounds that contain chlorine and are a byproduct in the manufacture of many industrial chemicals. Zimpfer said the Dutch lab determined that the level of dioxin in Yushchenko's blood was greater than 100,000 picograms per gram of fat; he said the maximum tolerable level is believed to be about 30 picograms. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.
The U.S. official said there are indications that the substance found in Yushchenko's body was similar to highly concentrated dioxin produced by a Russian lab earlier in the decade. Zimpfer declined to comment, except to say that prosecutors are working to identify possible sources.
Another U.S. official familiar with the Vienna trip said the possible connection to the Russian lab did not mean the Russians were involved, since the material could have been stolen. "We are not embarrassed by the truth, but at bottom no one is able to say who did it. We just don't know," he said.
The trip ended with an amusing cloak-and-dagger coda. On Dec. 12, as the doctors stood outside their hotel to head to the airport, a black, unmarked car arrived and the driver announced, "Dr. Saathoff, this is your car." They started to put their luggage in the trunk but suddenly became worried, since they had not ordered a car. They quickly withdrew the bags and flagged a cab to speed them to the airport.
The car had been arranged by the U.S. Embassy.