Diplomat sickened in China pledges to donate his brain
The bizarre noises came out of nowhere. To Mark Lenzi and his wife, Kristina, they sounded like metal balls plopping onto glass and then swirling through a funnel. They heard it several times in 2017 and 2018, always right over their son’s crib in their apartment in Guangzhou, China, where Mark worked as a security engineering officer for the US Consulate.
Around the same time, the couple started suffering from headaches and trouble sleeping, Mark became forgetful, and their young children woke up with nosebleeds. At work, Mark Lenzi could not remember the name of a common tool and wondered if he was coming down with early Alzheimer’s.
Lenzi, now 44, is among dozens of American diplomats in Cuba and China who were evacuated after reporting similar symptoms. Lenzi believes he and the others were attacked with microwaves by a foreign power. A prominent neurologist said Lenzi’s symptoms resemble those of a concussion, even though he’d never hit his head.
The incident is still under investigation, but whatever happened in China sent Lenzi on a long and painful journey. That journey included a stop in Boston on Friday, with a singular mission: to publicly sign a pledge to donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and others. When he dies, if his next of kin agree, Lenzi’s brain will be placed in the brain bank used by researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System.
“He’s suffered a type of brain injury that’s never been seen before. We don’t know what it means,” said Chris Nowinski, the foundation’s CEO. “His pledge reminds the world that millions of people suffer brain injury in America and need answers.”
The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank contains more than 700 brains, and more than 5,000 people with and without brain injuries have pledged to donate. An organ donor card doesn’t include the brain, which requires a specific request.
Lenzi grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1997. He spent a year with the Peace Corps doing environmental engineering in Poland and later worked for an organization promoting democracy in former Soviet states. He worked on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, and after the election, Lenzi joined the foreign service. In 2016, he moved to China for a two-year stint preventing technical espionage.
The following spring, the strange sounds and symptoms started. The Lenzis attributed their headaches to the smog and took aspirin to treat them. But Lenzi knew he couldn’t blame the smog for his memory loss.
Lenzi would later learn that his next-door neighbor, another consulate employee whose apartment was not more than 12 feet away from the spot where the Lenzis heard the sounds, had been evacuated in May 2018 after experiencing symptoms similar to those suffered the year before by some 26 diplomats in Cuba.
Last year, Lenzi and his family, along with several other diplomats from China, were evacuated and brought to the University of Pennsylvania, whose Center for Brain Injury and Repair was studying the Cuba diplomats who became ill starting in 2016. Lenzi said he spent the month of June at Penn. Because his headaches were so severe, he said, the doctors there referred him to Dr. Teena Shetty, the neurologist for the New York Giants and founder and director of the concussion program at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Lenzi, Shetty said, “exhibited a constellation of symptoms which were consistent with those typically seen in mild traumatic brain injury, but notably without any history of head trauma. . . . I have not seen a case like this before. It’s very unusual.”
She could not say what might have caused his injury. “At this point it is still unclear whether some of kind of novel neurological mechanism underlies the constellation of symptoms he has,” Shetty said.
Shetty prescribed a combination of prescription medicines and vitamins, used to treat concussions, which Lenzi said made him feel better almost immediately.
The State Department determined that 14 of 15 employees from China who were evaluated did not have symptoms similar to those suffered by diplomats in Cuba. One was found to be “indeterminate.” Lenzi said that person was his next-door neighbor.
Even so, according to Lenzi, Penn researchers considered all 15 to be similar enough to the Cuba group to warrant enrolling them in the study. Penn declined to answer questions, but Lenzi provided a document showing his enrollment in the study.
Researchers are zeroing in on a theory to explain the diplomats’ symptoms: microwaves beamed at them, perhaps from a nearby building or a passing van. In a phenomenon known as the “Frey effect,” microwaves are thought to induce the sensation of sound in the brain, sounds that would not be picked up on a recorder.
Some critics doubt the microwave theory, saying that other explanations, such as stress, are more plausible. But Lenzi is convinced that his family was attacked by microwaves beamed at his apartment. Nothing in the physical world could have made the sounds they heard, he said. His kids’ nosebleeds stopped as soon as they moved out.
Still, the State Department labeled the incident in Cuba as an attack but said that “the facts known to date have not led the Department to conclude an attack occurred in China.”
Lenzi calls that a coverup, driven by political concerns about ruffling feathers in China. He made his case on CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year and continues to speak out. Similar attacks could happen again. “The truth needs to get out about this,” he said.
A State Department spokesman said in an e-mail, “Investigations are underway into the symptoms reported in Cuba and China. The U.S. government is working diligently to determine their source.” He added that decisions have been “guided by the medical facts” and all the diplomats “were offered the same comprehensive evaluation and treatment.”
“We will continue to provide our colleagues the care they need, regardless of their diagnosis or the location of their medical evacuation,” the statement said.
The State Department said it has approved administrative leave “so that colleagues evacuated from Cuba and China would not have to use sick or personal leave for medically related absences after the end of their medical evacuations.” But Lenzi asserted that the failure to label the China incident a “hostile action” has limited his access to administrative leave and said he has been using his personal and sick leave for treatment.
And that treatment takes a lot of time. Now back in New Hampshire, he’s working on physical therapy and extensive training to improve his balance and memory. Lenzi believes he can restore his cognitive functions, with only minor exceptions. A few months ago, he resumed working at the State Department, about 30 or 35 hours a week, overseeing contractors installing security cameras in domestic facilities. He spends five to 10 hours a week in therapy.
Lenzi’s wife decided against joining the Penn study because it would take too much time away from their children, now ages 4 and 9. Her symptoms are milder than his and have abated, he said.
Lenzi wants to resume working in the foreign service, his lifelong passion. So far, he hasn’t been cleared to do so.
“I just want to get better,” he said. “I want to have this fog go away.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the State Department’s decision about whether the 15 people from China had symptoms similar to those of the diplomats in Cuba.