Medical staff who treated a Russian former spy and his daughter for poisoning by a nerve agent in the UK have told of how they initially feared the pair would die, and have said they are uncertain over their long-term health.
In an interview with BBC Two’s Newsnight program, staff from Salisbury District Hospital in southern England spoke publicly for the first time about the poisoning of 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, who have both since been discharged.
The UK government says the pair were poisoned with a military-grade Novichok nerve agent. A police officer who attended the scene was also affected, although less seriously.
Salisbury hospital’s medical director, Dr. Christine Blanshard, said staff would need to continue supporting the pair. When asked of their prognosis, she responded: “I think the honest answer is that we don’t know. We have a total world experience of treating three patients for the effects of Novichok poisoning, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re still learning.”
Several staff members described their shock at the nature of the case, which became the subject of a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the UK. Britain openly blamed Moscow for poisoning the pair and expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the country, while many other nations did the same to show their support for the UK.
“I spoke to the nurse in charge, and it was this conversation I really could never have imagined in my wildest imagination as having with anyone,” said Dr. Duncan Murray, the hospital’s senior intensive care consultant.
“Essentially the story of a known Russian spy having been admitted to hospital in pretty unusual circumstances.”
The Skripals were found slumped on a bench in the cathedral city of Salisbury on March 4. When they were found, medical staff suspected an opioid overdose, Newsnight reported.
“We were just told that there were two patients down in the emergency department who were critically unwell and they would be coming up to the unit,” said ward sister Sarah Clark, who was on duty the night the Skripals were admitted.
She said that as staff tried to establish what might have happened to the Skripals, they became worried that they too could be affected. She said staff had not “taken any extra precautions in terms of protecting ourselves” at that point.
Nursing director Lorna Wilkinson said that staff became more worried when the police officer, Nick Bailey, was also admitted with similar symptoms to the Skripals’.
“There was a real concern as to how big this could get,” she said.
Evidence showed ‘they would not survive’
When police established that Sergei Skripal had been a spy, they told the hospital that he and his daughter may have been poisoned.
“When we first were aware this was a nerve agent, we were expecting them not to survive,” said Dr. Stephen Jukes, an intensive care consultant.
“We would try all our therapies. We would ensure the best clinical care. But all the evidence was there that they would not survive.”
But the pair survived thanks to a combination of factors – a quick arrival in intensive care, heavy sedation to limit any brain damage and the expertise of those at the nearby Porton Down laboratory, according to hospital staff.
Dr. Jukes said new approaches were taken to existing types of treatment, and that the speed at which the Skripals recovered was something of a surprise that he could not quite explain.
Last week, Yulia Skripal made her fist public appearance since being hospitalized. The 33-year-old spent 20 days in a coma before she was released in April and taken to a safe place.
“We are so lucky to have both survived this attempted assassination,” she said in a video recorded in an undisclosed location.
“I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing. Our recovery has been slow and extremely painful.”