The Bureau of Prisons has accused imprisoned CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling of fabricating medical information related to his health, even as he endures pain and suffering as a result of chronic heart problems that could possibly result in death. They even insisted to his wife that he made up details related to his health that he learned from medical personnel on September 17.
Sterling, an African American person who is confined at the Englewood federal prison in Littleton, Colorado, stated in a letter published by Shadowproof, “This is a very scary situation for me. As I have stated time and again to the medical staff here, the episode of atrial fibrillation I experienced some years ago was serious enough for me to be hospitalized for four days, and what I felt then is what I’m feeling now.”
“I cannot imagine any other setting where an individual presents medical professionals with heart related symptoms on repeated occasions and continually dismissed,” Sterling added. “There has been more effort to refute me than there has been to actually provide any care.”
Sterling described what it feels like when his heart flutters or palpitates. A “sudden very hard heartbeat with a sort of pause” occurs suddenly halting breathing and movement. Sharp pain occurs in the chest right at the heart. Lightheadedness and shortness of breath occurs.
“Some days, the events are continual, and it feels like at any moment my heart is just going to stop,” Sterling shared. “In addition, I’m not sure whether it is from the medication or to do with my overall health (not to mention the stress of attempting to obtain help from FCI Englewood), but my energy level is quite low.”
Sterling was prescribed metoprolol or beta blockers on September 19 and first administered on September 21, after he finally saw an outside specialist. Yet, according to Sterling’s wife, Holly, when he saw Dr. Michael Wahl at Colorado Heart and Vascular in Denver on September 19, the prison did not provide the doctor with all of his medical records. Specifically, the doctor was not given the results of a blood test that showed Sterling had an elevated level of troponin on July 27, when the blood was drawn by medical personnel at the prison.
Holly also said the doctor did not order any new blood work either. Wahl basically “put a band-aid on a gaping wound” and told Sterling, “Here, take some beta-blockers, and then we’ll have you come back for a stress test at some point.” She wondered when this “stress test” might happen. “When my husband’s dead?”
Sterling is currently serving a 42-month sentence. He stood up to the CIA and pursued a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency in 2002. It was dismissed after the government invoked the “state secrets privilege” when it was before the Supreme Court in 2005. He also informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had knowledge of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality related to “Operation Merlin”–a botched operation which involved passing flawed nuclear blueprints to the Iranians.
During a trial in January 2015, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, “State of War.” The former CIA officer was convicted of multiple Espionage Act offenses and other crimes.
Sterling was sent to a low-security facility nearly 900 miles away from where his wife and family live in St. Louis. He started his sentence on June 16, 2015.
“What has been really troublesome is what happened on September 17, 2016,” according to Sterling. “That day, I was experiencing chest pains and went to medical. I was in such distress, I was in tears waiting for the corrections officer to call up to medical to see if it was okay for me to be seen.”
“The response to my complaining of chest pains was another EKG, a cursory exam, and a review of my medical records. I was summarily dismissed to return to my housing unit after a mere discussion of my medical situation. It was at this encounter that I first heard of the elevated troponin level.”
“Prior to September 17, 2016, no one had said anything to me about an elevated troponin level,” Sterling said. He later learned from Holly that someone at the Bureau Of Prisons north central regional office claimed there was no record of the September 17 visit to medical and no one told him anything about an elevated Troponin level.
MedLinePlus, which is a United States government website produced by the National Library of Medicine, indicates a test for troponin is most commonly performed “to see if a heart attack has occurred.”
“Your health care provider will order this test if you have chest pain and other signs of a heart attack. The test is usually repeated two more times over the next 6 to 24 hours.” And, if there are slight increases in the level of troponin, that typically indicates “some damage to the heart. Very high levels of troponin are a sign that a heart attack has occurred.”
Holly called the BOP’s North Central Regional Office and managed to get through to an administrator, who she was told was the No. 3 ranked person at the office. She informed the administrator about the elevated troponin level and the administrator responded, “Why does your husband need immediate medical treatment if damage is already done to his heart?”
“I was silent because I couldn’t believe that came out of her mouth,” Holly recalled. “So, she said I can’t speak any further with you regarding this. You’re going to have to have your husband sign a release, and once he signs a release, you can call me back.”
On September 21, Holly spoke with this same administrator again. It was a few days after her husband experienced symptoms of a possible heart attack.
“She said Jeffrey going to medical on September 17, there’s no record of it. There’s also no record of the results of his blood test,” Holly shared. “So then she goes on to say to me, how did your husband know about Troponin levels? And I said he knows because he was told that by the staff on duty that tried to care for him that day or whatever they attempted to do. She said that’s a highly specific test, and I said are you saying that my husband is making this up?”
The conversation continued, as the administrator replied, “I just don’t see how he knew about that.” Holly responded, “What part of he was told that by the person in medical that day are you not understanding, ma’am? I said you know my husband is an extremely intelligent man, however, he is not a doctor. He knows nothing of Troponin levels. That information was given to him. So now you’re telling me that the blood test results indicating the elevated levels of the Troponin are not in his file and you’re telling me that my husband made it up? And there was silence.”
The BOP administrator remained insistent that Sterling was fabricating medical information. “I’m just not understanding how he got that information.” Again, she told Holly there was no “blood test” to “confirm” he had an elevated troponin level.
Sterling has already filed a grievance with the prison to force them to provide proper medical treatment, but according to Holly, the high-ranking administrator informed her Sterling would have to file another grievance now. This one would request written documentation of the blood test—that the administrator believes does not exist—be included in his file.
However, if the prison’s position is that the blood test and the results never happened, then Holly said her husband has to also file a second grievance to request another blood test. Because he needs the prison to acknowledge that he has severe problems with his heart that need treatment.
As Holly shared, the BOP administrator consistently referred to Jeffrey as “Inmate,” which infuriated her.
“I said I’m going to need you to please stop talking, and I said I’m going to please ask you to have some respect for my husband and call him Jeffrey or Mr. Sterling,” she recalled. “His name is not Inmate. That’s when she said you know what? I don’t have to listen to anything you’re saying to me, and I am not going to have an argument with you about what I call him.”
“She said I’m not getting upset at you when you’re calling me by my first name or putting a Ms. in front of it. I said because that’s your given name. My husband’s given name is not Inmate. And she said we can continue this conversation or I can hang up on you. I don’t need to help you. I’m doing you a favor. So she threatened me because I asked her to please be respectful of my husband.”
Sterling said medical at Englewood accused him of being “untruthful” in an email to his wife because he claimed a nurse, who administered an EKG, had found a “blockage.” The medical personnel maintained he was “making up the episode,” and further asserted there is “no information” in his records to show a “history of atrial fibrillation” or that he was scheduled for an EKG shortly after arriving at the prison. These claims by the medical personnel are false, according to Sterling.
Atrial fibrillation, according to National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, “usually causes the heart’s lower chambers, the ventricles, to contract faster than normal.” It means the ventricles have trouble filling with blood and so the heart cannot “pump enough blood to the lungs and body.”
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation are palpitations, shortness of breath, weakness or problems exercising, chest pain, dizziness or fainting, fatigue, and confusion. And, as MedLinePlus notes, it is the “most common type of arrhythmia, and can cause “chest pain, heart attack, or heart failure.” People with arrhythmia also face an “increased risk of stroke.”
Sterling described symptoms of atrial fibrillation in his letter. He described symptoms when requesting to see a medical professional in the prison. Even if the prison has no record of his history of atrial fibrillation, it should be able to diagnose him with the condition just by what he is complaining about while in pain and suffering.
When Sterling saw the cardiovascular specialist, he was “handcuffed with a waist chain,” and his “ankles were shackled together.” He was restrained for the entire visit, even though Sterling has no record of violence within Englewood prison.
“It was quite humiliating being paraded on the streets and through the medical facility,” Sterling shared. “Not to mention the fact that even though I was completely restrained, I had to sign a statement promising not to go shopping while away from the prison.”
His wife called the shackling of her husband “repulsive” and said it was “demoralizing.” The prison is “treating him like an animal. He is not at all like that.”
She was especially insulted by the power move, where Sterling was forced to sign a document saying that he would not go shopping.
“You tell me how the heck he was going to go shopping somewhere when his ankles and wrists are shackled and he’s got men with guns around him? What was he going to say, hey, let’s stop at the Walmart. I want to go buy some gum? That was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Holly declared.
Prisoners are expected to go through the administrative process to receive help, but Sterling maintained he has only received responses to his pleas because of the efforts of his “wonderful wife” and his supporters. “If anything, the administrative process has been used as a tool by FCI Englewood to do nothing.”
Whether Sterling has received any health care is debatable, wrote Sterling. His wife feels the same way.
“From everything that has happened at this point, I really want Jeffrey to be seen out in the community and have a complete evaluation and whatever treatment is necessary,” Holly stated. “Because I don’t feel comfortable at this point with the facility providing care.”
She noted the fact that Sterling has not even seen the doctor at Englewood prison yet. Secondly, the prison claims lab results from a blood test do not exist and a meeting with medical personnel never happened on September 17.
“I have no faith in them. I actually don’t want them to treat Jeffrey. I want them to take him to a hospital, and I want them to take him to a doctor that is going to do what is ethically or morally right, regardless of him being an inmate, and give him the treatment and medical care that he deserves as a human,” Holly added.
As Sterling concluded, “Truly, to FCI Englewood and the BOP, the life of an inmate is a cheap commodity. I am experiencing that attitude firsthand.”
“All I can do is seek help from those who, if anything, have a responsibility and obligation to provide help. I have repeatedly sought out, if not begged for help. I have been left in the position of hoping that something more serious does not happen to me or that I have not developed any lasting damage.”