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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Hostages Fret About Their Health

AP"Nord Ost" cast members meeting for the first time last week in the renovated Dubrovka theater to discuss the musical's future.
Prop manager Larisa Abramova cowered alone for 58 hours in a small, stuffy room behind the stage of the Dubrovka theater, petrified of being discovered by the Chechen rebels.

Instead, the special forces who stormed the theater found her and forced her out of the room with her hands behind her head. With her dark hair, she might be a Chechen, they surmised -- so they marched her at gunpoint to the foyer, where she collapsed into a chair and lost consciousness.

When Abramova came to, she was on a respirator in intensive care, recovering from clinical death, shock and the effects of the still-unidentified gas used to knock out the attackers, said her husband, Oleg Abramov. While she has since been discharged from the hospital, she has been forced to check in again after a series of worrying blood tests.

"We consider that we're lucky to be together," Abramov said. "But her condition is far from ideal."

Five weeks after the hostage crisis, all but five of the more than 650 hostages who were hospitalized have been discharged. An unknown number have checked back in to hospitals. No one knows what the long-term health consequences are.

Interviews with former hostages and their relatives reveal a wide range of ailments they believe were caused by their captivity and the gas used to knock them out during the rescue operation.

Theater watchman Nikolai Lyubimov, 71, has numbness in the left arm and in parts of his face. He can no longer feed himself, said his daughter, Anna Lyubimova. "His health is totally damaged," she said.

Former hostage Nikolai Lebedev has headaches, "especially when he gets nervous about something," said his wife, Raisa Lebedeva, a retired teacher in the northwestern city of Pskov. She said her own headaches -- a common complaint among former hostages -- had disappeared, "but I still have some kind of inhibition in my brain and a strong resistance to speaking at all."

Abramov described his wife, the prop manager, as "jumpy" and said she had developed a tremor in one hand. He said doctors were unable to explain irregularities in her blood tests.

"Apparently the composition of the gas isn't completely known; through their experience, the doctors can determine some components, but they don't know the full composition and no one plans to talk about it," he said. "But maybe it's not from the gas, because she lived through great fear, with automatic weapons being fired all about her."

Of the 129 hostages who died during the crisis, two were killed by gunshot wounds and the rest succumbed to the effects of the gas. After several days of silence, the Health Ministry identified it as a compound based on the opiate fentanyl. German doctors also found traces of halothane, used as an inhaled anesthetic, in hostages' blood and urine.

Thomas Zilker, a toxicology professor at Munich University Clinic in Germany, said that whatever the gas, it would not be the direct cause of the current health problems. "It wasn't the poison itself, it's what followed," he said.

The hostages' condition would depend in part on how long their organs were starved of oxygen after the gas interfered with their breathing, Zilker said. And that would be determined in turn by how quickly they were resuscitated.

The government has promised 100,000 rubles ($3,125) to the families of hostages killed during the siege and half that amount to survivors. The state has also financed hospitalization, follow-up exams, and extended sanitarium care.