With international renown, and patients, one Nicosia doctor offers contentious treatment to sufferers of Lyme disease and many other problems. Dismissing detractors as being in the pockets of Big Pharma, he tells THEO PANAYIDES of the importance of keeping up
Dr Yuri Nikolenko looks like he must be a character, a plain-spoken, paunchy Ukrainian with a waddle in his walk and green eyes in a pale, pouchy face. The 59-year-old head of the Medinstitute Clinic in Nicosia has – or cultivates – a languid, affable manner, slowly manoeuvring his big bulk around the three floors of the clinic. “Give me one minute,” he calls apologetically, gazing across with a mournful bloodhound expression. “For the beautiful, it’s fourth floor,” he jokes faux-flirtatiously when a group of ladies in the lift seem unsure which button to press (they’re looking for Dermatology, run by Yuri’s daughter Valentina). He has a touch of the concierge or the bus driver, one of those professions that depend on being stolid and ingratiating – but in fact he’s a scientist and a chess master (a game he’s been playing since the age of four), a judo adept and former deep-sea diver; and he also runs this clinic which he founded in 1989, drawing patients from all over the world.
All that said, there’s an ethical dimension in publishing a profile of Yuri, indeed it’s not just ethical but also inescapable. We talk a lot about ozone therapy, sitting in his office at the Medinstitute – it’s a central part of what the clinic offers, albeit not the only thing – and anyone reading will presumably want to do some further research. Google ‘ozone therapy’, however, and the first thing that comes up – literally the first thing – is the Wikipedia article on the subject, which begins as follows:
“Ozone therapy is a form of alternative medicine that purports to increase the amount of oxygen in the body through the introduction of ozone. It is based on pseudoscience and is considered dangerous to health, with no verifiable benefits.”
Yuri seems unconcerned when I read the article out to him. “There are people [who] fight us, pharmaceutical companies,” he shrugs, his Greek still rather fractured after 30 years on the island. It may seem an inadequate response, given how unambiguous the article is (Wikipedia’s source, incidentally, is the Code of Federal Regulations of the US Food and Drug Administration) – but by that time I’ve already had a tour of the clinic, and heard enough to at least give me pause.
The ozone-therapy room is down the corridor from his own office. I’m not sure exactly what the procedure involves – but he shows me a machine whereby ozone (a gas) is liquefied, after which the liquid ozone is introduced into the patient’s bloodstream. (Ozone is indeed dangerous to breathe, explains Yuri – it causes hyperoxygenation – but this liquefied form is quite safe, bypassing the lungs and going straight to the veins.) All three beds in the room are occupied, two of them by Helena and her son Adam who hail from Sweden by way of Britain. “I got bitten in Sweden in 2008, and Adam in 2010,” she explains – referring to Lyme disease, “an infectious disease caused by a bacteria named Borrelia spread by ticks” (Wikipedia again) which accounts for many of the overseas patients.
Lyme disease is increasingly in the news (pop star Avril Lavigne recently spoke of her battle against the illness, which is life-threatening) – yet healthcare systems in most places still haven’t caught up. In Australia, the disease isn’t even officially recognised; the Medinstitute gets around 500 patients from that country every year. In Sweden, according to Helena, a Dr Sandström was struck off for treating it, in contravention of official guidelines – which is partly why she and Adam have had to turn to “amazing people like Dr Yuri” in search of a cure. The third bed is taken by Patricia who’s come all the way from Wisconsin, having learned about the clinic through a Facebook page run by a former patient. She’s had Lyme for three and a half years; her friend Mary – also from Wisconsin – says she’s had it for 49 years, since the age of eight! Insurance won’t cover it in the US, and the treatment is “so expensive” there. They’re in Cyprus on a three-month visa, staying in an Airbnb and trying to heal their lives at the hands of this affable Ukrainian.
It’s all so perfect, I wonder for a moment if Yuri may have stage-managed these encounters (he is a chess master, after all) – but it’s not like he indicates who I should talk to. “You saw for yourself,” he notes. “I didn’t bring you the chosen ones.” Nor is it just Lyme disease. Jamal, from Dubai, has a condition where his liver and pancreas are unable to filter cholesterol; his cholesterol count is 5,000 (it should be under 200). He’s here getting his arteries cleaned, and – like the others – speaks warmly of the doctor. Also in the mix is a local lad, a 13-year-old boy suffering with a rare virus and howling piteously on a hospital bed – though his howls are apparently because he’s afraid to give blood (I see him later, looking considerably more cheerful). Yuri also tells me of other patients, one from Dubai who had stomach cancer (the tumor was 17cm in diameter), another – a Cypriot – who was stung by dozens of spiders which emerged from a nest in a hollow tree. We’ve even had our first local cases of Lyme, both in Paphos, though it’s unclear if they were bitten here.
Then there’s the Russian billionaire, a business partner of Roman Abramovich’s, whose once-shattered health has been restored by two years of therapy – and who apparently showed his gratitude by donating one of the expensive machines I see on my tour, possibly the ‘magnetoturbotron’ festooned with Cyrillic writing (it looks like an MRI, but is used for magnetic stimulation of the whole body) or the ‘barocamera’ for breathing problems and bronchitis. Dr Yuri is big on hardware, pointing out this or that bit of high-tech equipment as he waddles through the clinic. “I’ll send it to Herman at the factory, they can talk to Wikipedia,” is his final word on That Article, ‘the factory’ being the company in Germany which produces the ozone equipment. “We’re tired of fighting them,” he adds, speaking of the pharmaceutical companies. “They’re always putting something crazy”.
Is that it, then? Should we just dismiss the official line on ozone therapy as more crazy talk by Big Pharma (presumably in league with their cronies in the US government)? What to make of this miracle cure? On the one hand, meeting patients who’ve come halfway-round the world and truly believe they’re getting better doesn’t mean they are getting better. On the other, Yuri claims to have personal experience of the efficacy of his treatment – not just because he’s tried ozone on himself (it works as prevention as well as cure), but also because it saved the life of his wife Chrystalla.
When the clinic opened in 1989, soon after the couple arrived from Ukraine – they met in college, at the University of Kharkiv, and married soon after – it was much more conventional, with an emphasis on physical rehabilitation (that department still exists, run by their other daughter Nikoletta). Everything changed 23 years ago, when Chrystalla was struck down with severe neuropathy; doctors offered only a bleak prospect of slow deterioration and early death (all her fellow patients in the neurological ward have long since died, notes Yuri grimly) – so he did some research and found ozone therapy, which saved his wife as it’s saved many others. Fidel Castro’s doctors kept him alive for 17 years, through three types of cancer, using ozone, claims Yuri. The Germans discovered it first and used it during WWII, healing their wounded (and sending them back into battle) twice as fast as the Allies. “The greatest ozone therapist was Adolf Hitler!” he declares; I told you he was plain-spoken.
He’s also a character, that initial impression turning out to be accurate. He tears up a tissue to denote cancerous mutation, and extracts a string of worry beads from a desk drawer to illustrate what a virus looks like. He doesn’t have a doctor’s silky manners, coming off more as a rough-hewn savant or eccentric inventor – and indeed he’s an “accidental doctor”, having studied maths and physics (he was accepted to the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics) before switching to medicine due to a mix-up with his papers. He’s good with his hands, hailing from a family of engineers. “I can build a house, I can do welding, anything”. One of his best friends in Cyprus (now deceased) was a simple shepherd named Socrates, a man who’d never finished primary school but could match his Athenian namesake for keenness of intellect: “If he’d gone to university, he’d have been a Nobel Prize winner!”. There’s no mention of friends who are doctors, or society types.
Patients, I assume, must be slightly nonplussed by this bulky figure with his quirky, un-medical phrasing: ozone has a third oxygen atom, he tells me (its chemical formula is O3, as opposed to O2) – but the third atom is “a boyfriend”, it can’t live with the other two. Employees, too (the clinic has a staff of about 20 people), won’t always agree with the way he does business. “I’m strict,” admits Yuri; the languid manner is just a façade, and he talks more than once of wanting things to be “like in the army”. (He himself had military training while at college – male students doubled as reservist officers in the Soviet Union – including brief experience of war zones in Africa.) All staff are tested on all new machines, and he’ll interview patients to get their feedback on nurses. Working hours at the Medinstitute are 8.30am to 8pm, with a two-and-a-half-hour break in the middle when (he says) almost everyone settles down for a power nap in a specially-designed environment. The nap is optional, he adds, then again you have to wonder.
Science is approached with the same systematic dedication. “I read 60 pages every day. Medical literature,” he tells me gravely. “I don’t read 59 pages. 60!” He’ll sit for hours if he finds something interesting, speed-reading pages in Russian or Greek then emailing questions to the authors. “Because science moves on,” he adds pointedly, thinking perhaps of his own situation. “Anyone who stands still and says ‘Oh, I don’t accept that’ – well, once upon a time people didn’t accept that the Earth was round”. New discoveries are made all the time – “then immediately killed by the pharmaceutical companies,” he adds grimly.
We should note that the Medinstitute Clinic isn’t entirely ‘alternative’, whatever that much-maligned word even means. It’s not that Yuri won’t prescribe antibiotics as needed; it’s just that ozone – he says – goes even further, and that’s not even mentioning the other wonders he claims to have on hand, like the brain stimulator (it produces endorphins) that’s ideal for minor troubles. “Let’s say you had a fight with your wife, you scratched your car, you spilled coffee on yourself, you got told off at work – so now your day is shit! OK?” he explains with his usual straightforwardness. That kind of hassle can get under your skin, you might be losing sleep and unable to shake yourself free, “the needle is stuck, like I say” – but then “you come to us, we put you under a machine, just 20 minutes,” raves Yuri, growing visibly excited: “Like the Terminator, chhhhhh, you get up – let’s go party!”
In the end, Yuri Nikolenko’s idiosyncratic style helps his cause, in a way that a standard bedside manner probably wouldn’t. It’s easy to believe – despite the bad publicity on Wikipedia – that there’s something more to medicine which this mad-scientist type might appreciate, and the greedy capitalists probably don’t. The weirdest tale he tells is of the North Korean doctoral student (and friend) who once saved his life in the USSR, when Yuri fell in a river after a parachute jump and developed pneumonia. His own hospital colleagues couldn’t help – but the North Korean did, by buying a black hen at a market (!), cooking it for 12 hours with special mushrooms and herbs, and creating a kind of gelatinous broth which was “the greatest bio-stimulator I’ve seen in my life,” he marvels. “That’s why I say, ‘Never say never’. These people know things we don’t.” There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your pharmaceuticals.
Don’t some people call him a charlatan, though?
He shrugs, his bulk shifting and his eyes growing glassy, as if with boredom. “It’s their right,” says Yuri, the languid manner returning. “We have a licence to practice. I had about 30 Cypriots with me [at university], we all graduated together, so who can say that…?” He trails off, meaning ‘that I’m not properly qualified?’. “Let them take care of their own business. Let them work 16 hours like we do, and read up and so on, and maybe they’ll change their minds”. At the end of the day, he’s not too bothered – and not just because he seems to be doing well, earning plaudits from Russian oligarchs and ladies from Wisconsin alike. “There’s an old Arabic proverb,” opines Yuri mischievously: “‘The dogs bark, the caravan goes on’.” Let them bark; his mind is on bigger things.