Sara Thompson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but she moved with her parents to Omaha, Nebraska, when she was nine months old. She also lived around Memphis, Tennessee, for an extended period but considered herself a Midwesterner and a “nomad,” traveling and living in many different places.
Her mother was a computer programmer, and her father was an insurance claims examiner. Both parents were “super smart, and good role models.” They were Catholic and had principles and values that Thompson was exposed to and impacted by. Her father was a fan of Sir Thomas More (venerated as Saint Thomas More), and he loved More’s sense of integrity. Growing up with her parents, Thompson said there was always a strong “sense of right and wrong.”
“My parents are really to blame for my adventures, for my decision [regarding the Peace Corps],” Thompson said. Growing up, her mother read her stories, one in particular of the “Lupine Lady,” a fictional character who traveled all over the world. From an early age, Thompson’s parents inspired her to explore and have an adventurous side. Africa is a continent that has always intrigued Thompson. She had initially studied French because she knew she wanted to do something internationally. French-speaking Africa was fascinating for her.
Thompson went to middle school and high school in Collierville, Tennessee, and was active in softball, basketball, volleyball, swimming, and cross country. Thompson has run in over a dozen marathons, and while in France, she ran three marathons in three months. Health has always been “incredibly important” to Thompson. Her life has always been very active and athletic up to a certain point.
Thompson received a B.A. in Criminal Justice and French from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and was an honors student. After earning her B.A., Thompson took a year off and “really tried to figure out what she wanted” in life. One of Thompson’s early dreams was to be a prosecutor, in fact, “the highest-paid prosecutor in Chicago.” While studying French and Criminal Justice in college, Thompson spent a year abroad in France and Australia. From that traveling and exposure, Thompson decided to move away from law school and continue her education at Rutgers University, where she received an M.A. in Criminal Justice. A hard worker, Thompson completed her M.A. in eighteen months while also working at the U.S. Immigration Court in Newark, N.J.
While pursuing her master’s degree, Thompson became interested in crime in developing countries and realized that the Peace Corps could further her education. Thompson stated that “it was sorta unconventional at the time to be joining Peace Corps” after getting a master’s degree. Still, the Peace Corps would provide “an excellent opportunity to live in a developing country.” Her parents did not support her desire to join the Peace Corps, instead wanting her to volunteer in the States because of their concerns regarding safety issues overseas. Still, Thompson was a fearless nomad and an incredibly healthy individual who was comfortable in her altruistic skin.
When Thompson applied to the Peace Corps, the application process could take over a year. So, after her graduation in 2009, Thompson moved to Alaska, “mentally and physically preparing for being in an isolated and harsh environment.” While in Alaska, Thompson pursued a wholesome lifestyle. At one point, she lived in a cabin with a composting toilet. She embraced the Alaskan lifestyle and was very active, snowshoeing, working in a winery, and as a case manager at a mental health center. Thompson spent two winters in Alaska and got her Peace Corps invitation in 2010 after an extensive application process. The Peace Corps is an independent agency and volunteer program run by the U.S. government, providing international, social, and economic development assistance. Since its inception, more than 235,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps and served in 141 countries.
Thompson had requested a posting in a French-speaking country in West Africa and received the posting of Burkina Faso. Thompson was stationed in Matiacoali, in the eastern part of Burkina Faso. Thompson’s assignment with the Peace Corp was a Girls’ Education and Empowerment Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Thompson sold her car and made several “life-changing decisions” because a Peace Corps volunteer has to prepare to be gone from the United States for roughly 27 months.
Thompson flew back to Nebraska, said goodbye to her family, then flew to Philadelphia for two days of Peace Corps briefings. Thompson met around 80 other volunteers heading to Burkina Faso. All the volunteers were given vaccinations, a last American meal, and attended meetings on culture in a foreign country. Previously, the Peace Corps had given anti-malaria medication to their volunteers in the United States but changed that policy so that PCVs got their anti-malaria medications overseas.
In June of 2010, Thompson flew to Burkina Faso and received three months of training that consisted of safety and security issues, cross-cultural matters, medical and health safety, and language training. In August of 2010, Thompson was sworn in as an official PCV. In the small village where Thompson was assigned, there were no other volunteers around, and it was a two-hour bush taxi ride to the next volunteer. Thompson was located in an isolated area, with no electricity, no running water, and the village spoke a local language; not many spoke French. Thompson worked a lot with the village women, who were “very protective.” Thompson stated she was always asked two questions every day: the first was, “Can I marry you?” and the second was asking for money. Thompson was cautious not to put herself in a dangerous situation during her time in Matiacoali.
Shortly after arriving in Burkina Faso, Thompson was given an anti-malaria medication called mefloquine (also known as Lariam, the brand name). Thompson received a concentrated dose for the first three days, contrary to CDC recommendations. The Peace Corps mandated that all Peace Corps trainees and PCVs take antimalarial prophylaxis. If Thompson refused to take the mefloquine, she would have been terminated from her post. Mefloquine is in pill form, and within the first twenty-four hours of being in-country, Thompson was given a medical kit containing the anti-malaria drug. Thompson was given a fact sheet regarding mefloquine and had to sign a sheet stating she would be fired if she did not take it.
Mefloquine is an antimalarial medicine sold as a generic medicine and can be prescribed for malaria treatment or prevention. The potential side effects of mefloquine are dizziness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, vivid dreams, and visual disturbances. It can also cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. It is recommended that people concerned about side effects should start taking the medicine three or more weeks before traveling. Thompson was not offered the drug or information about the medication before departing the United States. She was told she would be terminated if she did not take medicine after arriving in Africa. But most importantly, she was never advised of any chronic, long-term side effects of the drug.
However, a February 2, 2009 memorandum from the Office of the Surgeon General, a department of the U.S. Army, revealed: “It is critically important that all Army healthcare providers be familiar with the proper use, contraindications, warnings, and precautions for prescribing mefloquine, especially concerning neurobehavioral effects.” Warnings from the Surgeon General included the symptoms that Thompson experienced.
In April 2007, an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine noted that mefloquine had been causally associated with 19 deaths in users, including three suicides. It was reported that 60% of all mefloquine occurrences cited neuropsychiatric disturbances. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States took the unprecedented step of insisting that a patient medication guide be given to all recipients of mefloquine, warning patients about the incidence of neuropsychiatric adverse effects of mefloquine.
Thompson, who did not receive any warnings before arriving in Africa, began to experience “several health issues related to impaired cognitive functioning.” Previously very organized in the United States, Thompson began to find herself misplacing everyday items at her Peace Corps post. She started sleeping sixteen hours a day and became paranoid about other people taking things. Thompson began to see things that were not present in her environment. She complained to her Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO), to no avail. At no time did anyone talk to Thompson about any possible adverse effects that she experienced could stem from mefloquine ingestion. Thompson initially dismissed the strange occurrences as being in a new environment. Cognitively and physically, Thompson experienced constant fevers, parasites, diarrhea, and chronic staph infections in the form of boils. She suffered from severe dizziness and vertigo, and in one instance, experienced vertigo so intense that she vomited excessively.
During conversations with other volunteers, Thompson discovered that mefloquine caused them to suffer symptoms. Still, the volunteers kept pushing through or discontinuing the drug without notifying their PCMO. During her two years of service, none of Thompson’s symptoms dissipated, and in fact, appeared to intensify. At no time did any PCMO tell Thompson that her symptoms could stem from mefloquine ingestion. At one point, a PCMO advised Thompson that she was suffering from an ear infection.
In August of 2012, Thompson finished her Peace Corps Service. From that date until now, she continually suffers from intense bouts of dizziness, vertigo, and disequilibrium. The turning point for Thompson after she got back from the Peace Corps was when she went out for a run “and could not even get to the end of the block.” In May of 2013, Thompson spoke to another PCV, who informed her that she should “look at mefloquine toxicity.” Thompson studied mefloquine and found out that mefloquine toxicity affects the brain and causes permanent damage. Thompson found other volunteers who suffered problems with mefloquine toxicity and discovered Dr. Remington Nevin, formerly a Major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, who helped her understand mefloquine toxicity. Nevin relayed to Thompson that mefloquine was “The Agent Orange of today’s generation.”
Once back in the United States, Thompson underwent a series of medical tests. She went to Ear, Nose, and Throat specialists and a primary physician in Washington, D.C. Medical tests revealed no abnormalities. However, Thompson was still experiencing dizziness, vertigo, and disequilibrium, which continued with more frequency and intensity. Thompson discovered that the U.S. military discontinued mefloquine as the first drug of choice in 2009. The drug company, F. Hoffman-La Roche, stopped producing mefloquine. Despite the U.S. military moving away from mefloquine and the drug company halting the manufacturing of the drug, the Peace Corps continues to distribute the drug and uses the drug on Peace Corps volunteers.
When Thompson returned from Africa, she started working at the World Bank and coordinated a $2 million research grant on African elephant poaching. She had minimal health care, was scared, had limited resources, and was fearful of being disabled.
On August 12, 2014, Thompson filed a claim with the Peace Corps for damage and injury, which was rejected. Medical care for Peace Corps volunteers has been a subject of tort litigation in federal court. In 2016, Thompson filed a lawsuit against the Peace Corps for the damages she sustained due to the agency’s negligent prescription of the antimalarial drug mefloquine. Thompson brought the claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Thompson’s case was then dismissed without reaching the merits of her case because of an FTCA provision known as the “Foreign Country Exception.” The Exception bars any claim brought under the FTCA “arising in a foreign country.” Relying on a bright-line rule adopted by the Supreme Court in 2004, the court determined that Thompson was not eligible for any judgment because the injury occurred in a foreign country. The court also ruled that the government did not waive its sovereign immunity under the FTCA and that the Peace Corps Act does not provide an independent cause of action.
Thompson next filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. It was rejected because Peace Corps volunteers are not considered federal employees. Speaking out against the Peace Corps is not a popular pastime, as it is likened to “punching a puppy,” Thompson said.
Currently, Thompson is a Ph.D. student at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. She now has an extensive background in criminology and non-traditional criminal justice programs in developing countries. She has become an advocate for those who served in the Peace Corps who suffered from medical negligence, injuries, or illnesses because of their service. There are many stories of PCVs who have sustained injury and illness. Still, once back in the U.S., they cannot access health care services from the Department of Labor Federal Employees Compensation Act for health issues stemming from their Peace Corps service. The Peace Corps tells their volunteers that their number one goal is volunteers’ health and security, but Thompson feels that is not the case in reality.
Thompson said she is “a very sort of modest person” and that she wants to “highlight the story of those volunteers who have died, or who are out there still struggling, trying to understand why they are messed up, and I want to come at it from that perspective. There are so many who have been sick and injured from their Peace Corps service, some whose lives have been lost because of Peace Corps’ mismanagement.” Thompson’s advocacy work has centered around this issue. She hopes no one else has to go through what she has experienced. Thompson has fought for herself and lobbied for Congress to investigate the Peace Corps’ issues, which affect its volunteers. Most whistleblowers are courageous, stubborn, and in most cases, altruistic. Thompson cares about Peace Corps volunteers who have suffered. She has fought for them since returning from Africa.
Still suffering from the effects of mefloquine toxicity and looking at a future that may hold no change, Thompson is weary from the fight, which so far has been a losing one. She comments, “My soul is black, my soul is just a black entity that holds nothing but cynicism.” “Through over five years of lobbying on the Hill to push for change without seeing any substantial improvement, it has been an incredibly frustrating experience, and especially having worked in the federal government as well, it was just a soul-sucking experience,” Thompson said.
On March 15, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Peace Corps announced it was temporarily suspending operations and that all volunteers (nearly 7,000) would be evacuated from their posts. As of October 2020, no volunteers are serving, but they are heading towards deploying volunteers as early as January 2021.
Thompson vs. Corps, 159 F.Supp.3d 56 (2016)
Thompson’s Oral History interview on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website.