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Stephen “Steve” Wenger, a longtime construction project manager in the telecommunications industry and former volunteer firefighter who was in excellent health, was “dead set” against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

But when faced with an ultimatum from his employer — get the vaccine or lose his job — Wenger reluctantly got vaccinated.

Within days, he found himself unable to stand up or move around. He crawled on his “hands and knees” into a hospital emergency room, he said.

Wenger ended up spending more than three months in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. He was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), “a neurological disorder that involves progressive weakness and reduced senses in the arms and legs” according to the National Institutes of Health.

Wenger, now 57, shared his story with The Defender, including his negative experience with the federal government’s Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP). He provided medical documentation to The Defender to corroborate his story.

‘It was either get vaccinated, or you can’t come to work’

“I was absolutely dead set against getting the vaccine,” Wenger told The Defender. “I swore I wouldn’t get it.”

Wenger was working on a project on the Navajo reservation in the desert Southwest when COVID-19 hit. “The Navajo people got really hit hard with COVID,” he said. “And I was working with these guys on a daily basis.”

His employer didn’t adopt an official mandate policy, but Wenger was nevertheless given an ultimatum.

Wenger said:

“Finally, one day, the regional director came to me and asked me if I was vaccinated, and I said ‘no.’ They said, ‘We’re not going to tell you you have to get vaccinated, but if you’re not vaccinated, you can’t come up here and work with our employees.’

“So, it was either get vaccinated or you can’t come to work.”

On May 18, 2021, Wenger visited a local pharmacy and received his one and only dose of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine.

“I distinctly remember sitting there with the guy giving me the vaccine, and I said to him, ‘I hope I don’t regret this someday.’ I’ll never forget that,” Wenger said. “When I said that, I certainly didn’t think I was going to regret it.”

However, within days, he experienced a reaction to the shot.

“Seven days later, I started having issues walking,” Wenger said. “[My wife and I] were in Sedona [Arizona] … and we were at the bottom of this really steep hill, and we had to walk up this hill, and I remember I felt kind of tired and run-down that day … I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest. My legs felt like they were in cement.”

Wenger didn’t immediately make the connection to his recent vaccination.

“It’s one of those things where you really don’t put two and two together,” he said. “It’s just kind of like, okay, maybe I’m just tired or having a bad day. So, I just blew it off.”

But later that evening, when he went out to dinner, his symptoms grew worse.

“I’m sitting in the restaurant, in a booth, and I had to get up and use the restroom,” he said. “I stood up and I did a 90-degree pivot and just lost my balance and literally almost fell on this other couple’s dinner, on this other couple’s table.”

Within days, back at work on the Navajo reservation, Wenger’s legs gave out.

“I was lying there sprawled out on the concrete,” Wenger recalled. “I got home, was having issues walking again, falling, losing my balance.”

At home, his daughter, a registered nurse, encouraged him to go to the hospital.

“I finally went to the ER,” Wenger said. “My wife literally pulled up in front of the door. I rolled out of the door, and I crawled on my hands and knees into the ER.”

Wenger told The Defender that just prior to this sequence of events, he had been researching some of the symptoms he was experiencing, and thought maybe they had something to do with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where the body’s own immune system attacks the body’s nerves.

In the ER, healthcare providers administered a lower lumbar puncture, after determining he had no reflex response. The results of that examination led to his hospitalization “right there on the spot,” and ultimately, his CIDP diagnosis.

It was ‘a living hell’

The next three months were “a living hell,” Wenger said, as his condition worsened.

He said:

“When I went in, initially I was having problems walking, but my hands and my arms still worked. That numbness or that loss of use was creeping up. And eventually, all of a sudden, I couldn’t use my right arm. And then, my left arm was just barely functional.”

It reached a point where he couldn’t even pick up a fork, he said. “They have these foam pads that they put on the silverware so that if you can’t grip … you’d have a bigger surface to grab,” Wenger said. “Well, my hands were so weak that my fingers couldn’t even pick it up. The weight of a fork was too much for me to pick up.”

By that time, he was essentially a quadriplegic, he said. “The whole time I was at Mayo Clinic, the only way I could get in and out of bed was [with] overhead lifts. They would put me into a sling, and they would lift me out of bed, set me down in a wheelchair.”

Wenger said he remained in this condition for approximately two months. “The one thing that I could still do was urinate in the urinal bottle. And it got to the point where, finally, I was in bed one night and I hit the call button. I just said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”

At that point, he said, he was 100% dependent on other people for everything. “You basically surrender all your dignity, everything. I mean, there’s nothing left.”

‘I set goals for myself’ in order to recover

Wenger’s recovery hasn’t been easy.

“I don’t know if I had to do it again, I don’t know if I could do it again,” he said. “When I got out of the hospital, I was in a wheelchair. I was still … as close to a quadriplegic as you could get without actually being there.”

Doctors told him it could be nine months to a year before he got back on his feet. “That just was not an acceptable solution to me,” he said.

Wenger began going to the gym, where he placed himself on a rigorous workout regime, five days a week for three to four hours per day, “working my legs, working my core, trying to get my core strength back, working my arms, working my hips and my glutes.”

The intense exercise regimen soon began to pay off. “It progressed, and eventually it got to the point where I had some use in my legs, and then I was able to pull myself up and hold myself up.”

“I pushed myself to the absolute limits every single day,” Wenger said, “and when I would come home at the end of that workout … I would land in the recliner, and that was where I stayed for the day until I went to bed that night. And I would get up and I would do it again … every day for at least six or seven months.”

To recover, he said, “I set goals for myself” — stand by Halloween, walk with a walker by Thanksgiving, walk with a cane by Christmas — and came close to fulfilling that timeline.

The cane took a little longer because it wasn’t so much a strength issue,” Wenger said. “It was a balance issue. My balance was so shot at that time. But by the end of January, I was able to walk with a cane just around the house.”

Today, he still has no feeling from the knees down, his fingertips are still numb and he has issues with dexterity. Nevertheless, he has returned to work on a part-time basis.

“I’m unable to do my original job,” he said. “So, I’m on Social Security disability right now, but I work part-time at a hardware store.”

Despite his continued improvement, Wenger said he doesn’t expect a full recovery.

He said:

“If I walk a lot, my feet still really hurt. It feels like I’m standing on glass, on hot, jagged rocks. I think that’s probably permanent damage. It’s been almost two years since this happened, so if the nerves haven’t repaired themselves by now, I don’t think they’re going to.”

Nevertheless, Wenger maintains an optimistic outlook about his recovery.

“I tell people, if this is as good as I get, I can deal with that,” he said. “I can handle it. I can do everything I want to do. The only thing I really can’t do — my wife and I like to hike. We live in Arizona and there’s a lot of cactuses, and the idea of going out and hiking sounds great, but if I stumble … the last place I want to land is on a cactus.”

He still gets intravenous immunoglobulin therapy about every 14 days. “It’s fun and games for nobody. This takes probably a little over three hours.”

Wenger also credited a chemotherapy drug with significantly aiding his recovery.

“Every six months, I still get a chemo drug,” he said. “What actually turned my CIDP around was rituximab. It ultimately stopped my decline and turned me around and got me on the recovery side of this … that’s what keeps me healthy.”

‘Insurance is … an absolute nightmare’

Though rituximab has helped Wenger improve, issues with insurance companies have caused delays in treatment — placing his health and recovery at risk.

“The last dose [of rituximab] I had was in December,” Wenger said, “and it actually came two months late because of some insurance issues. Insurance is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”

During that two-month period, Wenger developed a cold or the flu, which triggered his CIDP and caused him to relapse.

“CIDP is no joke,” Wenger continued. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. You don’t get rid of it. It’s always there. It can come back at any time.”

He will likely continue intravenous immunoglobulin therapy for the rest of his life and will continue taking rituximab indefinitely.

“Seeing how quickly I relapsed in December, I think they’ll keep me on that for a while at least,” he said. “So that’s my life.”

Wenger’s insurance payments increased from $200 to $850 per month and his deductible more than doubled, from $6,000 to $13,000 — an amount that was then reset when his previous employer changed insurance carriers.

His medical expenses reached $70,000. In conjunction with a sharp drop in income, from six figures down to $27,000 on disability insurance, Wenger estimated his “real cash financial loss” as ranging between $250,000 and $300,000.

Once he qualified for disability insurance, he didn’t receive his first check for seven months, during which time he went without an income.

“We’ve always had a six-month safety net in savings in case of emergency,” Wenger said. “And we burned through all of that, trying to keep the mortgage paid. I had to sell my car, my truck, because we couldn’t afford that.”

Fortunately for Wenger, his family has been supportive throughout his ordeal — support that has included financial assistance.

“Luckily, my dad is in a position where he can help us,” Wenger said. And his sister started a GoFundMe that raised $20,000.

“I’ve never had to beg for money before and I didn’t like the idea of doing it,” Wenger said. “And my God, the people that donated to it — there were people donating that I didn’t even know … and they were donating $100, they were donating $500. It was unbelievable. It was just unreal. I can’t thank those people enough.”

His family has done more than provide financial support. “You don’t get through something like this without your family standing behind you,” describing how his family members would fly from Wisconsin to Arizona just to surprise him — as did a fellow volunteer firefighter from back home.

“When you go through a situation like this, you find out who your friends are, and you find out who your real friends are,” Wenger said. “I had friends of mine from high school, two of them, that came out and visited me. One of them lives in Ohio and he flew out to visit me. I haven’t seen the guy in 30 years, and he flew out to visit me in the hospital. That just makes me weepy.”

Government vaccine injury program ‘insulting’ to victims

Wenger filed a CICP claim that is still pending.

“I describe the CICP as a government agency that’s put in place to deny people benefits because that’s what they do best,” Wenger said.

He described the labyrinthine process for submitting a CICP claim and “proving” his vaccine injury:

“Their burden of proof is virtually unattainable. The fact that I’m 57 years old, have never had any medical problems and the fact that all my problems began seven days after I got the vaccine, well, that’s not good enough, ‘that’s not proof that the vaccine caused your injury, that’s purely coincidental.’

“If I get documentation from the doctors that state my condition was caused by the vaccine, that’s not good enough. I have to prove beyond a doubt that my injury was caused by the vaccine. Well, as a normal person, as a layman, how do I do that? I’m not a doctor. How do I prove 100% beyond a doubt that my injury was caused by the vaccine? I can’t.”

Wenger said his “claim has been sitting with CICP now” since November 2021, adding that he “spent the next four or five months getting my medical records over to them.” It was only in June 2022 that CICP acknowledged receipt of his records and began reviewing his case.

A year later, “I still have nothing,” Wenger said, remarking on the fact that only recently, CICP approved its first three COVID-19 vaccine injury claims — at a total of $4,500.

“That’s not a settlement, that’s not even a settlement offer,” Wenger remarked. “That’s a punch in the mouth from the government, and it’s insulting. He expects his case will be denied.

“My case, if anything, should be a slam dunk,” Wenger said. “I got CIDP. It’s a reaction to the vaccine. If I got CIDP from the shingles vaccine, I’d be covered under the [National] Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP]. I would be able to hire an attorney who would fight my case in vaccine court before a judge.”

Wenger was referring to a separate vaccine injury compensation program, VICP, which covers vaccines routinely administered to children and pregnant women. CICP, on the other hand, focuses on countermeasures implemented during emergencies such as pandemics and was established under the aegis of the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act of 2005.

Although the federal government’s national emergency and public health emergency related to COVID-19 both ended on May 11, the liability shield for COVID-19 vaccines under the PREP Act will remain in effect until at least December 2024.

Vaccine-injured ‘the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about’

Wenger is working with Reps. Debbie Lesko and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) to raise awareness about these issues, in addition to visiting Washington, where he says he’s met with almost 30 representatives.

He said:

“You get a lot of lip service from them. ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to do this, this and this.’ It’s all lip service.

“I refer to myself as collateral damage of the COVID vaccine, and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to do anything about it. We’re the COVID vaccine’s dirty little secret, all of us vaccine-injured. We’re the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about. But here we are, and we make as much noise as we can.”

On one of his visits to Washington with React19, an advocacy group for the vaccine-injured, he had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“What really shook me was how cold Peter Marks was about this, almost condescending,” Wenger said. “I told him what had happened to me, what I had gone through and what I got done. His response to me was, ‘Well, yeah, that’s why we got rid of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.’”

“I thought that was a little condescending of them, especially knowing what we’re going through and the fact that there’s no assistance out there for anybody and people are losing, losing everything,” Wenger remarked.

Wenger praised the work of React19 and its founder, Brianne Dressen, who was injured by the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine during its clinical trial. He said he works “with some of the greatest people” through the organization, and has met other vaccine-injured individuals who provide each other emotional support.

In May, Dressen and others sued President Biden and other members of the federal government, alleging the U.S. government colluded with social media companies to censor them when they posted stories about their personal vaccine injury experiences.

Wenger has a message for others injured by the vaccine:

“My message is, No. 1, don’t give up. No matter how dark and hopeless it seems at times, fight on. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You may not be able to see it today, but it’s out there.

“You’re the one who determines how fast you recover and to what extent you’re going to recover. For me, it’s been hard work. It’s been my full-time job for the last year-and-a-half, almost two years now. My full-time job has been working out at the gym, trying to recover … and I’m getting there and I’m happy with where I’m at right now.”

“There’s going to be days where it’s one step forward, two steps back, and then it’s going to be two steps forward, one step back,” Wenger added. “You have to take the bad days with the good days. It’s all about how bad you want it. That’s what it’s all about.”