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.
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 rundown 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.
“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.”
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.
‘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.
Government vaccine injury program ‘insulting’ to victims
Wenger filed a CICP claim that is still pending.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.
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 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.