Is a new vaccine sending users to GardaHell?
By Tara Murtha
June 2, 2009
Sitting at the living room table in her Northeast Philadelphia house—adorned with a curbside American flag and red-barn mailbox—Speakman’s eyes tear up when she talks about the seizures that have shaken her 18-year-old’s body to the ground for the last two years. Speakman’s anxious and Victoria’s exhausted: It’s 6 p.m. and the teenager just got out of bed.
Victoria says that since she got her second dose of Gardasil (the vaccine is administered in three doses spaced out over six months) in February of 2008, she has suffered non-epileptic seizures, migraines, fainting spells, tremors, twitches, numbness, intermittent leg and facial paralysis, tingling, twisting eye pain, joint aches, neck and back pain, memory loss, brain fog, regression, mood swings and fatigue on a near-daily basis. The second shot was like pulling the trigger of a gun.
Soon, Victoria was so sick that she was forced to stop going to high school. The violence and frequency of her seizures make it so she can barely leave the house, and she is rarely left unattended.
Victoria’s undergone CT scans, MRIs, MRAs and EEGs. She’s been observed in an epilepsy center twice for a week at a time and put on seizure meds then taken off them when EEG results returned normal. The teen wound up in the emergency room at least a dozen times, and has had countless vials of blood coaxed from her veins.
Speakman says her family doctor has no clue what sickness is unfurling in Victoria’s brain and bloodstream. Mother and daughter are stuck in a kind of hell where everything’s wrong and no one knows why.
This road to hell was paved with good intentions.
In October 2007, Victoria’s pediatrician recommended that she get vaccinated with Gardasil (on the market since 2006) to protect her from HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection that in some cases leads to cervical cancer.
Speakman and Victoria learned about HPV and Gardasil from the popular commercials that relayed three quick hits of information: HPV is common, it can lead to cervical cancer and Gardasil can protect you from it.
The Gardasil girls in the commercials are cutely defiant tomboys—a skateboarder, a drummer and a basketball player—chanting the Gardasil slogan with infectious, girl-power charm.
“They were spelling out [the words] ‘ONE LESS’ and screaming and shouting,” recalls Victoria, still groggy. “That’s all I remember—the ‘I want to be one less.’”
When Speakman talks about her daughter, the tears in her eyes well and recede, then well again—a constant tide. “We decided together,” she says, about getting Victoria the shots. “I have a lot of guilt for this, I was encouraging her … I’ve never had any trouble with any vaccine, nor have my children, nor has anyone I know,” she adds. “I just think, well, if I can vaccinate my child against something, why not do it?”
Victoria received her first shot of Gardasil in November 2007. Then a junior at Philadelphia Academy Charter School, she was eager to earn her driver’s license, a teen’s ticket to freedom—and to her aunt’s Jersey shore house, where Victoria loves to hang out and go parasailing.
The needle went in smoothly, pumped the first dose into her arm muscle and nothing happened. Everything was fine.
The second shot was in February 2008. Later that day, Victoria was hit with diarrhea and vomiting that continued for the next eight weeks. Doctors called it a stomach virus. Then new seemingly neurological symptoms began to surface: chronic exhaustion, temporarily paralysis, brain fog and tremors. Her first seizure was on March 31, 2008.
For a while, a health aide escorted Victoria through school hallways. But before long, everyone agreed the seizures were too much for both Victoria and for the students watching. She tried to keep up with the rest of her class through a distance-learning program on her laptop, but just couldn’t deal with it.
Now, mother and daughter’s lives are fractured. Victoria’s missing senior parties, prom and graduation. Speakman’s balancing work, caring for Victoria (and her younger brother Michael) and endlessly pursuing clues. Mom’s always thinking, always Googling.
Speakman first started searching for information online last summer, three months after her daughter’s first seizure.
“I was in my car, crying, driving home from work, thinking, ‘Why is this happening? What could have brought this on?’” says Speakman. She got home and started searching for answers.
“I typed in the words ‘Gardasil’ and ‘seizure,’ just to see what would come up,” she says. “There were more websites than I could possibly imagine with people telling their stories about their daughters who were having seizures as a result of the vaccine.”
Speakman learned there’s a word others use for what her family is going through: “GardaHell.”
Speakman has found a lot of support online. There, in dedicated message groups, the parents of sick “Gardasil girls” list symptoms and share dietary tips. They exchange the names of lawyers, doctors and researchers who they hope will dig deep enough into Gardasil clinical trial data to find the problem, or maybe expose financial conflicts of interest that will explain why a potentially dangerous vaccine is being pushed on young girls.
While parents write politicians, the girls post heartbreaking testimonies on YouTube about their illness.
Gabrielle “Gabi” Swank, a 16-year-old from Wichita, Kan., has led the grassroots anti-Gardasil campaign. Ridiculously adorable, even with oxygen tubes stuffed up her nose, Swank intends to warn other girls about Gardasil until her dying day—she was recently diagnosed with cerebral vasculitis, a fatal condition.
Once a spunky gymnast with a 4.0 GPA, Swank suffered mini-strokes on top of seizures—as well as all of Victoria’s symptoms—since, she says, taking Gardasil. Swank’s neurologist Dr. Dwight Lindholm believes the Gardasil shot is responsible for her condition. “I want this drug off the market,” says Swank, in story after story.
Now Victoria’s story is posted alongside Swank’s on tons of websites, and Speakman corresponds with Swank’s mom Shannon and mothers across the country. Speakman leaves no webpage unturned, posting “Victoria’s Story”—her summary of Victoria’s Gardasil and symptoms timeline—on every forum and beneath every article on Gardasil she finds, hoping to reach someone who will help them.
She even posts her cell phone number. She says she doesn’t mind wading through the kooks who call—questionable pseudo-experts specializing in desperation medicine who peddle their unproven experimental treatments for cash up front. It’s money the mother of two simply doesn’t have, though she says if she did, she’d try them all if it could lead to answers.
She gets about 25 emails a day—thousands already—from new “Gardasil moms.”
Like other Gardasil families, Speakman’s burned through thousands of dollars—she sends bill collectors $5, $10 at a time to pay off the mounting debt—on test after test that show little except elevated SED rate and protein levels, conditions she says is common in other Gardasil girls.
Speakman says she’s “never been more sure about anything” in her life about Gardasil being responsible for Victoria’s condition. But her “obsession,” researching online, isn’t about becoming the next Karen Silkwood or Norma Rae. She is ever-polite online, not part of the angry mob slinging mud and calling for heads to roll. Exhausted and heartbroken, Speakman just wants her daughter back, and except for grasping these digital straws, there’s little else to hold on to.
“At this point, I don’t even care if they tell me it is Gardasil or is not Gardasil,” she says. “I would just like my daughter’s symptoms treated.”
Despite mounting claims of adverse reactions—Spain just halted a batch of Gardasil after two girls fell ill after shots and similar complaints are popping up around the world—the FDA and CDC continue to recommend the Gardasil vaccine. Moms say that doctors look at them like they’re crazy for even thinking they might see something the medical establishment doesn’t.
Comment from Leslie
I have come to know these women – their stories are real – their daughter’s pain – and the loss of life is horrific. Make sure that you follow this story to the end – and read the comments.