Miami Man Contracts Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Nearly Dies After Getting Flu Shot

Three months ago, Michael Stec could bench-press 275 pounds. Now the 56-year-old struggles to walk, gripping tightly to the parallel bars at Mercy Hospital, his legs buckling underneath him like broken stilts.

Most people never know how they get sick. But Stec says he can pinpoint the exact moment. He even has a receipt for it: a $32 influenza vaccine from a local CVS Pharmacy.

"Something is wrong with this flu shot," he says from his hospital bed, his tracheotomy scar still visible.

Stec, who asked to go by his wife's maiden name because he works for a government agency that hasn't authorized him to speak, was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) November 11 -- eight days after receiving the flu shot.

"At first I felt a tingling in my fingers and toes, but I didn't think anything of it," he says. By the end of the day, however, he knew something was seriously wrong.

"The next morning he couldn't walk," says his wife, Isabelle. "He was staggering around like he was drunk."

When Stec began having trouble breathing, she dialed 911. Stec passed out shortly after paramedics arrived.

Stec's diaphragm shut down an hour after he was rushed to Mercy. Doctors cut a hole in his throat and put him on a breathing machine. Then his nervous system went haywire. Several times Isabelle thought he would die.

Three months later, Stec is recovering. Last week he took his first, shaky step. His outrage, however, is strong. "I cannot believe that the U.S. government would allow such a thing to be on the market," he says.

This season has, in fact, seen unprecedented advertising for flu vaccines, which are a booming industry in the United States. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and CVS Pharmacy do warn people of the risk of contracting GBS. But the warning is vaguely written in fine print: "If there is a risk of GBS from current flu vaccines, it would be no more than one or two cases per million people vaccinated."

"CVS/pharmacy is committed to safe vaccination practices," a spokesman says. "The low risk associated with vaccinations and GBS is in no way related to CVS/pharmacy specifically."

The CDC says the minute risk of GBS is worth it. "You have to look at the whole package of risk and benefit," says Dr. Claudia Vellozzi, deputy director of the CDC's Immunization Safety Office. The flu kills an average of 36,000 Americans per year, she points out, and contracting GBS from a vaccine is extremely rare.

Stec questions that logic, however. "You can risk getting paralyzed, or you can risk a couple of weeks with the sniffles," he says. "How can you put this in comparison?"

He believes there are more victims like him than the CDC and Big Pharma admit.

"They say the chances are one in a million," Stec says. "I think there are more and they are hiding the statistics."

Stec says it will be months before he can return to work. He may never fully recover and is considering filing a lawsuit in "vaccine court."

"This is agony," he says. "People should know that before getting the shot."

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.