Solutions: How disinformation about vaccine took a young woman’s life

After death, her aunt pleads: ‘Please consider getting vaccinated’

After dating for more than 10 years, Samantha Wendell and her fiance, Austin Eskew, were ready to settle down and have kids.

Following their engagement in 2019, the couple set a wedding date for Aug. 21, 2021, at a church in Lisle, Ill., where Wendell’s parents had married years earlier. They planned to start a family soon after.

Wendell was eager to have children, so when she heard false claims that the coronavirus vaccines could affect her fertility, she decided to hold off on getting immunized, her family members told NBC News. But over the summer, Wendell, a surgical technician in Grand Rivers, Ky., changed her mind and scheduled a vaccine appointment for the end of July.

Jessica Lipscomb

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

It was too late — days before the appointment, she and Eskew tested positive for the virus.

After a long hospitalization, during which she was placed on a ventilator, Wendell died Sept. 10. She was 29.

“Misinformation killed her,” Maria Vibandor Hayes, Wendell’s cousin, wrote in a Facebook post the next day. Wendell’s loved ones are telling her story and encouraging others to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Wendell and Eskew met in 2010 at their college orientation at Olivet Nazarene University, a private Christian school in Illinois. They started dating that September, according to their wedding website.

After getting engaged, the two set about planning their wedding and a honeymoon in Mexico. Over the summer, loved ones threw a bridal shower for Wendell, and in July, she and her friends traveled to Nashville for a bachelorette party.

Wendell and Eskew were supposed to get vaccinated later that month, but days before, she began feeling ill. She could not stop coughing, Eskew told NBC News. About a week after her symptoms started, she went to the hospital for treatment.

As the wedding date approached, it became clear that Wendell would not be able to make it down the aisle. Five days before the planned ceremony, doctors placed her on a ventilator. Relatives told their social media followers about the grim realities of her COVID hospitalization.

“Please consider getting vaccinated for I would never want any family or friends to endure what is happening to my niece right now and to her family and friends,” Wendell’s aunt Denise Picicci posted on Facebook. “No one can visit, no one to hold her hand and talk to her and give her encouragement to fight this.”

Wendell never regained the ability to breathe on her own, NBC News reported, and on Sept. 10, her family made the difficult choice to take her off life support.

Her funeral was held at Trinity Lutheran Church, where she and Eskew planned to marry.

Eskew told NBC News that his fiancee had “just kind of panicked” about the unproven claims that the coronavirus vaccines could affect her ability to have children.

Misinformation tying the vaccines to infertility has proliferated on social media, and as of Sept. 11, only 25 percent of pregnant Americans have received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But CDC officials say there is no evidence showing that the coronavirus vaccines cause fertility problems; in fact, the agency recommends that those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant get vaccinated.

Wendell’s relatives say they hope her death will encourage others who are hesitant about the vaccines to get immunized. Several people have already done so, Wendell’s mother, Jeaneen Wendell, wrote in a Facebook comment.

“I can’t tell you how many people told me they got vaccinated because they heard about Samantha. Her life meant something,” she wrote recently.

“Even if it was just a few who got vaccinated that means something.”

About the Solutions Journalism Network

For some months now, as part of our solutions-oriented focus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. This week’s Solutions page content, focused on the fight against COVID-19, comes from other sources.