Desiree Jennings is a 25-year-old wannabe cheerleader who became Internet Famous in October 2009, after announcing that she'd been horribly crippled by the flu shot. After she got herself on TV, neurologists pointed out that her symptoms were completely unlike those of nerve damage – but perfectly typical of psychogenic illness. Shortly after, she was miraculously "cured" with chelation therapy.
Before her shot, Jennings was (physically) healthy and in good shape. She was apparently a "Washington Redskins Ambassador," which is like being on the farm team for NFL cheerleaders. After her story broke, media reports started calling her an "NFL Cheerleader," which isn't true – but it's typical of how everything in the later reports is just a little more dramatic than the early reports.
D.J. got the shot on 23 August and supposedly developed flu-like symptoms soon after. It's biologically plausible that these mild symptoms could have been a direct result of the vaccine. After 7 September, she started having fainting spells and convulsions. She was sent to a couple of different hospitals, but not a single doctor or nurse could find anything physically wrong with her.
According to the earliest available report, Jennings' neurologists were scratching their heads, but her physical therapist diagnosed her with dystonia. This may or may not be true, since her story changed over time. If it is true, it raises an immediate red flag, as dystonia is a neurological condition, and it's implausible that a neurologist would miss it while a physical therapist would catch it. More likely, her neurologists ruled dystonia out, but her physical therapist either misdiagnosed dystonia, or just happened to mention the possibility dystonia, which Jennings then seized on as an "offical" diagnosis. We don't really know, since Jennings hasn't released her medical records, and the media reports about her case history have – what's the phrase – evolved over time.
Some local paper called the Loudoun-Times Mirror first broke the story on 12 October. That's probably the single best mainstream report about the bare facts of her case, before the exaggerations began to set in. On the 13th, local Fox affiliate WTTG (Channel 5) aired an appalling, sensationalistic travesty of a report, promptly outdone on the 16th by national tabloid TV magazine Inside Edition. YouTube got a hold of it, the shit hit the fan, and a million people learned that ZOMG FLU SHOT POISION!!1
She's the beautiful cheerleader whose heartbreaking story is shocking the nation
Jennings' symptoms didn't make any damned sense. She could walk sideways, walk backwards, run, or jog. She even competed in an 8 km race after her big story got out, earning her credulous praise from Fox 5 TV. But when she tried to walk forwards – or when people started asking uncomfortable questions about her condition – she started to flail her limbs, jerk her body, and speak with a bizarre accent. Supposedly, startling sounds, hip-hop and techno made it worse, but Coldplay made it better. They have a lyric about being "stuck in reverse ... and I will try to fix you," which is pretty hilarious if you're a terrible person.
Anyway. For once in history, Bill O'Reilly came through as the voice of reason. Doubtless a sign of the apocalypse. On 16 October the O'Reilly Factor interviewed Leigh Vinocur, an emergency medicine doctor from the University of Maryland. She explained how the head neurologist at her university had explained to her that "a couple of movement disorder specialists had been looking at this video, and they all really feel that this is possibly psychogenic, meaning that it isn't caused from the flu, it isn't caused from the vaccine. It doesn't mean she can help herself, it doesn't mean it's voluntary, she obviously has some problems, but in fact he told me they're using it to illustrate for their neurology residents a psychogenic movement disorder."
Feeling the heat, Fox 5 / WTTG covered their ass by interviewing Dr. Stephen Grill of the the Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center of Maryland, who sounded the same note: "I haven't examined her, I haven't met with her or anything. But in viewing the videotapes, the way she walks does not appear to be a true dystonia. And the speech as well - it's more of a stuttering speech, which is not common in dystonia ... based upon watching the video it appears more like what we call a psychogenic movement disorder. And what this means is that the mind or the brain is sort of playing tricks on the person to bring out these movements."
Random Internet people started harrassing the dystonia community about Jennings' case. Dystonia is a real syndrome from which people really suffer, and the dystonia community wasn't happy to be dragged into such a mess. The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation said, "Because of the concern of individuals with dystonia as to whether or not to get a flu shot because of this reported case, we have sought the opinion of dystonia experts on this case. Based on the footage that has been shared with the public, it is their unanimous consensus that this case does not appear to be dystonia."
Neurologist, blogger, podcaster, and skeptic extraordinaire Steve Novella wrote, "The movements and symptoms that Ms. Jennings displays on the public videos I have seen ... are not compatible with the diagnosis of dystonia, or any other movement disorder. Dystonia is one type of involuntary contraction of muscles. It can be reduced or exacerbated by certain movements or positions, and there are “task specific” dystonia, such as writer’s cramp, that come out only with certain activity. Jennings does not display the type of movements that are consistent with dystonia. Her speech and movement are, however, very suggestive of a psychogenic disorder." He criticized media reports on the case as credulous and sensationalistic.
Nail in the coffin
Once the Internet was buzzing with this story, a guy named Rene Najera got on the case. He's an epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health, but he gets antsy when introduced that way – so we're quoting him here strictly ex officio! Anyway, Najera found Jennings' case report in the "Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System," which tracks this kind of thing. Her VAERS report reads in part, "The admitting neurologist felt that there was a strong psychogenic component to the symptomology, and made a final diagnosis of weakness."
We're going to Hell
Enter the quacks
On 15 October, two days after WTTG / Fox 5 aired their first story on Jennings, they reported that Generation Rescue, the notorious anti-vax nutcases led by Jenny McCarthy, had taken up her case. Generation Rescue referred her to a Dr. Rashid Buttar, a quackish osteopath known for his use of dangerous alternative medicine practices and his history of ethical complaints. Buttar decided that Jennings suffered from "a number of conditions including but not limited to Acute, Viral Post Immunization Encephalopathy and Mercury Toxicity with secondary respiratory and neurological deficits." This is what he diagnoses everyone with, and it doesn't make a damn bit of sense.
"She was actually seizing, having a seizure probably every forty-five to sixty seconds. There was a camera crew there, they videotaped what was going on. She was having periods of anoxia where she stopped breathing anywhere from fifteen to thirty seconds. Her progression of her pathology was so unbelievable. They had to carry her in, and I had to wrestle with whether or not we had to admit her to the hospital to stabilize her but I knew once I put her into the hospital there was no turning back, and we had to do what we could do in our controlled environment ... That was Monday morning. By noon we had her stable to the point that she was able to breathe without going into a seizure...
"Anybody who says that this woman was dealing with a psychogenic issue, it was in her head, they are– we don't even have to address it because they're just going to embarrass themselves. Because when you see the video of her when she came in, when she was seizing, when she couldn't breathe, when she was going through fifteen to thirty second lapses of– physically incapable of ventilating, anybody who says that, they will be literally laughed at. They're gonna lose any realm of respect, if they had any, and those statements are already being made all over the Internet. I was sent two different links from friends of mine that I had asked to pray that God guide me in the right manner and to help this patient as well, as best as we can ask the Creator to help and guide us. These people sent me links saying these unbelievable people are already going out, the doctors are going out there and saying that you know, this woman, it's in her head, it's this, it's that, she's faking it. ... They have to distance themselves from the truth because they know there's no way they can deal with the fallout."
"She came in this morning she felt better, looked better, but still unable to talk. We continued with our treatments, and I told [her] once we got ready to hang the DMPS and the EDTA and some of the other, the MTEs that are certain IVs that we do, I told her that now the magic should start, prepared her for what I expected to happen...
"It's not just chelation but chelation was definitely a part of it ... we had to the first day stabilize her because she was in a hyper-responsive mode and so we had to stabilize her. We gave her a couple of different IVs to stimulate the lymphatics to help build her nutritional status up because I knew that she hasn't been eating. I couldn't even do an exam on her without her having seizures so, we basically prepped her, we got her ready we got her stable, and then the second day was more aggressive treatment, where we were hitting her for natural forms of antivirals in IVs - you know which one I'm talking about that's one of them - and then on top of that there was a couple of other things including the chelators, we gave her two different chelators, and then IV antioxidants. ... The best I could have hoped for yesterday, she did 20% more than that. Today, my gut told me that by Wednesday this woman will be back. I was wrong, it happened today...
"You can see the incredible progression, this woman was in such severe respiratory stridor, her bronchioles were going into spasms because of the toxicity from, part of it could be the attenuated virus, certainly some of it was the mercury, but her whole system was starting to shut down. And she told her husband she didn't think she had that much left to live. I told the president of Generation Rescue that if he hadn't gotten her to me when he did...
It's a plot, I tell you, a plot!
Jennings, or whoever is handling her these days, started a website to promote her story and advocate "true informed consent," which appeard to be distinguished from regular "informed consent" by the presence of nonsensical, unfounded claims about vaccine toxicity. On 4 November she posted a video thanking her supporters, in which she shows no apparent symptoms of dystonia.
Novella to the rescue
Steve Novella was quick to point out something he'd posted before the Buttar "cure" had become public: "Jennings is now in the hands of the Generation Rescue anti-vaccine quacks. I predict that they will be able to “cure” her, because psychogenic disorders can and do spontaneously resolve. They will then claim victory for their quackery in curing a (non-existent) vaccine injury." Novella referenced Dr. Buttar's disgraceful professional history, explained once again that Jennings' symptoms were best explained as psychogenic illness, and exposed Buttar's scientific and medical claims as nonsensical:
"If Jennings really had dystonia or any biological brain injury from toxicity, removing the toxin might prevent further progression and allow the slow process of recovery to begin. But brain damage does not immediately reverse itself once the cause is removed. It is possible for dystonia to be a side effect of certain medications, and it can immediately resolve once that medication is stopped or reversed. But in that situation we are dealing with an effect of an active blood level of a pharmaceutical agent – something which is inherently reversible. We are not dealing with damage or injury."The whole affair has now come full circle. To scientists and skeptics, this is an unfortunate story of a young woman with a psychogenic illness who unfortunately was exploited by some headline grabbing media and the anti-vaccine movement. To the anti-vaccinationists and the right-wing conspiracy health-freedom nuts, this is yet another story of an injury at the hands of evil vaccines, and all attempts to figure out what was really happening here are just lame attempts by the medical establishment to cover their behinds."
"Further, it is highly implausible that Jennings (even if she received the highest dose of thimerosal from the flu vaccine – 25 micrograms) had any mercury left in her system from the vaccine she received in August. Mercury from vaccines is removed naturally within days, and would not be hanging around in significant amounts two months later.
"However, now Jennings herself, and Dr. Buttar, report that Jennings began to improve while still sitting in the chair and receiving her chelation therapy, and within 36 hours her symptoms were completely gone. First, let me say that I am very happy Ms. Jennings’ symptoms have resolved. Hopefully now she can just go on with her life. But to me, this impossibly rapid recovery is a dramatic confirmation that her symptoms were psychogenic to begin with. It is simply implausible that brain injury from mercury toxicity could be reversed so quickly – especially when you consider that Dr. Buttar had Jennings at death’s door.
- Desiree Jennings blog
- Flu Fears, Vaccine Fears, and Cheerleader Desiree Jennings’s Story (usnews.com)