Samantha Wendell could not wait for her wedding this summer. For nearly two years, the 29-year-old surgical technician had been meticulously planning every detail, from the seating chart to the Tiffany blue floral arrangements, her fiancé, Austin Eskew, said.
Wendell and Eskew wanted to start a family as soon as they got married, Eskew, a correctional sergeant, said. The couple, of Grand Rivers, Kentucky, hoped to eventually have three, maybe four, children.
So when the Covid-19 vaccines came out, and some of Wendell’s co-workers said the shots caused infertility — an unfounded claim that has gained ground despite top reproductive health groups refuting it — she “just kind of panicked,” Eskew, 29, said.
Wendell decided they should hold off on their vaccinations. It was a choice that cost her her life: Instead of attending her wedding, which was supposed to be on Aug. 21, her family is now planning her funeral.
The funeral will take place this weekend at a church in Lisle, Illinois, close to where Wendell’s parents live. It was the church where she and Eskew were going to have their wedding, and the same spot where Wendell’s parents had been married.
“We dug out our wedding pictures,” her mother, Jeaneen Wendell, said. “I was so looking forward to seeing the comparison pictures.”
What was going to be a time of celebration instead turned into a harrowing six weeks as the family watched Wendell, an outgoing woman who loved animals and easily became friends with everyone she met, struggle with Covid-19, they said.
Wendell’s fiancé, her mother and a cousin told NBC News they were sharing her story because they were certain she would have wanted other people to learn from her mistake.
“Misinformation killed her,” said Maria Vibandor Hayes, 39, a cousin who lives in New Orleans and said goodbye over FaceTime before Wendell died on Sept. 10. “If we can save more lives and families’ lives, then this is the gift that she left for us to deliver.”
Despite her initial hesitancy, Wendell herself had recently changed her stance on the vaccine.
As the delta variant spread, causing cases to rise, and restrictions were instituted for those who were unvaccinated, she concluded in early July that it made sense to get vaccinated ahead of the couple’s honeymoon to Mexico.
She and Eskew got vaccination appointments for the end of July. In the meantime, wedding preparations continued: dress fittings, menu tastings, and a bachelorette party in Nashville, Tennessee.
Just after returning from Nashville, and less than a week before they were scheduled to get vaccinated, Wendell started feeling sick.
“She could not stop coughing,” Eskew said.
Both of them tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving them ineligible for their shots until they had recovered. It was an opportunity that Wendell never got.
Neither Wendell nor Eskew had any underlying health conditions, Eskew said. He spiked a high fever and was able to treat his Covid symptoms at home, but Wendell continued to decline. About a week into her illness, as she gasped for air, her fiancé knew she needed to go to the hospital.
Doctors tried with limited success to stabilize her. On Aug. 16, five days before she was supposed to get married, she was put on a ventilator. The wedding was postponed, with hopes it could happen later in the year.
But Wendell did not regain the ability to breathe on her own. Last Friday, after multiple doctors told her family that she had no chance of survival, her loved ones made the excruciating decision to disconnect her from life support.
'This could have easily been avoided'
Vibandor Hayes remembered Wendell as someone who “gave the sweetest hugs” and was always laughing. When Vibandor Hayes called her to say goodbye, she said she was hoping for a miracle.
“Not being able to see that smile and hear that giggle was so gut-wrenching and traumatic,” she said. “All I could repeat was, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’”
Wendell’s death has left Eskew feeling lost. The two had been together since college, meeting during freshman year orientation, and were excited to begin life as husband and wife.
“She had so much influence in everything that I do,” he said, recalling a time when he went to buy groceries earlier this week, and found himself unsure what to get, since it had always been a joint task he shared with Wendell. “We didn’t really ever do anything without the other in mind.”
The myth that Covid vaccines can affect fertility is pervasive. Earlier this month, ESPN reporter Allison Williams made headlines when she announced that she would be stepping away from her job, which requires employees to get vaccinated, because she and her husband are trying to conceive a second child and she does not want to get the shot.
There is currently no evidence that the Covid vaccine or any other vaccine causes fertility problems in men or women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends the vaccine for everyone who is eligible for it, including “people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future.”
For women who are already pregnant, benefits of receiving the vaccination outweigh the risk, the CDC says, based on data showing that pregnant women are at greater risk of getting severely ill from Covid.
Before she was put on the ventilator, Wendell asked doctors in the hospital if she could receive a Covid vaccination, her mother said.
“It wasn’t going to do any good at that point, obviously,” Jeaneen Wendell said. “It just weighs heavy on my heart that this could have easily been avoided.”