British Columbia

B.C. man who had rare, extreme reaction to COVID-19 vaccine still waiting for exemption, government support

Ross Wightman was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome after he was vaccinated with AstraZeneca last year. He spent two months in hospital and has been unable to work since — or get a vaccine exemption — as he tries to access slow-moving government support.

Ross Wightman was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome last year following dose of AstraZeneca

A man surrounded by hospital equipment lies in a hospital bed, looking at the camera.
Ross Wightman was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome shortly after his first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Submitted by Ross Wightman)

Ross Wightman can't help but feel isolated.

He's unable to walk like he used to, and his vaccine status means he can't even go out to watch his kids play sports. 

The father of two isn't against COVID-19 immunization — in fact, he's still recovering from his first shot.

Wightman was given a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in April 2021. Within days, he started to have excruciating back pain. Then came the tingles on the side of his face — and then, paralysis.

"It's been a roller coaster for me," he told CBC News from his home in Lake Country, B.C., just north of Kelowna.

"It hit me hard right away. I had the paralysis from the waist down, full facial paralysis. I had trouble chewing and swallowing."

Wightman was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare condition that affects the nervous system. It can cause paralysis, muscle weakness, and even death.

He spent two months in the hospital, and the condition has left Wightman unable to work as he tries to access slow-moving government support for vaccine injury.

He's also been unable to get a vaccine exemption, with health officers saying they can't prove his GBS was caused by the AstraZeneca shot — and advising him to get a second dose of a different COVID-19 vaccine. 

GBS diagnoses following a COVID-19 vaccination are extremely rare — about one in 700,000— according to data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and Health Canada.

There have been 10 reports of individuals hospitalized with GBS within 30 days of a COVID-19 vaccine since December 2020, all of whom have been discharged, according to the BCCDC. More than 10 million doses have been administered in B.C.

A man in a maroon T-shirt in a room at home with a child on his lap hugging him looks at the camera while one of his other children makes a face.
Ross Wightman is pictured with his two kids after he was diagnosed with GBS. (Submitted by Toby Wilson)

Of more than 76 million vaccine doses administered in Canada, about 0.01 per cent have had serious side effects, according to Health Canada. Most tend to be allergic reactions.

However, Health Canada says data indicates there have been higher rates of GBS in the general population since the introduction of the AstraZeneca vaccine, at 117 total events.

"It is known that rarely vaccines are associated with [GBS] as a very significant side-effect," said Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

"On odds, though, vaccines remain very safe and it remains much more beneficial to be vaccinated."

Prior to his diagnosis, Wightman lived an active life, spending much of his time in the outdoors with his kids. (Submitted by Ross Wightman)

Seeking support

Wightman has yet to receive any compensation under Canada's Vaccine Injury Support Program (VISP), which has only approved just a handful of applications nationwide.

"It's very easy to get down and frustrated, so we just keep trucking and are grateful for our friends," he said.

VISP applications have been open since June 2021. The program is designed to offer families compensation for lost wages, permanent injuries and even death. Applications are reviewed by a medical board.

Ross Wightman says he lost up to 30 pounds following his diagnosis. (Ross Wightman/Facebook)

As of Nov. 1, 2021, 400 claims had been received, but less than five have been reviewed and approved. The next round of data will be made available on June 1.

Wightman said his application has been passed around to several different case workers, but he says little progress has been made.

His wife, Nicole, also hasn't been working as she takes care of him and their kids while she navigates the application process.

"When something like this happens, we need to make sure these people are taken care of, and not left to fend for themselves," she said.

Burden of proof

Wightman spends his days at physiotherapy for two hours as he attempts to slowly regain both the strength, movement and weight he lost following his initial diagnosis. His walking has improved with the use of orthopedic shoes.

But he's yet to qualify for a B.C. vaccine exemption.

He says the medical health officer who originally reviewed his case said that while there was a temporal relationship between the vaccination and the GBS diagnosis, they were unable to prove whether it was caused by the vaccine. There was no evidence of another cause.

Over the past 19 months, Wightman has endured neurological damage and has needed wheelchairs and walkers to get around. (Ross Wightma/Facebook)

Interior Health would not comment on Wightman's case citing privacy concerns. However, it did say it generally recommends "that people who have had reactions to AstraZeneca complete their immunization series with an mRNA vaccine."

Wightman says he was told by the medical health officer to get a second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna, but he would prefer to have a vaccine exemption given the severity of his illness.

He says his doctor has also submitted a request on his behalf.

While he waits, between his condition and his vaccine status, he spends a lot of time alone.

"I can't watch the kids go play baseball, I can't watch them go ice skating," he said. "Maybe I'm becoming a little numb to it because it's a weekly occurrence, but it hurts for sure."