HOW THE ANTHRAX VACCINE
RUINED MY LIFE
Thu Aug 2 09:33:35 2001
A prisoner in his own body
SUGAR GROVE, Pa. Thomas J. Colosimo joined the Air Force nearly 11 years
ago dreaming of seeing the world and building a strong future for himself.
Now, he wonders if he has a future at all.
After taking the anthrax vaccine, Tom Colosimos health and spirit
quickly started to deteriorate.
Still just 29 years old, his once-powerful physique is so withered and frail
he must walk with a cane. His boyish looks are marred by bruises and scars,
the result of the falls he takes when he unexpectedly passes out. Its
gotten so bad hes resorted to wearing a hockey helmet around the house.
Life for Colosimo consists of sitting and eating. He sleeps poorly, lives in
dread of moments when he slips into delirium, he stumbles over words, his
body fails him daily. He has become, he says, a prisoner in his own body.
But unlike sufferers of the mysterious Gulf War illness, whose doctors cant
pinpoint a specific cause for their maladies, Colosimo has medical problems
linked to the anthrax vaccine, as publicly acknowledged by Marine Corps Maj.
Gen. Randy West, senior adviser to the deputy secretary of defense for
chemical and biological protection.
But as soon as more vaccine is available, program officials say the
mandatory-inoculation effort will resume. They say the vaccine is safe and
effective, and insist that allergic reactions are no more common with this
vaccine than with any other.
Good days, bad days, no work
That doesnt matter much to Colosimo. The fact that thousands of others have
taken the shots with no ill effects doesnt help his situation. I never
thought Id get social security at age 28. I never thought Id never be able
to work again.
Even on good days, its hard just to leave the house. Mildly hot weather
can make him pass out. Once an amateur weightlifting competitor, Colosimo
now gets winded pulling his wheelchair out of his pickup truck.
Today is a bad day. A fresh red scar extending above his right eye reminds
The injury happened two nights ago, probably from a fall. Colosimo cant
remember exactly what happened a common occurrence these days. His wife,
Tracy, said she woke up in the morning to find her husbands face caked with
dry blood and his right eye swollen shut. A trip to the emergency room
revealed hed suffered a concussion, too.
Colosimos good days have been few and far between since he received his
fourth anthrax vaccination in September 1999, the same month he married
Tracy. Three months later, he began suffering from fatigue, sores on his
head, tunnel vision and his first blackouts. To date, hes blacked out more
than 700 times.
His symptoms now include bouts of delirium, panic attacks, explosive and
unexpected loss of bowel control, low blood pressure, depression, memory
loss, cognitive difficulties and chronic fatigue.
Colosimo said he also suffers from sleep apnea, which causes him to stop
breathing in his sleep up to 60 times an hour. So he must sleep with an
electronic device over his nose that senses when he stops breathing and
forces air into his lungs.
Then there are the side effects of the many medications Colosimo takes to
control his primary medical problems. Tracy Colosimo said that a steroid her
husband takes to elevate his blood pressure has rendered him impotent now,
and eventually hell become sterile.
I cant have sex now anyway, Tom Colosimo said, the hurt in his voice
mirroring the wounds on his face. Ive been fighting this so long.
Tightening the grip on his cane, he searched in vain for the right words.
Its been so long dealing with anger now, Ive accepted it. When I put my
anger aside, I feel better, he said. His eyes welled with tears.
After that fourth shot, Colosimos health deteriorated so rapidly that he
soon was unable to do his job as a nondestructive aircraft inspection
He spent most workdays behind a desk because his co-workers feared hed pass
out on the job and get seriously hurt.
By August 2000, Colosimo and his family had complained so much and so loudly
that he was sent from Utah to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington,
D.C. He was admitted for anthrax intoxication, according to hospital
Two months later, the Defense Department admitted that Colosimos illness
was a result of his inoculations. For the first time, the government had
publicly acknowledged the shots had caused serous health problems for a
Under questioning in October 2000 by members of Congress about reported
health problems among people who received anthrax vaccinations, West said of
Colosimo, that of all the people that were here today, there was only one
person that has a medical diagnosis that directly links it to the vaccine,
and that was only a portion of his medical problems.
Defense Department statistics compiled through June 5 list only 14 people
whose serious adverse events certainly were caused by the shots, while two
other cases were listed as probably being caused by the vaccine. Thats out
of 1,578 people who reported mild to serious health problems to the Vaccine
Adverse Event Reporting System.
The Anthrax Vaccine Expert Committee, which makes the determinations, lists
cases as serious that involve death, hospitalization, life-threatening
illness or permanent disability.
Of the 16 cases, all the people are listed as having returned to duty and
none are listed as being medically retired due to their ailments. Colosimo
is not on the list despite Wests testimony.
I think theyre trying to make the vaccine seem safer than it really is,
Colosimo said of the numbers. He estimated that he and his family alone have
corresponded with at least 100 people suffering serious health problems they
believe are due to the vaccine.
Some days I feel like Im getting better, and some days I feel like Im
getting worse, Colosimo said while sitting in his mothers home in
northwest Pennsylvania July 9. Ive come close to suicide, but I lacked the
guts to pull the trigger. Ive stopped taking my medication hoping it will
Colosimo was granted medical retirement from the Air Force in January with
60 percent disability. That means he gets $812 a month, less than half his
E-4 pay. Car payments, child support for a daughter not living with him and
health-insurance co-payments gobble up more than half of each check.
Thats not enough for us to get a place of our own, Colosimo said.
Tracy Colosimo cant get a job because somebody has to be with Tom
constantly. So he and his wife divide their time between their parents
homes in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
If not for our parents, wed be out on the streets, she said.
Neighbors in the close-knit community here, along with others who have heard
of Colosimos plight, have raised $10,000 for him, and he solicits donations
to help with his medical care on his personal Web site.
Colosimo said he desperately wants a job but, on most days, his condition
allows him to leave the house only for short periods. And the smells of
cleaners, colognes, paint and other items that he might encounter in public
places can trigger his bouts of delirium.
Nights are particularly stressful for Tracy and her in-laws because Colosimo
sleeps only one to four hours at night. When he gets up, he might pass out
or slip into delirium and wander outside like a sleepwalker while the family
sleeps on unknowingly.
Tracy said police search teams have found Tom bloody and covered with his
own vomit and feces; another time he was found bruised, badly cut and
unconscious on a country road.
Thank God nobody ran over him, Tracy Colosimo said.
Tom grudgingly lives with the pain and scars of such incidents. But its
been harder to live with the indignity he feels afterward.
Its worse when he loses bowel control or passes out in a public place.
He sighs in frustration trying to explain how it all makes him feel, but
then slumps his shoulders and he looks to his wife. She sums it up for
him: Do you know how embarrassing it is to wake up with 50 people around
Oddly, cigarette smoke hasnt been a problem, so smoking is one of his few
pleasures. And while its unhealthy, Tracy Colosimo said doctors havent
tried to make Tom quit because it helps elevate his low blood pressure, the
cause of his blackouts.
Colosimo said working on his Web site on a neighbors computer is one of the
few things that makes him feel productive. On it, he details his health
problems since taking the anthrax vaccine and shares information with other
current and former military members concerned about the anthrax vaccine.
The site has had more than 2,600 visitors.
Theres someone out there like them thats sick. Theyre not alone or a
freak, Colosimo said. Its nice to know youre not the only one out there
Sometimes I read what these other people are going through, and I realize
there are people a lot worse off than me he said, noting one female Army
helicopter pilot he met at Walter Reed who was so emaciated she was down to
She says that when she swallows crackers, its like swallowing razor
blades, Colosimo said.
Hes also personally taken his message to lawmakers, having testified before
the House Committee on Government Reform in October and in June to state
legislators in Massachusetts, who are considering a bill that would protect
Massachusetts National Guard members from having to get anthrax
Colosimo said he sees the effort in Massachusetts as the best shot to stop
mandatory vaccinations because other states might follow suit.
Its just a matter of time before they get [the vaccine production line] up
and running, and there are 18 more biological-warfare vaccines and an AIDS
vaccine in the works, he said. I feel that if we make enough noise and get
enough people together, we will win.
Later, after her husband goes to take a nap, Tracy Colosimo laments the
change in her husband from a vibrant young man to one worn out and
embittered by his ailments. He was upbeat and very friendly, just the
person everyone wanted to be around.
Once an active couple, usually spending evenings at the gym and weekends
hiking or doing other outdoor activities, today they are homebodies.
Hes depressed most of the time, she said. It just seems like he lives in
a shell because hes afraid hell be hurt or fall in public.
It eats at him to not be the man he once was and be able to do the things
he did. hes lost his sense of self.
Its a miracle my husband and I are still married, she said. He didnt
plan on marrying me and my adult children.
Though her son is stoic in discussing his health problems and his treatment
by the Defense Department, Graham isnt so quiet.
She picketed an Air Force recruiting office in August 2000, getting media
attention that she believes prompted the Air Force to send Colosimo to
But its been a struggle ever since, Colosimo said.
Colosimo said he had to fight to get Walter Reed to provide him a cane and
the helmet, and he couldnt get a military lawyer to represent him when it
came time for the Air Force to decide on his disability.
Colosimo won only partial disability retirement pay because the service
didnt factor all his problems into the decision. His chemical sensitivity,
bowel problems and adjustment disorder mixed with anxiety and depression
were not factored in, according to recommendations of the Air Force
physical-evaluation board that considered his case.
Colosimo applied to receive disability compensation benefits from the
Department of Veterans Affairs which he believes would cover those
conditions the Air Force doesnt and grant him full disability pay in lieu
of retirement pay.
Jim Moreino, veterans service center manager for a regional VA office, said
July 24 that a decision on Colosimos disability could be rendered within a
If Colosimo gets the full disability benefit, hed receive about $2,200 a
month and possibly $300 to $400 more for his wife, a stipend for being Toms
In addition, hed get a lump-sum payment of the difference between his VA
benefits and what he got from the Air Force since January.
If that happened, we could get what we really want, Colosimo said.
His wife finished the sentence for him: independence.
David Castellon can be reached at (703) 750-8655 or HREF="mailto:email@example.com (David Castellon)">E-mail
David E. Parsons firstname.lastname@example.org
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THE VACCINE REACTION
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