Anti-Vaccine Activists Stole These People's Stories. Now They’re Speaking Out.

This anti-vaccine propaganda movement has completely misrepresented stories of tragedy and medical emergencies. The victims are done being quiet about it.
Claire Bridges of Tampa, Florida, had both legs amputated last year due to complications from COVID-19.
Claire Bridges of Tampa, Florida, had both legs amputated last year due to complications from COVID-19.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

Claire Bridges had survived, but just barely. She’d flatlined three times. Her legs were gone below the knee. The surge of drugs pumping through her system, combined with the shock of her circumstance, had resulted in a bout of psychosis in the hospital. Months later, she would still sometimes have to remind herself, This is real. I’m real. I’m here.

Bridges had survived COVID-19. She contracted the disease in January 2022, and a congenital heart condition called aortic valve stenosis had exacerbated the virus’s effect on her body. Tingles in her extremities quickly turned into a critical lack of blood flow. Surgery, life support and dialysis followed. Rhabdomyolysis — damaged muscle tissue poisoning Bridges’ blood — necessitated amputation.

She left the hospital last March and quickly learned that by doing so she’d be admitted into a growing club of people whose tragedies and medical emergencies have been turned into anti-vaccine propaganda. Thanks to a conspiracy theory-hawking film and a corresponding social media movement, anyone who had, as the saying goes, “died suddenly” — or in Bridges’ case, escaped a sudden death — regardless of the cause, was a target. Now, as their ranks swell and their frustration mounts at seeing lies about themselves and their loved ones, some are speaking out, refusing to stay silent as their experiences are hijacked.

Bridges’ fight for truth began with the first articles about her discharge from Tampa General. The New York Post wrote about Bridges’ experience, and a summary of the article appeared on the paper’s Instagram page, noting that she was a young model who, “despite being fully vaccinated,” had suffered serious symptoms from the virus. One day prior, The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, had referred to her as a “double jabbed aspiring model.”

There was blood in the water, and people began writing comments that cast doubt on the media narrative. “Despite ? Or because of ?” one commenter snarked. “Clot shot,” said another, referring to blood clots supposedly resulting from being vaccinated. And another: “I’m so glad this thread is full of people who know the Rona ain’t had nothing to do with that poor kids amputation!”

“I had at least five or 10 people text me and say, ‘Don’t look at those comments,’” Bridges recalled to HuffPost.

Before she had the chance to tell the world the truth about what had happened to her, she was yet another cautionary tale for millions of people around the world. Don’t trust the vaccine, they’d say. Did you see what it did to that model in Florida?

‘Backhanded Sympathy’

Bridges calls it “backhanded sympathy” — people spamming her social media accounts with comments like, “You poor thing,” and “Fauci did this to you.” Others tell her she’s brainwashed, or that she got what she deserved for getting vaccinated.

At first, she was baffled by the effort to steal her story for anti-vaccine propaganda. But the mischaracterizations of her experience got worse, and she got angry.

On Twitter, anti-vaccine accounts omitted Bridges’ heart condition and focused on her vaccination status. At least one compared a photo Bridges took in the hospital to an illustration of the occult deity Baphomet, referring to the vaccine as “a death cult.” The popular anti-vaccine blogger James Cintolo, misspelling Bridges’ name, commented, “vaccine was supposed to prevent severe disease, however, Clair had both legs amputated, myocarditis, and kidney failure anyway.”

“When I saw [Cintolo’s] tweet, that was the first time I felt true rage — that someone was telling my story, they didn’t even ask permission, they weren’t even telling it correctly, and they were using it to push a personal agenda,” Bridges recalled. “You’re forgetting the fact that I’m a human.” She did an interview with Snopes to try and correct the record.

Claire Bridges has had her story used inaccurately as vaccine misinformation.
Claire Bridges has had her story used inaccurately as vaccine misinformation.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

The worst perpetrator, though, was “Died Suddenly,” a conspiracy theory film — produced by the far-right internet presence Stew Peters, who had previously made a video in which someone speculated that the vaccine contained snake venom — based on the belief that the COVID-19 vaccine is a global population control device created by elites to intentionally harm recipients. The hashtag #diedsuddenly is now regularly affixed to nearly any medical emergency in the news, from the collapse of football player Damar Hamlin to the death of soccer journalist Grant Wahl, regardless of what information is known about the incident.

A year after Bridges’ hospitalization, the Died Suddenly Twitter account told its version of her story. Bridges “was a 21 year old model when she received the mRNA vaccine,” the account tweeted, adding two syringe emoji. (Bridges was actually 20.) “Clair ended up having legs amputated due to blood clots, and now suffers from myocarditis & kidney failure. #diedsuddenly.”

According to Twitter’s statistics, the tweet had been viewed nearly 2 million times as of Monday afternoon, just three weeks after it was posted. For Bridges, the false narrative stings.

“It’s frustrating to have your story stolen from you,” she said.

Died Suddenly

The influence of Peters and Died Suddenly, his social media movement and film, cannot be overstated, particularly given their timing. “Died Suddenly” the film made its debut on Died Suddenly, the Twitter account, on Nov. 21 last year, two days before the site’s new owner, Elon Musk, said he’d ended Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policy.

Within days, the film had received endorsements from major players on the far right, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Candace Owens. The film has been viewed 17 million times on the alternative video hosting site Rumble, according to the site’s figures. Its influence is evident: There has been a sevenfold increase in the use of “died suddenly” or a misspelling of it in the two months since Peters’ film came out, The Associated Press reported, citing a Zignal Labs analysis.

Peters did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment, aside from posting a reporter’s email on social media and writing, “the Pharma-Owned elites are desperate to destroy all evidence related to their bioweapon.” Later, he suggested a second round of Nuremberg trials and public executions. (Neither HuffPost nor its parent company, BuzzFeed, is owned by a pharmaceutical company.)

At its foundation, Died Suddenly’s ideas are not particularly new: It trades on a whiff of truth — that in rare cases, some vaccines have caused an inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, shortly after vaccination — and spins it into a global plot to destroy humanity as we know it.

The film’s interviewees, mainly embalmers without formal medical training, describe gory-looking footage of blood clots being removed from dead bodies. However, doctors and industry associations have noted that blood regularly clots in dead bodies, and if anything, anecdotal evidence suggests such clots have been observed in COVID-related deaths among both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. COVID-19, several studies have shown, itself elevates the risk for dangerous clots.

“It’s frustrating to have your story stolen from you.”

- Claire Bridges

The fact checks of Died Suddenly’s claims are seemingly never-ending. Even some right-wingers have grown irritated with the film. A reviewer in The New American, a magazine owned by a subsidiary of the far-right John Birch Society, wondered if Died Suddenly’s obvious errors were intended “to discredit those with legitimate concerns about Covid vaccines.”

The film’s true innovation is its shamelessness, where it sinks to depths few have gone before. That’s because in order to drive home its central theme — sudden death — it features long runs of tragic headlines and footage of unrelated medical incidents to shock viewers.

During a montage of Google results showing news of the sudden deaths of purported vaccine victims, filmmakers included an actor whose sister said he died from a fall, a teenager who took his own life, and a cloud gaming service, not a human being, that one article said had “died” when Google discontinued the product. It also references Kim Jung Gi, a popular artist who died in October; his representative told HuffPost that the filmmakers “never did a fact check” before including him in “Died Suddenly.”

At one point during the film, as an interviewee spoke about the (false) supposed connection between vaccines and birth defects, filmmakers flashed photos of three babies with birth defects who were actually born before the existence of COVID-19; the death of one of these babies had made national headlines at the time. Separate footage the film used, of surgery to remove a supposed vaccine-induced blood clot, was actually posted by a Florida-based surgeon in 2019.

The parent of one 17-year-old whose sudden death was featured in the film told the AP that, months later, he was still searching for closure. He said his son wasn’t vaccinated.

The Died Suddenly Twitter page isn’t any better: In November, it tweeted about Jackson Mohr, a 13-year-old Texan whose sudden cardiac death occurred in early 2021, before the vaccine was even available for his age group. Died Suddenly tweeted multiple times about the recently deceased model Jeremy Ruehlemann, but failed to update its followers when Ruehlemann’s father said he died of an apparent overdose.

‘He Never Met A Stranger’

Dolores Cruz’s son Eric died in a car crash in 2017. But for “Died Suddenly,” the more relevant date was apparently Oct. 6, 2022, when Cruz published an essay about grief in HuffPost’s Personal section, inadvertently becoming a Google search result at just the right time to end up in a “Died Suddenly” montage.

“An article I wrote about my son was being used in a way that wasn’t true,” Cruz told HuffPost in a recent interview. “To me, it’s a way of creating fear.”

Family photos of Eric Cruz.
Family photos of Eric Cruz.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Courtesy Dolores Cruz

Still, Cruz doesn’t regret writing publicly about her son.

“I knew, when I put a story out through HuffPost, that, yeah, all of these people are going to see it, and you never know what people are going to do with that, so it’s kind of a risk,” she said. But the upside is undeniable: “I wanted my story out to help people in similar situations.”

Eric isn’t around to comment on his appearance in “Died Suddenly.” But his mother had a sense of how he’d feel.

“He did not appreciate fakeness, trying to get attention for attention’s sake,” Cruz said. “He believed in the truth.”

Todd Wilkerson was getting ready to start a dream job on the faculty at the University of Kansas when, as The Kansas City Star put it, “he died suddenly at age 38.” That, too, was enough to cast him in “Died Suddenly,” even though an autopsy wasn’t clear on Wilkerson’s precise cause of death beyond, generally, a heart attack or blood clot.

“He never met a stranger,” Wilkerson’s sister, Britani Lewis, told HuffPost. “When he walked into a room, he took over. He had a thing for grabbing people’s attention. He was a natural-born comedian.”

A father of five, Wilkerson obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, writing his dissertation about the barriers facing African American student-athletes seeking mental health services. “For most of my life I have struggled with feeling if I belong, if I’m smart enough or if I will ever be successful,” he wrote in the paper’s acknowledgements, before pages of thanks to his family. “I can truly say that the completion of this dissertation proves that I am all of those things.”

Lewis acknowledged she and others in her family were worried about her brother getting vaccinated. Wilkerson’s nickname was “Biggie” for his stature — 800 pounds at his heaviest, she said, though he’d cut 300 after weight loss surgery. But given KU’s vaccination requirement and his comorbidities, including an enlarged heart, Wilkerson ultimately decided to get the vaccine, Lewis said.

Nonetheless, Wilkerson’s appearance in “Died Suddenly” was shocking, especially for his mother.

“Nobody asked,” Lewis said. “And for millions of people to be able to view it and know nothing about him — that’s her first child. That’s a sensitive spot for her.”

‘It’s My Story’

Peters, the string-puller behind Died Suddenly, hasn’t always been an anti-vaccine propagandist. A former rapper and bounty hunter, he started “The Stew Peters Show” — a podcast that he uploads to Rumble and Cozy.TV, the streaming service of white nationalist Nick Fuentes — after pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from an alleged drunken episode at home in 2021 that had moved his concerned wife to call the cops, The Daily Beast reported.

His opposition to vaccines has been a hit with his audience: After Peters targeted a Minnesota hospital that had allegedly refused to treat a COVID-19 patient with ivermectin — the antiparasitic drug that had become a popular, but ineffective, folk treatment for COVID-19 — the hospital received tens of thousands of calls, Mother Jones noted in a recent profile. It’s also presumably lucrative: Died Suddenly’s description on Rumble has a CVS-receipt-length list of sponsors, including advertisements for gold, supplements, CBD and an air filter said to protect from “Vaccine Shedding, chemtrails, and toxic air.”

But Peters has also branched out into bigoted and violent content that plays to a far-right base, in addition to QAnon-centric material about blood-drinking globalists. In a speech at Fuentes’ “America First Political Action Committee Conference” last year — at the same event where Fuentes praised Hitler — Peters called for Anthony Fauci’s execution and the deportation of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and said he wanted to “crush liberals.”

Peters urged his audience at the event to match the energy of their enemies, whom he described as “this deep-state cabal … these uniparty, globalist, sold-out, demonic satanists that want to kill your kids and to lock up white people forever.”

Despite his fringe appeal, or maybe because of it, Peters keeps powerful company. Past guests on his show have included Republican members of Congress, current and former county sheriffs, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, and Arizona state legislator Wendy Rogers, who bragged of an endorsement from Peters on her website.

So Peters isn’t just some crank. He’s a crank with powerful allies and a big, motivated, sometimes aggressive audience.

For the people whose stories he has misused, that might be intimidating. But the stakes are high enough that they’ve decided to speak out.

“It’s a little scary to talk about anything that’s controversial, but if I believe it’s the truth, then it needs to go out, and I have to have the courage to do that,” said Cruz, who also recently spoke to the AP about her experience.

For Bridges, who is still publicly documenting her long recovery on Instagram, life is looking up. She recently underwent open-heart surgery to address her heart condition and feels like she can breathe for the first time in years. She could keep her head down and avoid the controversy, but something in her couldn’t sit back as others told her story for her.

“I don’t like when people speak for me. I’ve always been like that,” she said. “I don’t want my truth to be misconstrued. It’s my story, and I deserve to tell it, and for it to be heard.”

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