‘Vaping illness’ is the scary new threat gripping smokers

Melissa Malamut
September 4, 2019

New York Post

After spending two weeks in a medically induced coma in July, a Nassau County teen started college this week, but he’ll need help getting to class.

The 18-year-old, who asked The Post not to share his name, is one of more than 215 cases of “vaping illness” recently reported in 25 states, with clusters in Utah, Milwaukee and Long Island, and two deaths so far. Earlier this week, 19-year-old Kevin Boclair, from Philadelphia, made headlines when his vaping habit landed him in a medically induced coma and potentially in need of a double-lung transplant. The CDC recently warned the public about avoiding “street” or “black market” vaping products, and cities and states across the country are proposing bans on flavored e-cigarettes in an effort to prevent vaping companies from targeting kids by flavoring their products like candy.

“I’ve seen a handful of cases over the last eight weeks,” Dr. Melodi Pirzada, a pediatric pulmonologist at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island, tells The Post. “We’re calling it chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs due to chemical toxin inhalation. A vaping-associated lung injury. It’s a completely new entity.”

When the anonymous Long Island teen started feeling ill, he didn’t tell anyone.

While at the movies with his girlfriend, the teen “felt a lot of nausea and a bad headache,” he says. “I knew something was wrong. When I got home, I started throwing up really bad, with really bad lower back pain.”

After going to urgent care and then the ER, the previously healthy teen was admitted to NYU Winthrop for pneumonia. Soon, he was transferred to the ICU, Pirzada says, because “he was requiring more and more oxygen and needed to be intubated” and connected to a ventilator. His X-rays and CT scans showed cloudiness in his lungs that kept getting worse.

“The doctors said my son could die, and this was as serious it could get,” says the teen’s 60-year-old father. “The doctors were baffled. Everything came back looking like it was pneumonia. My wife was so upset she broke down crying. My daughter was devastated. She wouldn’t leave his room.”

But it was the patient’s sister who made the discovery that may have saved his life.

“My daughter came up with the idea that it may have been a Juul, that there was some sort of cartridges in his room,” the father says. “I didn’t know he was Juuling. She found a cartridge in the trash, and we took it to the hospital for analysis.”

Except what his family found in his room wasn’t a Juul or an e-cigarette device at all. It was THC oil, the teen admits. He was vaping marijuana, and it wasn’t his first time. In Wisconsin, 89% of patients with lung disease said they’d been vaping THC. The teen got his from his weed hookup. And it’s easy for someone to tamper with products and accessories.

“You can buy the empty cartridges and put a label on it,” the teen says. “You can throw anything into the cartridge. People think it’s safer because it’s not the dry form of marijuana, but it could be worse for you.”

A typical vape cartridge includes solvents that dissolve the product for inhaling, whether it’s nicotine or something marijuana-derived (THC or CBD). In the cartridge tested by doctors at NYU Winthrop, they found vitamin E oil and THC, Pirzada said.

Still, they don’t know exactly what is making people ill. Is it the ingredients in the vapes, the physical act of vaping — or both?

“What makes this all the more difficult is that many patients won’t admit to vaping cannabis because it’s illegal in New York,” Pirzada says. “They think they’ll get in trouble. I saw one patient and I asked him multiple times about vaping, and he got scared and never followed up.”

‘It’s very new and very scary.’

After a few harrowing weeks on heavy doses of steroids, the Nassau County teen survived. He lost 21 pounds and was in the hospital for nearly a month. He says he’s still feeling weak and has issues getting around.

“If he starts giggling he’ll have shortness of breath,” his dad says. “It’s difficult for him to walk for a long period of time.”

For longtime health care providers like Pirzada, this new lung illness means she and her colleagues need to rethink how they talk to patients.

“It’s very new and very scary,” Pirzada says. “I’ve been a pediatric pulmonologist for 25 years now and I have not seen anything like this. As health care providers, we tend to ask, ‘Do you smoke?,’ and now we have to start asking, ‘Do you vape?’ “

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