A Nassau County teen was vaping marijuana over the summer, when he started feeling queasy. But it wasn’t until two days later, while at the movie theater with his girlfriend, that his head started throbbing and he became intensely nauseous.
“I knew something was wrong,” says the 18-year-old, who asked The Post not to share his name.
“When I got home, I started throwing up really bad, with really bad lower back pain.”
A family member took him to urgent care, and then, when his symptoms grew worse, the ER. He was admitted to NYU Winthrop for pneumonia, but his breathing grew so labored that he was transferred to the ICU, where he was hooked up to a ventilator. His X-rays and CT scans showed cloudiness in his lungs that kept getting worse.
He spent two weeks in July in a medically induced coma.
The Long Island teen 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 Centers for Disease Control 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.”
And so when Pirzada initially treated the anonymous teen, she and her team didn’t have much to go on: After all, he hadn’t told anyone that he had been illegally vaping marijuana.
“The doctors said my son could die, and this was as serious as 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.”
“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, despite starting college this week.
“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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