Vaping illness sends alum to ICU

More than 800 people hospitalized this year


Lindsay Fox

The Center for Disease Control is investigating what has caused some vape users to experience serious lung illnesses.

By Molly Burgener, Lake Forest High School

Marketed as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, the e-cigarette has come under intense federal scrutiny after being linked to 12 deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations this year.

Alum Frank Phillips, 19, said he spent eight days in an intensive care unit because of complications connected to vaping. For more than a week, he struggled to breathe and even move out of bed.

“I had tightness in my chest, chest pains and a fever that was spiking close to 104 degrees,” Phillips said. “After ruling everything out, the doctors concluded that it was chemical pneumonia from vaping. Zero air was going into the bottom half of my lungs.“

I had to practice walking around the hospital once I regained some strength; it was insanely difficult.”

— Frank Phillips

It took doctors days of intensive medical care to stabilize Phillips and get him back on his feet.

“They had two IVs in me,” he said. “They gave me two antibiotics, a steroid, a vitamin D pill, two iron pills a day, and a shot in my stomach every morning to prevent blood clots because I wasn’t moving. I had to practice walking around the hospital once I regained some strength; it was insanely difficult.”

Phillips said he is expected to make a full recovery and is determined to spread the word about vaping through his experience.

Many assumed that vaping was a safer way to consume nicotine, as it lacks tobacco; however, that’s not true, according to school nurse Diane Bower.

“It’s very insidious. It’s been sold as the safer and more elegant way of getting your nicotine,” she said. “You’re inhaling all sorts of chemicals that we don’t really understand the effects of yet. I mean your trachea is this size of your pinky finger. People don’t realize the damage they’re inflicting when they’ve been exposing this fragile tiny tube to God knows what.”

More than 800 cases of lung damage have been linked to vaping, according to the Center for Disease Control. Twelve people have died. This is not caused solely by nicotine consumption; illicit marijuana vape products are also believed to have contributed to this epidemic.

Scientists have found that THC cartridges contain a large quantity of Tocopheryl acetate, often used as a thickening agent in dermatological products such as skin creams. This substance, also known as Vitamin E acetate, is safe for topical use, but harmful to the respiratory system.

“Up until a couple of weeks ago, when kids started being hospitalized, most of the people I know from various age groups were vaping multiple times a day,” said one former user who asked to remain anonymous.

Physicians have advised against vaping for years to no avail as there has not been enough time for the long-term effects to become clear. Now that the data are starting to trickle in, however, many states have started banning the distribution of these devices.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also entered the fray, ordering some vape companies to suspend sales. Companies have been accused of  directing their advertising towards young adults, who comprise a majority of those seeking medical care.

“A 14-year-old boy with trouble breathing was rushed to the ER,” said a paramedic cadet attending his senior year here. “His lungs were going to collapse. We inserted a suction tube down his trachea and started pumping out liquid from his lungs.”

Despite the damning evidence, however, many people continue to use vapes in defiance of the science and the law.

“Nobody thinks it’ll happen to them,” said one student. “People underestimate how fragile your lungs really are.”

This story was originally published on The Forest Scout on September 30, 2019.