CHICAGO — As national health officials continue to sort out the e-cigarette health crisis, a survivor speaks to WGN News and shares how the popular habit blew up her life and landed her in intensive care struggling to breathe.
Allison Herger thought she was bettering her health. After 28 years of smoking regular cigarettes, a habit she tried to quit four times, Herger made the switch to vaping last year.
“I loved the buzz and I loved smoking,” she said. “But I hated the smell and the taste.”
Her product of choice was flavored Juul cartridges.
“I was like, I’m in love and this is what everybody was doing,” she said. “Honestly it seemed like it was working it was great. My skin got better, my teeth got better, my cough went away. All signs were pointing to it was a good idea for me.”
And she vaped marijuana about once a week purchased from dispensaries, not on the streets, in states where recreational use is legal.
“Buying everything over the counter, whether it was nicotine or marijuana vaping, it was all legal,” she said. “So I didn’t match the statistic. And then I got sick.”
At first, she said, it felt like the flu - chills, a fever, she was achy and tired.
Herger visited her doctor, who sent her to the emergency room concerned Herger was suffering with pneumonia.
But within 24 hours, Herger’s oxygen levels plummeted.
Dr Khalilah Gates is a pulmonary critical care physician at Northwestern Medicine Pulmonary and took care of Herger.
“She got to the point where she needed to come to ICU,” Gates said.
In the medical intensive care unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Herger was given oxygen and heavy doses of steroids to knock down the inflammation building in her lungs. At the same time, her respiratory rate was increasing.
“I was woken up by two different doctors and they told me what was going on with my heart racing,” Herger said. “(They said) ‘We think we’re going to have to intubate. It’s probably time for you to call somebody.’ So I of course panicked. Am I calling someone to watch me die? Or am I getting my affairs in order?”
“She was one of the first cases where I personally felt like if we don’t get control of this it will progress and progress quickly,” Gates said.
Gates treated four of the 10 patients who have come to Northwestern with vaping-related lung illnesses.
“We know how to treat lung inflammation so what is baffling to us is what is causing this,” Gates said. “And we’re doing the research and CDC is trying to figure that out. So that part is baffling.”
It’s a mystery researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and prevention have been trying to solve since the number of patients with what is officially called e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury spiked in September. So far, 2,290 cases and 47 deaths have been reported. Most recently, Vitamin E acetate, an additive found in some THC vaping products, has been identified as a chemical of concern. But pulmonary and critical care physician Dr Clara Schroedl said she sees patients who vape only nicotine.
“Many of these cases somewhere in the 80 percent range have had a history of vaping THC, but that leaves 20 percent that say they’ve only vaped nicotine,” Schroedl said. “So that leaves us confused about what the actual underlying cause is. We don’t know exactly about the vaping but something about heating up the liquid in the vaporizer, and whatever product is in there, whatever additives flavorings, whatever substance is in there, something is causing a reaction that as you inhale it deep down into the lung with that vapor that its causing an injury.”
“The minute I started to come to and function, I immediately started crying because I thought this is vaping this is my fault maybe I could have prevented this?” Herger said.
Nearly two months after her 8-day hospitalization, Herger had another X-Ray to check her progress. Her lungs are more clear and so is her new mission.
“I’m hoping that everybody realizes no matter what they are vaping that it’s a really bad idea to do it until they understand what is causing this for sure,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
The American Vaping Association defends e-cigarette use saying adult users should not be scared off from using store-bought nicotine products, even though that’s exactly what Herger used.
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