Questions surround cause of vaping-related illnesses as local man hospitalized

As the federal government proposes a crackdown on vaping, local hospitals are now seeing cases of vaping-related illnesses.

President Donald Trump announced a new enforcement proposal Tuesday that would require e-cigarette companies to take their flavored products off the market.

This comes amid a reported outbreak of mysterious respiratory illnesses across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted at least 450 cases in 33 states, including six deaths, which are all linked to e-cigarettes.

One of those cases involves a local man who just spent more than a week in the Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital.

“He came in with some shortness of breath,” said Dr. Shawn Varney, an emergency room doctor at University Hospital and professor of Emergency Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. “And during the course of his hospital stay, he deteriorated.”

After originally showing up with flu-like symptoms, the young man started breathing more rapidly and complained of a lack of oxygen, said Dr. Varney. “Over a short period, he wound up needing to have assistance on breathing. He had to have a breathing tube and was put on a ventilator.”

As a medical toxicologist and director of the South Texas Poison Center, Dr. Varney had a hunch about what may have been contributing to his illness. He thought it might be connected to vaping.

“But by the time we were considering this as a diagnosis, we had already intubated him, so we couldn’t ask him,” he said. “We had to wait until after he recovered over that week and had the breathing tube removed,” and that’s when he said the patient confirmed it. “We had a come-to-Jesus talk. We said, ‘This is what we’re seeing. What are you doing?’ And he went, ‘Ok, yeah. I use all the time.'”

Dr. Varney said the patient also fit the same demographic as the majority of the other people coming down with these vaping-related illnesses. “These are young kids in their 20’s, no medical problems, absolutely no reason to come down with such a severe disease.”

The cause of the recent nationwide outbreak remains a mystery, but officials have said most were vaping THC – the source of marijuana’s high – or a combination of nicotine and THC.

“We suspect that a good source would be coming from the streets,” said Dr. Varney. “Specifically marijuana. THC. People obtain the product and then they put it in their own chambers so they can vape.”

“Off the street, unregulated THC cartridges,” said Brandon Berube, general manager of Hazel Sky Smoke Shop off Fredericksburg Road. “I pray there is more clarification in the future.” Clarification about the difference between store-bought cartridges and modified street-bought e-cigs.

“Store-bought is fully regulated. You’re going to get a good clean product,” he said. “With street-bought, you’re getting stuff people made in their bath tub.”

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