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Local News

New Lenox mother speaks out after daughter's serious vaping-related illness

Teen’s mother wants other parents to learn from her daughter’s experience

Piper Johnson, 18, lies in a Colorado hospital bed. Her parents say she suffered a "sudden and severe lung illness due to vaping."
Piper Johnson, 18, lies in a Colorado hospital bed. Her parents say she suffered a "sudden and severe lung illness due to vaping."

A New Lenox mother is speaking out against vaping after her teenage daughter’s near-death experience.

Ruby Johnson said she wants to help parents realize that the spread of vaping among high school students, and even younger students, is dangerous. Ruby said she was driving Piper to the University of Northern Colorado to drop her off for her freshman year of college last month. Piper was coughing and complained it hurt to take a deep breath.

Ruby said she initially didn’t think much of it as they made it into Nebraska, but after Piper’s condition began to worsen, they decided to drive the rest of the way to Greeley, Colorado, and check into the local hospital. She said the decision turned out to be a blessing.

A doctor there said Piper had early pneumonia, although a radiologist initially read her chest X-ray as clear and unremarkable. From there, Ruby said, Piper’s condition further deteriorated, and she was sent to the emergency room. A CT scan showed what doctors called diffuse pneumonia, meaning that instead of the infection only occurring in one part of the lungs, it was all over.

As Piper’s condition seemed to worsen and the pain brought her to tears, one of the doctors said her symptoms had fit the profile of what others had experienced around the country.

As of Aug. 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 215 cases of severe pulmonary disease associated with the use of electronic cigarette products had been reported in 25 states. Three people, including one Illinois resident, have reportedly died because of the vaping-related illness.

Doctors gave Piper a steroid, which her mother said probably saved her life. Ruby said that, doctors said that if she had waited to bring her daughter in, she might have become unresponsive.

Michael Gallagher, the family’s attorney, said in a news release that Piper became the first confirmed case of “sudden and severe lung illness due to vaping” in the state of Colorado. She spent a week in the hospital and was able to start her freshman year.

Ruby said her daughter had admitted she was vaping again before being hospitalized. The 18-year-old started when she was a sophomore at Lincoln-Way Central High School and had been using nicotine products on and off over the next few years.

Her parents took action by confiscating the products from Piper, grounding her and actively making sure she wasn’t vaping after she was caught.

But Piper told her mother that she was using up until a week before their drive to Colorado. She had stopped because it began to hurt to take deep breaths, and now urged her mother to share her story so others could learn from her experience.

“I’m really proud of her because from the minute it happened she took 100% responsibility of the choices she made,” Ruby said.

Ruby said the lack of basic knowledge among teenagers about the potential dangers of the vaping products is troubling.

“You have a generation of kids who have been actively targeted,” she said.

Now Ruby said she wants government to take action.

Lincoln-Way School District 210 said it enforces its policy among students and discussed the dangers in its health curriculum.

The family’s attorney said they weren’t looking to take legal action.

“Not at this point – we didn’t want to make it come across as driven by a lawsuit, we just wanted to get the message out,” Gallagher said.

While Ruby has only just begun her advocacy to raise awareness about the dangers of vaping, she decided to first take her message to Facebook in a lengthy post Aug. 30, telling her daughter’s story. As of Friday, the post was shared more than 500,000 times.

“You always have the opportunity to turn your mess into a message,” she said.

Piper is majoring in psychology at the University of Northern Colorado.

“We’re relieved to hear that Piper is recovering and glad to have her. ... In addition to being a smoke-free campus, we commit to a culture of care through a support system that provides individual attention for any student,” a spokesman for the university said.

Illnesses such as Piper’s continue to puzzle health care professionals. Dr. Aaron Weiner, director of addiction services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville thinks it isn’t THC or nicotine alone that may be contributing to the mysterious vaping-related respiratory illnesses. It’s the toxins in the vapor aerosol, he said.

“The number, type and concentration of the toxins are different depending on what they’re buying and how they’re using it,” Weiner said.

That includes how quickly the person is heating the vape liquid, which can actually change the nature of the chemicals, he said. One of the chemicals used in some e-cigarettes is diacetyl, a chemical that imparts a butter flavor and is used in some brands of microwave popcorn, Weiner said.

In the early 2000s, multiple news outlets reported that some workers in microwave popcorn processing plants developed bronchiolitis obliterans after inhaling diacetyl, dubbing the disease “popcorn lung.”

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website, diacetyl is safe in foods but may cause severe respiratory illness when inhaled. According to its 2015 study, diacetyl was found “in more than 75% of flavored electronic cigarettes and refill liquids” that the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers tested.

This is especially upsetting to Weiner because he said many people who vape are either underage or “very, very young.”

“Flavors like cotton candy and root beer are not something a 45-year-old man will be drawn to,” Weiner said, adding, “[The FDA has] been banning flavors in cigarettes for a decade,” he said.

Weiner is referring to the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. That same year, the FDA banned all flavors except menthol and tobacco, according to fda.gov. But vape liquids are not tobacco, Weiner said, and that’s the loophole.

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