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Close call: Teen driver suffers seizure after vaping

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — The federal government is investigating new concerns about vaping and a possible link to seizures — an issue that’s become personal for 24 Hour News 8’s Barton Deiters.

His 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, was driving in Grandville when she had a seizure after taking a drag off a friend’s vape.

It happened around 5 p.m. Friday when Sophie was at a stop light on Chicago Drive with her friend in the car.

“She had a Suorin Air with her and I went ahead and I took a hit off of that,” said Sophie, who vaped in the past but quit several weeks earlier. “It was 50 nicotine, the highest about of nicotine you can have in a vape.”

She said she knew right away that she was in trouble.

“As soon as I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s in this?’ I apparently – I don’t remember this part – started having a seizure,” Sophie said. “I don’t remember anything from then on until I woke up in the ambulance and they were asking me what the date was and I was super confused. I didn’t know what the date was, I didn’t know where I was.”

Her friend, 18-year-old Mackenzie Clay, was in the passenger seat. She has relatives who have had seizures, so she recognized the symptoms.

“Half of her face kind of went down. She was foaming,” Clay said. “All of a sudden, her hand just went like that and she was shaking.”

Sophie is healthy and has never had a seizure before. Testing at Metro Health Hospital found no other possible causes.

Earlier this month, the FDA began a study after seeing a spike in reports of seizures.

The report contains dozens of personal accounts from across the country, many of which are very similar to Sophie’s experience. But when it comes to vaping, the science is almost nonexistent.

Among the 35 reports on the FDA website are stories of people who endured seizures of varying lengths and severity. Some of them had other medical conditions; many had none.

Spectrum Health Pediatric Division Chief Lisa Lowery says there is no oversight of how vape juices, many of which contain high concentrations of nicotine, are made and sold online and in stores.

“It could be the nicotine, it could be the toxins. It really depends on what the kids are vaping (and) how much they’re vaping,” Lowery said. “Young people and young adults taking on vaping and saying ‘Well, I’m gonna vape as a safer alternative to cigarettes,’ I really council them and say it’s not a safer alternative.”

Rodney Crainer, a clinician with Wedgewood Christian Services, says kids see vaping as relatively harmless — a perception bolstered by the way it is sold to them.

“I think it’s pretty clear that while they’re (the vape industry) doing everything they need to do to not directly put these in the hands of kids from a legal standpoint, that sounds like marketing to kids to me,” said Crainer.

“Actually, I’m seeing as 11 and 12-year-olds getting access to vaping,” said Lowery. “I think it’s good that the FDA is drawing attention to it.”

While the FDA just investigating the possible connection between vaping and seizures this month, it’s something the sheriff in Mason County has been seeing and talking about for the last four years.

“We’ve had half a dozen or so in the span of three weeks at local schools — one on a school bus, one at an after-school event,” said Sheriff Kim Cole about incidents he has seen since 2015. “What we found is that we had upwards of 10 kids locally who had experienced seizures following vaping. And of those, four or five them were flown off to Grand Rapids hospitals.”

He is glad to see the FDA taking action. Cole suspects the number of seizure cases is far higher than reported so far.

“These events were solely brought on by the chemicals that the students were injecting into the vape pens,” said Cole.

The sheriff contacted his local lawmakers and within a few months the legal age for buying vape products was raised to 18. But that has not stopped kids from getting them.

“On the spectrum of substance abuse, nicotine – while incredibly harmful – doesn’t have that acute fear of overdosing or something like that,” said Crainer.  “It does not have the stigma of cigarettes.”

To many adults, the idea of inhaling a cloud of chemicals into fragile lungs seems obviously risky.

“But you gotta remember, when you’re dealing with the adolescent brain, that is not completely formed. They have their own personal calculated, or misguided calculated risk assessment,” Lowery said. “I would like to see more studies on what is really in what’s being offered. I would like tighter regulations.”

24 Hour News 8 reached out to the owner and attorney for Wild Bill’s, a statewide seller of vaping supplies that manufactures its own juices. However the business did not respond.

Juul, the nation’s leading vape device manufacturer provided the following statement:

“We have robust safety monitoring systems in place and will vigilantly monitor for any evidence of safety issues and work cooperatively with FDA as we continue to combat youth usage and eliminate cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world.”

For Sophie, it was a seizure she had while driving that ultimately changed her mind about something she considered relatively harmless.

“I could’ve been like on the highway or something and this could have happened,” Sophie said. “I would tell them to do adequate research and to really think about what they’re doing to their bodies and potentially the long-term effects it could have.”

For more information about the FDA’s probe or to report an incident, visit the agency’s website.

Barton Deiters/