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East Tennessee teen hospitalized for vape-related illness

Two doctors told him it was a virus, but he knew something else was wrong when the coughing got worse and he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

The Knox County Health Department confirmed Wednesday that it had found a case of respiratory illness associated with vaping in the county, and a local teen said there may be more cases out there, including himself.

Harrison Myers is 19 years old.

“I started vaping when I was about 16, 17 years old,” he said.

Last week, he stopped vaping for good.

“Hopefully I’ll influence others to change their life,” he said.

It started with the symptoms of a stomach flu: diarrhea, fever, throwing up, coughing.

After two doctors told him it was a virus, he knew something else was wrong as the coughing got worse and he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

That’s when he went to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

“I got my lab results back, and they said my lab results weren’t good at all,” Myers said.

It was the CT scan that gave him an answer.

“They showed me the inside and the back of my lungs, and it looks like hundreds of pieces of broken up glass,” he said.

After four days in the hospital, and without a real name for what Myers has, doctors told him it was linked to vaping.

“It’s such a new case they didn’t know what to call it,” he explained.

More specifically, it was linked to cartridges he was using that were not bought from a vape shop.

Myers said he was using THC carts, which aren’t legal in Tennessee, so you can’t buy them directly from the source.

“You buy these from people off the streets. Anywhere. You can find these anywhere,” Myers explained.

Because of that, you can’t be sure what’s inside.

“People make these,” he said. “They put, what I’ve heard, butane, lighter fluid, other chemicals and stuff inside of these.”

People like Myers smoke them without question.

“I trusted it enough to put it in my body and not listen to anything anybody ever told me,” he said.

Until now. Myers threw all his e-cigarettes and carts in the trash. A lot of his friends did, too, after seeing what he went through with his illness.

He has a message for other teenagers like him.

“Stop. Put it down. Put it down while you can, before it’s too late.”

He said ETCH has been in constant contact with him since he was discharged Monday. Myers will have to have follow-up appointments as doctors continue to watch the long term effects of vaping on the body.

The Centers for Disease Control reported there are more than 190 similar cases across 22 states, and one death has been reported in Illinois so far.

“Given the activity in the rest of the U.S., we’ve been expecting a case and believe more are likely,” KCHD Senior Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said in a news release Wednesday. “It is still early in the investigation, but it’s important for the public to be aware of the symptoms and the potential link with e-cigarettes.”

Buchanan told 10News that about 30% of high school students in Knox County said they vaped.

Dimitris Agrafiotis is the executive director of the Tennessee Smoke Free Association, an advocacy group that promotes vaping. He said he believes vaping itself is not the cause and misinformation is being spread.

He said vaping is meant for adults trying to quit smoking cigarettes.

“I think it’s irresponsible to vaguely accuse vaping as the culprit in this particular instance,” he detailed. “Vaping has been around since 2007. I have been using the product since 2010, almost nine years now. It helped me quit smoking. I think it’s very irresponsible for government and for media to be presenting this as a vaping issue.”

The CDC’s ‘bottom line’ agrees e-cigarettes have one potential benefit for that particular group: It can be potentially beneficial as a complete substitute to cigarettes for adult smokers wanting to quit who aren’t pregnant.

The CDC believes e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes in this case, but still emphasize ‘less harmful’ does not mean it’s safe or without risks.

For non-smokers, young adults and teens in particular, the CDC warns e-cigarettes are not safe because of the potentially harmful substances and other unknown risks that are still undergoing long-term studies, and advise against using them.

In a letter, the CDC’s director weighed in on the first death in an outbreak of severe lung disease specifically in people who reported vaping. The CDC is still investigating to determine any causes, with doctors saying they have yet to identify a specific product or compound across all cases to definitively point to.

Doctors said patients reported seeing their symptoms gradually start, including difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal distress. They noted many patients reported using THC-containing vape products like Myers.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said the death and illnesses reinforce the ‘serious risks associated with e-cigarette products.’

“CDC has been warning about the identified and potential dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping since these devices first appeared. E-cigarettes are not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women, or adults who do not currently use tobacco products,” he said.

And the Tennessee Smoke Free Association agrees: it is important to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of kids and teens who haven’t smoked.

Shannon Smith/NBC10