Like countless others, PJ Flaherty of Little Rock first turned to vape products to quit smoking. But instead of kicking the habit, he simply switched habits.
“I was smoking my vape 50 times in five to ten minutes,” Flaherty told Channel 7 News anchor Chris May. “And I’d keep going for the whole hour. I’d go for hours on end. There was no stopping. There is no stopping.”
PJ vaped for two years. Despite occasional coughing fits and nausea, he never stopped. Until a fateful visit to his parents’ West Little Rock home in August.
“I collapsed on the couch and my neck had seized up,” he says. “My cough was uncontrollable. Shivering. There was a shooting pain. And I couldn’t say anything out loud because I was just (heavy breathing).”
He was found on the floor by his mother. She rushed him to a CHI St. Vincent urgent care clinic near their home and then to the Emergency Room at Arkansas Heart Hospital.
“I was fading in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t really retain oxygen,” PJ says. “It felt like my lungs were scalding. Like, on fire. Every breath was just pure pain. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
PJ was just 22 years old.
“I was scared I was going to die… 22 years old and they said I had the heart and lungs of a 60 year old man.”
“This is not normal for a 22 year old man who’s otherwise healthy to be feeling this way,” says Dr. Patrick Flaherty. He’s PJ’s dad, and a respected cardiologist. But even with his extensive training in medicine he had no answers for his only son’s illness. He even missed the one that now seems obvious.
“We didn’t really want to believe the whole vaping thing, “Dr Flaherty says, “because you’ve been brainwashed over the last decade really in that this is something that’s benign, it’s innocuous, it’s not anything that’s going to hurt anybody…”
During the five days PJ spent at the Heart Hospital his doctors began to focus on the possibility he was suffering with lipoid pneumonia, which is a build up of waxes and lipids in the lungs. According to the C-D-C, more than 200 similar cases have been reported around the country in recent months. All of them potentially associated with vaping.
“When a patient presents to the emergency room it’s not the first thing that pops into the emergency room doctor’s mind to say, “Are you vaping?” says Dr. Kathleen Sitarik of Radiology Associates in Little Rock. She reviewed CT scans of PJ’s chest and discovered the fluid in his lungs. While its presence could be caused by infection or heart failure – both had been ruled out in PJ’s case. So vaping became the prime suspect.
“What they’re breathing in has an oil based substance to it,” Dr. Sitarik says of E-cigarette users. “That lipoid coating is preventing the oxygen exchange from occurring.”
Dealing with what they now knew was a Vape Related Illness, doctors treated PJ with high dose steroids. He eventually regained some strength and was sent home with an oxygen tank.
“I was feeling fatigued,” he now says. “I felt like every time I laid down I felt like I could fall asleep, but I knew if I fell asleep there was a chance that I could stop breathing.”
He remains on oxygen today, and uses a C-PAP machine to aid his breathing at night.
Now both PJ and his father are taking aim at vape products, which they no longer believe are harmless.
“So you get these bottles of juice that kids or adults are buying at these shops and they might have a skull and crossbones on them and they say don’t get this on your skin,” Dr. Flaherty says. “So that sounds like a really good idea to go ahead and inhale that and put it in a vital organ.”
“The only warning that I found common in every vape business is that nicotine is an addictive chemical. We all know that by now,” says PJ. “We need to know what else is in there and what the side effects of those chemicals are.”
PJ has even produced what he calls scare videos. Unvarnished images of his recovery. He’s posted them on social media to discourage others from vaping.
“Friends from Germany, friends from Spain, friends from France, Mexico, Japan, Korea – everyone around the world who has seen my videos has told me that if they were vaping they had stopped and if they knew someone they were telling them to stop.”
As for PJ’s recovery, it’s expected to take months. It’s unclear what percentage of his lungs are functioning, and he continues to be treated with steroids.
His long term prognosis? That’s anyone’s guess.
“People who had asbestos exposure for the lungs 40-50 years ago working Navy shipyards they didn’t get their mesothelioma’s until decades later,” says Dr. Flaherty. “So we don’t know where this is going to go when he’s 42 or 52 or 62. There’s just no way to know. Something came into the market this year or within the last couple of years that has now reached critical mass. And it’s going to take some time to sort that out. Until we know more about it I would just say you gotta stop.”
Christopher May/ABC News