TYLER, Texas (KETK)- The e-cigarette epidemic is sweeping the nation, and an East Texas teen is one of the victims. 17-year-old Witney Livingston was sickened by a mysterious illness that has killed at least 7 people.
This comes days before the CDC activated an emergency center to deal with this developing problem. It’s a team usually reserved for natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and even the Flint water crisis.
Now, from East Texas to the East Coast, the CDC’s focus is on vaping.
It’s dominating the news, a national crisis affecting at least 450 people, from California to Connecticut, to right here in East Texas.
“I really hope and pray that we aren’t at the tip of the iceberg seeing all the bad things that can happen with vaping,” says Andrew Porter, with the Ascension Via Christi.
Vaping is on the rise, and as the number of teens doing it increases, so do the concerns of their parents.
“She was smoking cigarettes and I thought it was safe to smoke something else,” explains Jennifer Audas, an East Texas mother as she describes her daughter.
Witney Livingston was a typical student at Cumberland Academy, who went from a smiling teenager to relying on a ventilator to breathe in just two weeks.
“I felt like this was my fault because I was letting my kid do this because I thought it was safe, it’s not safe,” says Audas.
While lying in a Dallas hospital last week, Witney’s family says they never saw this coming.
“The doctor said that it looked like no pneumonia he had ever seen,” describes Audas.
Witney’s grandfather, Dale Perry, says it was a medical mystery for the doctors, explaining, “she had gone to the doctor because she was having a hard time breathing maybe coughing some, so they went in for a chest x-ray and they found a little spot and they thought it might be pneumonia, and then, of course, it grew from there.”
Tradition treatment for pneumonia wasn’t working, making doctors take a second look at what they believe is an illness related to vaping.
“They’re experimenting, they’re doing what most young people do and they’re invincible, and the way it has affected her is she realizes is it’s dangerous to do things that are taking a risk,” explains Perry.
The family says ‘Witney’ would vape 3 to 4 e-cigarette pods a week, which is like smoking 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes.
“Just be really be proactive with not supplying that for their kids, don’t give them money to do that. Just help them make the right choice because it could save their life. My daughter almost died.,” warns Audas.
With common symptoms that mask the real risks of something much more dangerous, doctors are left in the dark when it comes to knowing exactly what is causing teens like Witney to become sick.
“The message that vaping is safer than tobacco use is a common misconception. I think we’re all finding out now that there’s more to it than just cigarettes versus vaping,” says Perry.
Witney isn’t the only one. Over in Abilene, another woman is lucky to be alive.
“I was never going to take advantage of my lungs again,” says Sherie Canada.
After vaping for three years, Canada thought she had the flu or a stomach virus, landing her in the hospital with her lungs filled with fluid, in a medically induced coma.
“I can’t. I can’t fight any longer. I can’t breathe. My heart was just racing out of my chest. I just couldn’t breathe anymore. I just wanted to give up,” describes Canada.
She was never a smoker, but after trying e-cigarettes, it was a choice she regretted, explaining, “I just got addicted to the flavors and the nicotine and I liked it,” says
Now, she’s hoping her story will save lives.
“I believe I was given a second chance for a reason,” says Canada.
After the first vaping related deaths, the FDA created a graphic ad, to highlight the dangers. Causing lawmakers to take a stand.
“This has been an issue that has been brought to the forefront of my consciousness,” continues Governor Gavin Newsom, (D), California, “family members of their friends that are increasingly concerned and anxious about what they are hearing and what they are seeing in schools large and small all across this state.”
“Get the customer addicted and they will keep coming back. That – tobacco, cigarettes, and now these vaping e-cigarettes. It’s still nicotine. And nicotine is what’s addictive,” says Governor Andrew Cuomo, (D) New York, during a press conference.
President Trump agreeing, stating, “vaping has become a very big business as I understand it like a giant business in a very short period of time, but we can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t have our youth be so affected.”
Affected by something that’s confusing to people who don’t vape, and even people who do.
“There are 7,000 flavors right now, and we don’t know what’s in all these flavors,” says Dr. Steve Ramirez, with Baylor Scott & White.
Many e-cigarettes are re-fillable, containing materials health experts say should be a cause for concern.
“We know that you’re not being exposed to the same types of carcinogens, smoke and carbon monoxide, but we know that you’re being exposed to a highly addictive material,” explains Dr. Ramirez.
As the list of chemicals found in e-cigarettes is still being researched, Texas officials need help from the medical community.
“We would want to know what they can tell us about the patient. Who are they, their age, male or female, how long they have been vaping, how much they vape at one particular time, what products they use, what was the substance they were vaping, was it nicotine, THC,” says Chris Van Deusen with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Although the product comes in different shapes and sizes, the mechanics are the same. The battery inside fire electronic currents, heating up an oil containing nicotine to temperatures of 450 degrees.
Next, the device converts the oil into an aerosol, which is then inhaled into the lungs.
“That nicotine content is really for an adolescent brain, is actually more addictive to a teenager than an adult,” says Dr. Michelle Bowden, a pediatrician.
The National Institute of Health and Human Services, states the number of teens vaping has doubled, from 11 percent to over 20 percent., causing health officials to be on high alert.
“We don’t know what’s going on and until we can get a better handle on it, vaping is something that really people need to think twice about,” warns Van Deusen
A statement leaving many parents wondering what’s the attraction? Worried the ads are targeting their children.
“The advertisements are reaching the younger generation and misleading them that’s it’s good and effective when in fact it’s not,” says Angela Ruban, an East Texas parent.
Research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse shows for every ten teens who vape, 7 of them were influenced by advertising.
The appeal is that its decreet has no smell, and can be easily masked, especially in school.
“The odor and the smell is not there, they can do it anywhere. Reach down under their desk, behind their backs and they can’t smell it, it’s convenient,” says Ruben.
When Ruban found out her son was vaping, she worked to put a stop to it.
“The minute I found out, it was just on my radar to educate him and make sure he understood that it was something that was not accepted,” explains Ruben.
While the CDC is urging consumers to avoid e-cigarettes, the American Vaping Association disagrees, stating “evidence continues to point to street bought vaping cartridges containing THC or synthetic drugs.
Highlighting how e-cigarettes can be modified, allowing the user to open the pod and add ingredients so they can vape what they want. Including THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
“Nobody is asking for your ID when you purchase a THC pen cartridge,” explains John Doneson, a recovering vaping patient.
Vaping is a topic with many unknowns. The Senior advisor with the FDA says the agency is “working closely with the CDC and State Health Officials.”
With regulations, policies, and procedures are still being discussed, the Trump administration is working to finalize a ban on flavored e-cigarettes while the world is waiting to see what’s next for the vaping industry.
Experts warn it can be tough to spot what products are fake, and which are real. Encouraging those who do vape, to purchase the product from a licensed vendor.