Sedric McClure was hopeful after walking the halls of Maple Grove Hospital with his son, Elijah, who had been admitted with chest pain and nausea that had a suspected link to vaping. Dragging an IV pump and laboring for breath, his 21-year-old son had resolved to quit the habit after he got out of the hospital.
Then came the panicked call from his son at 2:30 the next morning, Aug. 30.
“Dad,” McClure recalled his son saying. “They’re taking me into the ICU. They’re going to put a tube down my throat.”
The young adult is one of as many as 450 people across the nation with suspected or medically confirmed cases of vaping-associated lung injuries. The outbreak this summer has been linked to at least six deaths, and has sent otherwise healthy teens and young adults into intensive care. Minnesota has reported one death and 35 confirmed or probable cases.
Father and son haven’t been able to speak since that frightening phone call, as Elijah McClure was placed on mechanical ventilation to take over for his injured lungs and moved to the intensive care unit at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale.
Which leaves Sedric McClure with many questions. Why was his son still vaping? Was he using over-the-counter nicotine cartridges or mixing in off-the-street concoctions? And when would his lungs gain enough strength that the former football and basketball star could breathe on his own?
While he waits for answers, McClure said he wants everyone to know his family’s story — risking personal humiliation and criticism over his lack of awareness of his son’s vaping — so that other parents can talk to kids, and kids can get over the misconception that vaping is a harmless alternative to cigarettes.
“It shocked me to my core to watch a relatively healthy young person go through so much pain,” he said.
Survey data shows an explosion of e-cigarette use among Minnesota teenagers, with half of high school seniors saying they’ve tried vaping. Among youth who regularly use the devices, one-third have used them to consume marijuana or its primary psychoactive component, THC.
The concern for health officials is that even legal forms of e-cigarette juice contain unregulated amounts of nicotine and, in some cases, harmful metals and additives. While most with vaping-related illnesses have used illicit THC, often in addition to legal nicotine, leaders of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association have asked people to stop all vaping until the causes of the current outbreak can be identified.
Michigan has declared a public health emergency and banned all flavored vaping products. Minnesota has not taken such steps; interviews with lung-damaged patients in this state so far have pointed toward illicit THC as a culprit. Other state health agencies are looking closely at additives to vaping juice, including vitamin E acetates that are used as thickening agents.
McClure said he can’t rule out the possibility that his son used THC, but he only found lemonade-flavored nicotine cartridges in his son’s room. Elijah had tried vaping in high school, then kept the habit a secret when his parents urged him to stop. At one point, he confided in his mom that he tried to quit, but couldn’t.
Some legal vaping products contain much more addictive nicotine than cigarettes, and all of them present hazards caused by heating e-cigarette juice into vapor, the father said. “When you heat this stuff up to turn it into a vape and then inhale it, that’s not a good idea, no matter where you get it from.”
Elijah started to feel ill after driving home from the Minnesota State Fair opening day Aug. 22. Body aches and cold symptoms were quickly joined by extreme nausea and stomach pains.
Doctors suspected an infection and prescribed antibiotics, which has been typical for people across the country who are eventually diagnosed with vaping-associated lung injuries. Ruling out infections is key to the diagnosis.
Within days, Elijah couldn’t drink much more than a tablespoon of fluids and he was hospitalized. He received steroid medications to strengthen his lungs.
Elijah McClure first went to North Dakota State University to study and play football after graduating from Park Center High School, but later transferred to Augsburg University. He has switched interests from social work to business as well. Through writing and hand gestures with his father, he expressed his hope to get out of the hospital and return to college this fall.
Doctors switched him this weekend from an anesthetic that left him heavily sedated to an alternative that left him more alert and able to write clearer messages. He watched the Vikings game with his dad. And since then, doctors have reduced the intensity and oxygen concentration levels of the ventilator, suggesting that his lungs are growing stronger.
McClure said he’s frustrated that his son vaped and concealed the habit, but won’t waste time scolding him when they can finally talk. An assistant dean at Macalester College, McClure said he does want his son to understand the consequences of risky actions, such as his parents missing work and the mountain of medical bills they now face, and the unknown long-term effects of his injury. But mostly he wants his son to get healthy and learn.
“The only thing that a father can hope for when raising children is this, ‘All I want you to do is survive your mistakes,’ ” he said. “ ‘If you can survive your mistakes, you have a shot at coming into adulthood relatively whole.’ This situation here, you know, is a prime example and it’s a hard example.”