AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Dozens of people in the Midwest have been hospitalized with severe lung injuries in the past month. It's unclear what exactly is causing the issue, but the common link appears to be vaping. Bram Sable-Smith reports.
BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: When Dylan Nelson woke up from his coma, he found himself in a Burlington, Wis., hospital. Every time the 26-year-old coughed, fluid would come out of his lungs.
DYLAN NELSON: It was, like, really painful. I couldn't breathe. I was choking.
SABLE-SMITH: Nelson came to the hospital days earlier. When he called his sister for a ride there, he told her he couldn't breathe. He had pneumonia. His blood oxygen level was just 10%. Doctors put him into a medically induced coma. Nelson doesn't remember any of it.
NELSON: I don't even remember getting to the hospital.
SABLE-SMITH: Instead, it was his family that witnessed the ordeal. At the hospital, his mother, Kim Barnes, told a nurse she worried she'd never see her son again.
KIM BARNES: And she said, we already treated an 18-year-old like this. And she said, and we know of two more cases in Milwaukee.
SABLE-SMITH: Like her son, all of them had been vaping in the weeks and months leading up to their hospitalizations. Dylan Nelson had been vaping THC oil, but that was not the case with all of the patients. The cluster was first detected by the Wisconsin children's hospital in Milwaukee, where eight previously healthy teenagers were hospitalized with severe lung damage. Michael Gutzeit is the hospital's chief medical officer.
MICHAEL GUTZEIT: It became apparent that the one preceding factor was that the patients had been vaping.
SABLE-SMITH: Alarmed that this could be a health issue the public needed to know about, Gutzeit alerted the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
THOMAS HAUPT: This is a perfect example, Bram, of how public health should be working.
SABLE-SMITH: Thomas Haupt is an epidemiologist with the department, which put out an alert asking clinicians to be on the lookout for similar cases to the ones at Children's Hospital. Three weeks later, there are 15 confirmed cases and 15 more suspected ones in Wisconsin alone. The investigation into the cluster is ongoing, but Haupt says the common link appears to be vaping. And similar cases have been reported in Minnesota and Illinois.
HAUPT: So it seems like it's going to be more than a Wisconsin issue; it might actually be a national issue.
SABLE-SMITH: Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is helping five states investigate the issue - Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and California. And some of the vaping cartridges used by patients before they were hospitalized have been sent to the Food and Drug Administration for testing. Dylan Nelson was let go from his job temping in a factory after missing work for the week he spent in the hospital. He got a new job within days, working 12-hour shifts at a different factory.
NELSON: It was very tough that first week, and it was worth it
SABLE-SMITH: And he says he stopped vaping altogether.
For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith in Madison, Wis.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIATUS' "DAWN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.