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Vaping THC eyed as cause of local man’s life-threatening sickness | Front Page

A week after a 22-year-old Chippewa County man was found unresponsive in his residence and hospitalized for two days, his family suspects vaping a THC substance laced with other, harmful chemicals was the cause of his life-threatening illness.

Authorities on Oct. 2 rushed Devyn McCormick to HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls after finding him in a trailer in the community of Bateman around 12:30 p.m., unresponsive and foaming at the mouth, said Tiffanie Janzen of Cadott, McCormick’s mother.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead at that point. We had no clue,” Janzen said Thursday, adding that when she arrived at the scene, she saw McCormick had been intubated, allowing him to breathe.

“Then it just all crashed down on me and clicked … he’s not protecting his airway, he’s not doing what he needs to do to breathe on his own,” said Janzen.

Emergency medical staff administered Narcan, a narcotic overdose treatment, at least twice in the ambulance, but McCormick didn’t respond to the treatment, Janzen said.

A toxicology screening showed just marijuana was in McCormick’s system at the time, and his blood-alcohol level was 0.01, Janzen said: “They tested for narcotics, opioids, Xanax, all the street things people get their hands on to take. It was all negative.”

A friend of McCormick’s − one of at least 100 people who came to the hospital that night waiting for news of McCormick’s condition − told Janzen that McCormick had smoked a cartridge containing THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the substance in marijuana that causes a “high.”

Those who use e-cigarettes commonly use cartridges of vaping fluid with their devices. Metal coils heat the fluid, which typically contains nicotine, producing an aerosol. Users inhale, then exhale the aerosol.

Some cartridges contain THC oils or substances. The cartridges can often be re-filled with other substances, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A rash of recent U.S. hospitalizations and deaths have been linked to vape cartridges that contain THC.

Doctors in Chippewa Falls couldn’t test for whatever substance was in the cartridge McCormick used − since a vaping device was never recovered from McCormick’s residence, said Janzen and Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk.

“We really don’t have a 100% answer,” Janzen said. “The only thing we know is that over the United States, people are falling ill after vaping these fake THC cartridges … That’s the only thing he did that would have caused what happened to him, because the symptoms are all the same.”

Searching for answers

Janzen believes the cartridge McCormick used was said to be a THC product, but also likely contained harmful chemicals.

As of Tuesday, 1,299 people have reported lung injuries related to vaping in the U.S., and 26 deaths have been confirmed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (No vaping-related deaths have been reported in Wisconsin.)

Most people who have been sickened report using THC products. About 70% of patients are male. Most are under 35 years old.

But the reason behind the lung injuries is still a mystery. The only common thread in all of the deaths and hospitalizations has been e-cigarette or vaping products, according to the CDC.

No single product or substance has been linked to every hospitalization and death. But THC products “are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the outbreak,” the CDC stated.

In Wisconsin, 73 “confirmed and probable” vaping-related cases have been reported as of Thursday, according to the state department of health services.

Most patients developed severe breathing problems and were hospitalized. Some had to be put on ventilators in order to breathe, the department said. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, a cough, nausea, vomiting, fever and weight loss.

McCormick was released from HSHS St. Joseph’s hospital on Oct. 4, two days after the incident, but still has pneumonia.

“For six to seven hours he had apnea,” Janzen said. “All of a sudden his respirations would drop, then you’d just see just a line and you’d know he wasn’t breathing. A family member had to shake him and remind him to breathe.”

With McCormick’s permission, she posted Monday on Facebook about the incident, urging parents to talk to their children about THC vaping products. Her post drew region-wide attention and was shared over 29,000 times. Dozens of people have contacted her with their own stories of lung injuries they believe are related to vaping, Janzen said.

“I think people are concentrating on vaping nicotine products,” Janzen said. “That’s not what we’re talking about … I do believe this is a completely different crisis by itself.”

Behind the investigation

The Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department found no vaping device or evidence that indicated McCormick had been vaping, Kowalczyk said.

Somebody could have disposed of the cartridge before law enforcement arrived, but the sheriff’s office doesn’t have a conclusive answer, he said: “There are so many different possibilities of what did happen, but we seized no evidence to support vaping was the cause of his issue.”

The office hasn’t seen many vape devices containing THC, but “that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t going on,” Kowalczyk said: Often people simply don’t advertise that they’re selling it, and law enforcement may not catch wind of it until someone is injured or overdoses.

In recent months, possible black-market operations have been uncovered in Wisconsin. Four people, including a 43-year-old woman and her sons, have been arrested in Kenosha County in possible connection with a “large-scale” black-market THC vape business, the Associated Press reported in October.

The Stanley Police Department confiscated two vape devices that contained THC substances in less than a week, and one of the device’s users became sick, the department said Wednesday in a Facebook post.

“Receiving a fine or criminal referral for your actions as a student is one thing but the possibility of facing expulsion from your school needs to be an enormous eye opener,” the department posted.

While McCormick’s family doesn’t have proof his illness is due to to vaping THC, Janzen believes without a doubt that it’s the cause.

“I almost lost my son,” she said. “This has kind of gotten brushed under the carpet, and somebody needs to be a voice.”

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