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Teen survives double lung transplant after vaping injury


A Michigan teenager, described as an athlete and otherwise healthy, has survived a double lung transplant following lung damage attributed to vaping.

A patient with a severe vaping injury arrives at Henry Ford Health System where he received a double lung transplant. Courtesy Henry Ford Health System

A patient with a severe vaping injury arrives at Henry Ford Health System where he received a double lung transplant.

“On the 15th of October, the transplant team performed what we believe is the first double lung transplant done in the nation for a vaping-injury victim, who is a teenager,” Hassan Nemeh, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon with the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said during a Nov. 12, 2019, press conference to discuss the surgery.

“What I saw in his lungs is nothing that I have ever seen before and I have been doing lung transplants for 20 years,” Dr. Nemeh said. “There was an enormous amount of inflammation and scarring, in addition to multiple spots of dead tissue. The lung itself was so firm and scarred, we had to deliver it out of the chest. This is an evil that I haven’t faced before.”

He noted that the patient, now 17 years old but 16 when the surgical procedure occurred, is doing well in his recovery, and although the patient and the family are not yet ready to be identified, the health system made the decision to tell the story of the surgery as a cautionary tale.

“The reason we wanted to bring this case to public attention is because of the epidemic of e-cigarettes and vaping-induced lung injury that we are witnessing in the country,” including more than 2,000 cases of injury and 39 deaths that have been confirmed from lung failure related to e-cigarettes and vaping that have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

“Our teenage patient would have faced certain death if it weren’t for the lung transplant happening,” Dr. Nemeh said, adding that, while vaping and e-cigarettes are being presented as a benign habit, there are potentially very deadly consequences that Henry Ford Hospital System wanted to highlight. He described the patient’s lungs as essentially being nonfunctional with very little air being able to be passed into them, with the destruction to his native lung from pneumonia and dead tissue almost completely covering his lungs.

This story began with a morning call on Oct. 1 from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan alerting the Henry Ford Health System that they had a patient on life support because of complete lung failure who was not showing signs of healing and asking if the Henry Ford Health System could possibly handle a lung transplant for this patient.

Dr. Nemeh said that the patient was on a nontransportable extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine at Children’s. Dr. Nemeh and the team at Henry Ford determined that the situation for the patient was so dire that they put a portable ECMO machine into the trunk of Dr. Nemeh’s car and delivered it to Children’s in order to facilitate the transfer of the patient for transplantation surgery.

A CT scan of the lungs of the patient with severe lung damage shows a very limited area of ventiilation before his double lung transplant Courtesy Henry Ford Health System

A CT scan of the lungs of the patient with severe lung damage shows a very limited area of ventilation before his double lung transplant.

Victor Coba, MD, a critical care specialist and medical director of the ECMO program at Henry Ford, said: “We evaluated the irreversible lung damage that had occurred associated with vaping. Working closely with the lung transplant team and noting that his lungs would not recover, we worked to get him on the lung transplant list.”

Lisa Allenspach, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the lung transplant program at Henry Ford, reiterated the need for caution when it comes to vaping and e-cigarette use.

“Vaping-related injuries are all too common these days and, actually, our adolescents are faced with a crisis,” she said. “I believe we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg. Making sure that our teens understand the danger of vaping is of paramount importance.”

She did not disclose specific details about the teen’s use of vaping/e-cigarette products, so it is unknown whether the injury was caused by standard off-the-shelf products or if it was related to vaping cartridges containing tetrahydrocannabinol.

“We are here today to beg the public to pay special attention to the steps that were taken in this case,” said Nicholas Yeldo, MD, anesthesiology and critical care specialist with Henry Ford. “Without the heroic measures that were taken in this case, this young patient would have died. There is no doubt about it. ... This was not just an unlucky one. This is happening way, way too much.”

Dr. Allenspach was positive that the young patient could live a long life, noting that there are those who have received lung transplants have survived for 15-20 years and second transplants are possible.

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