Daniel Ament doesn’t shake hands anymore. It’s too risky.
His body can’t fight the assault of viruses or bacteria that might be passed to him from something as simple as a handshake.
His immune system is practically wiped out, and it’s all because of vaping. The habit triggered a cascade of health effects five months ago that led the once athletic teen to the verge of death.
Daniel, a 17-year-old junior at Grosse Pointe North High School, is believed to be the first person in the country to undergo a double lung transplant after irreparably damaging his lungs by vaping nicotine and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that causes most of marijuana’s psychological effects.
“I played varsity sports. I had almost all A’s, and my ultimate goal was to become a Navy SEAL in the military,” Daniel told a roomful of elementary and middle school students Feb. 4 at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. “I focused a lot on my health and fitness, and due to vaping, I became very ill and all that was taken away.”
He showed the students slides of before-and-after pictures of himself.
In the before, they saw an image of Daniel’s muscles in a mirror, revealing the torso of a fit, muscular teen. The after picture exposed his dramatic transformation to waif-thin boy who will forever bear a wavy scar across his chest.
“I spent 29 days on life support as a 16-year-old and I only had a 10% chance of survival,” he told them. “ … I lost 50 days of my memory, 40 pounds, and all of my muscles atrophied, which means I basically lost all of my muscles so I couldn’t even walk.
“I did not know the consequences. I was not educated, and it was a stupid decision. So that’s why I’m here today, to try and show the real consequences that can happen. I did not vape a lot, but something happened to me” that didn’t happen to his friends who also used e-cigarettes.
Daniel got sick at the peak of a national outbreak of vape-related lung injuries that led to 2,711 hospitalizations and 60 deaths. He was among 71 people in Michigan to be sickened during the outbreak, which took the lives of three Michiganders.
Daniel’s cautionary tale is one he’s sharing publicly now because he wants other kids to understand how dangerous vaping can be and show them how it changed his life so they won’t fall into the same trap.
An estimated 5.4 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2019, according to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Social vaping leads to tragedy
Daniel was first introduced to vaping in middle school, he said, when friends started using. But it wasn’t until he was a sophomore in high school that he was enticed to try it.
“It was just kind of all around me,” he said. “I was curious.”
It wasn’t long after his 16th birthday in November 2018 that Daniel became a social user, mostly on the weekends.
He spent last summer sailing and swimming at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. He had a job at a local restaurant busing tables and delivering food. But when a friend left his Juul device in Daniel’s car, he said he started using it almost every day.
He got the nicotine juice pods and THC cartridges from friends who’d bought them from stores and marijuana dispensaries in the Grosse Pointe area.
“They could get it from any store around here,” Daniel said, adding that it was rare when a store clerk would ask kids for identification to prove they were at least 18. “Like, no one really cards.”
He vaped THC about 10 times before he got sick, he said, adding that doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint specifically which product caused his illness.
“They don’t know, but I’m kinda guessing it was one of the THC ones I hit. … I’m guessing one of them was tainted somehow, or had a specific chemical. But I also am open to the fact that it could have been nicotine-based because I was vaping nicotine about nine months, sometimes every day. But with THC, I was only vaping a little over 10 times, and one hit, maybe two hits each time. The THC vapes are really potent, and they deliver it so well that one hit will affect you for a long time.
“I’m pretty sure all the THC vapes that I did use were from dispensaries,” he said, not from black market dealers who may have peddled tainted vape juice. “I was using the same stuff everyone else was using.”
When school started in September, he considered trying out for the high school football team. But before he got the chance, Daniel said he started feeling really sick.
“I had a really bad headache, fatigue and like just soreness overall, like my back was really hurting,” he said. It was Sept. 3, the second day of school.
His symptoms quickly worsened, and by the next morning, his mother, Tammy Ament, took Daniel to the pediatrician. A chest X-ray didn’t show anything unusual, she said, so she brought him home to rest.
“Within six hours, he wasn’t able to breathe very well,” she said. “So I took him to the ER at 6 p.m.”
On the way to the hospital, Daniel told her that he’d been vaping.
“Well, maybe a little bit,” she said he told her. He agreed to be honest with doctors.
“You know, that probably saved his life, just letting them know the truth,” Tammy Ament said. “It did take a while to figure out because I don’t think they actually thought it was from vaping at first.”
A rapid decline
On the same day Daniel’s mom drove him to the hospital, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a first-in-the-nation temporary ban on the sale of flavored vape products in the state, declaring the spate of vape-related illness a public health emergency. But the ban, which didn’t take effect until October, eventually was halted through court appeals.
In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced new regulations that will pull from the market flavored e-cigarette cartridge-based pods and cartridges in fruit, dessert and mint flavors, which, it says, are popular among teens.
“The United States has never seen an epidemic of substance use arise as quickly as our current epidemic of youth use of e-cigarettes,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement announcing the restrictions. “By prioritizing enforcement against the products that are most widely used by children, our action today seeks to strike the right public health balance by maintaining e-cigarettes as a potential off-ramp for adults using combustible tobacco while ensuring these products don’t provide an on-ramp to nicotine addiction for our youth. We will not stand idly by as this crisis among America’s youth grows and evolves, and we will continue monitoring the situation and take further actions as necessary.”
But the regulations came too late for Daniel.
Daniel doesn’t remember much after he arrived at the hospital.
“I remember they were asking me questions like about what I had used,” he said. “So I told them everything I used as soon as I could because I knew it could be really serious. … I had heard about this stuff on the news. I came out with all my use like right away.
“And I just remember the doctor said nothing showed up in the X-ray. But then, they wanted to take a CAT scan, but I don’t remember taking the CAT scan.”
His mother explained that Daniel needed supplemental oxygen at first. But he quickly began to need more and more. Then, his health deteriorated enough that Daniel was put on a ventilator. Soon after that, doctors told Tammy Ament that even the ventilator couldn’t keep her son alive.
Daniel was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Michigan on Sept. 12, where he was put on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which works like an artificial heart and lungs. The ECMO oxygenates the blood and pumps it through the body of a person whose organs are failing. The idea is that the ECMO can do the work a person’s body can’t do on its own, giving it time to heal.
“I knew that he needed a lung transplant to live,” Tammy Ament said. “I just prayed that there would be someone who was a match.”
To have the transplant, Daniel would need to be transferred yet again. This time, to Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit, which is a lung transplantation center.
But moving Daniel, whose condition was extremely fragile, wouldn’t be simple.
The race for new lungs
Dr. Nicholas Yeldo, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and intensive care doctor who was part of the transplant team, described the frantic race in early October to deliver a sterile, sealed, portable ECMO machine to Children’s Hospital of Michigan in the trunk of a colleague’s car.
“Without the heroic measures that were taken in this case, this young patient would have died,” Yeldo said at a news conference in November. “There is no doubt about it.”
Daniel was switched from the ECMO at Children’s to the portable machine, stabilized, and taken by ambulance to Henry Ford.
Five days later, Daniel was placed on the organ transplant list.
“What I saw in his lungs is nothing that I have ever seen before, and I have been doing lung transplants for 20 years,” said Dr. Hassan Nemeh, surgical director of thoracic organ transplant at Henry Ford Hospital, who was among the team of doctors who performed Daniel’s surgery. “There was inflammation and scarring and dead tissue. This is an evil that I haven’t faced before.”
It was the night of Oct. 15 when Daniel finally had his transplant surgery.
And a couple days later, he woke up after 50 days of sedation, and began to panic.
He was alone, in a yellow hospital room. A tube in his throat was connected to a ventilator, so he couldn’t talk, and he couldn’t move.
Daniel’s mother usually stayed by his side, even sleeping at the hospital every night. But it so happened that she went home on the night Daniel woke up.
He was hallucinating, and said he thought he’d been kidnapped. Nurses tried to keep him calm and to explain everything he’d been through.
“I just remember them telling me that I got a transplant and then how long it’s been,” Daniel said. … “And they were like, ‘It’s from vaping,’ and I kind of have a vague memory after that point. I didn’t really understand it.”
As the realization of what he’d been through registered, Daniel thought about the gift he’d been given with the new lungs, but also how much he lost.
“I was thinking a lot about my plan, especially wanting to join the Navy and try to be a Navy SEAL or to join the Army and try to be in the Special Forces,” Daniel said. “That was one of my main thoughts. I wouldn’t have that opportunity to even try and do that anymore. … I wouldn’t even be qualified to try out. I just wanted the opportunity to try out and I definitely cannot try out.”
Because he’ll be on immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of his life to keep his body from rejecting the new lungs, he can’t be exposed to things that could make him sick.
So he doesn’t shake hands anymore. He can’t swim in a lake or fresh water anymore, which means he’s not allowed to sail his 4-meter sailing dinghy, either, because of the risk that it might tip.
“It’s still hard to think about,” he said. “So many opportunities are taken away. I don’t have the freedom that I would have had.”
As Daniel regained consciousness, he had to be weaned off the ventilator, learning to breathe again, talk again, and walk again.
“My recovery has just been very hard,” he said
The new normal
Daniel now takes more than 20 pills a day.
“It’s anti-rejection meds, anti-fungal meds, anti-infection meds, blood pressure, a bunch of stuff for your heart, magnesium, multivitamins, antidepressants, which I didn’t take before, antianxiety, stuff like that,” he said.
His mother explained that Daniel goes every day to pulmonary rehabilitation, has weekly clinic appointments, blood draws, and a bronchoscopy every three months to make sure his body isn’t rejecting his lungs.
It’s heartbreaking to think that this didn’t have to happen to him.
“I know our kids don’t listen to us, but you have to talk until you’re blue in the face to them about the dangers of vaping,” Tammy Ament said. “They don’t want this to happen to them or their child. It’s like playing Russian roulette. These kids don’t understand. They were all vaping the same thing Daniel was and who knows why it hit him and why it hit the other 60 people that have died” so hard compared to others.
“We have to keep talking because we have to prevent our kids from having access. And, just all of this being promoted to the younger kids, the little kids the fifth-, sixth- seventh-graders because once they put it in their mouth and it gets into their lungs, they’re going to become addicted to nicotine.”
Daniel’s talking about it, too, hoping that the voice of a peer, someone who is their age, who vaped not so long ago, might make a difference.
“I was using the same thing as everyone else,” he said. “I’m not a special case. I was completely healthy and it can happen to you just as easily as it happened to me.
“I never thought it was going to happen to me Just look at my story, do your research, and definitely if you haven’t started already, don’t start.
“A lot of people told me they quit because of me, which I think is really good. I think a lot of people are really starting to listen. That’s good.”
Daniel started his own nonprofit, Fight4Wellness, to spread the message and hopes to write a letter to the loved ones of the person who donated the lungs to him.
“I will put my lungs to good use, so the family can kind of feel like it wasn’t in vain,” he said.
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