Phoenix resident Kyle Levendoski woke up one recent morning vomiting blood and thought he was going to die.
The 27-year-old man soon found himself in the hospital for four days last week hooked up to an oxygen tank, and he thinks vaping is to blame.
It's still unknown whether Levendoski was stricken by the vaping-related illness sweeping the country that is believed to have caused six deaths and put nearly 500 people in the hospital. Arizona officials said again on Tuesday that no case of the illness in the state has been confirmed. However, Levendoski's experience seems to be one of several unconfirmed cases.
After his violent vomiting incident on September 4, he was taken to Abrazo Scottsdale Campus hospital and immediately put on oxygen therapy, which wasn't stopped until he left on Saturday. After undergoing testing that included MRI and CT scans, he was diagnosed with a type of pneumonia caused by chemicals.
"I was thinking it was the flu or something crazy, like easy. But then once you're there and they admit you, you start thinking 'could this be cancer?' You go all the way through everything in your head," Levendoski told Phoenix New Times on Tuesday.
Levendoski told health care officials, including pulmonologist Dr. Manoj Mathew, that he had picked up vaping two or three months ago. He was using a SMOK nicotine vape, he said, and alternated cartridges between brands including Naked and Cake Batter.
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"I have my medical card, so obviously I used [weed ones], but I don't buy them off the streets," Levendoski said. "But as far as the vaping ... that's the only thing I changed in my entire routine for those two, three months. It just destroyed me. I was fine one day and it destroyed me the next day." (UPDATE: Levendoski later clarified that he had used Select and Timeless brands of THC cartridges prior to his hospitalization.)
From his hospital bed, Levendoski watched news footage of others who had come down with similar pulmonary illnesses. He began comparing the images of those patients' lungs with his own. "I looked on my phone to see how my lungs looked and how theirs looked. Mine looked worse!"
Before he left the hospital on Saturday, he was removed from his oxygen tank and tasked with walking a couple of laps without it. Doctors are not sure whether the damage to Levendoski's lungs will heal completely, but he is thankful to be home. Neither Mathew nor officials with Abrazo Health returned messages.
Alexis Kramer-Ainza, spokeswoman for Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, told New Times on Tuesday that the center can't say for sure if the illness has affected people in Arizona yet. But it may have: The facility is researching whether several suspected cases are linked to the problems seen in other states.
Four suspected cases of the illness have been reported to the center in Phoenix, which services Maricopa County, and another case was reported at the affiliated Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center in Tucson, she said.
"What a lot of our toxicologists are wanting, people that do vape, if they do have symptoms, give us a call, so we can figure out what's in the vaping chemicals," Kramer-Ainza said. "These numbers, unfortunately, are growing, so we are closely monitoring this ... We are working around the clock to ensure that we can identify exactly what is happening, then make that information available to the public."
The Arizona Department of Health Services still wasn't aware of any definite cases of the illness by Tuesday afternoon, said the agency's spokesman, Chris Minnick.
"There may be suspected cases, but there are no confirmed cases in Arizona," he said. Minnick mentioned that officials were still trying to determine how to categorize a case as definitely related to vaping.
Kansas officials on Tuesday confirmed that a patient over 50 years old had died due to the illness, bringing the total number of related fatalities to six.
Taking advantage of the hype, one local cannabis testing lab, Desert Valley Testing, began offering testing on hemp or CBD oils for vitamin E acetate, the ingredient identified in many of the cases in New York, for $250 per sample. "All of our testing is always offered for both individuals and dispensaries," said Kaitlynn Henderson, a sample-receiving specialist.
However, the lab isn't testing THC samples at this time. "We have outsourced this particular testing, and we cannot send THC samples through the mail," Henderson added.
Also this week, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, linked the problem to lax regulation of marijuana products by the federal government.
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"We have a dangerous State-Federal conflict when it comes to THC. States legalize THC behind permissive laws but have little capacity or interest in properly regulating it, and for Feds, it’s still schedule 1. Then states point fingers when problems arise," he tweeted on Sunday.
Appearing on NBC News on Monday, Gottlieb said, “I think we need a federal reckoning where we make it easier for people to get access to cannabis if they want to do legitimate medical research and try to make medical products out of these things.
"But these state laws that allow this widespread recreational use where it’s getting into the hands of kids and pregnant moms, that’s a real public health concern. In the states that have moved ahead, they’ve allowed all of these products to flood their markets, but they don’t have an FDA, they don’t have proper oversight, so these illegal vapes are getting on to the market.”
(Correction: Kyle Levendoski's name has been corrected after a misspelling in the original article.)