A young nurse from Virginia claims he cheated death after a pod-a-day vaping habit caused his lung to collapse.
Jonathan Belcher, 22, woke up one morning in his Covington, Virginia, home with excruciating pain behind his left shoulder, and the pain worsened with every shortened breath.
Terrified, Belcher was driven to the hospital emergency department where it was revealed his lung had collapsed, a byproduct of pulmonary trauma causing an air leak into the cavity surrounding the lungs.
Doctors were able to insert a chest tube to drain the air but they saw a hole in the lung that had to be stapled shut.
Belcher claims doctors attributed the injury to e-cigarettes, which have hooked millions of Americans on nicotine.
Jonathan Belcher, 22, began vaping from a nicotine e-cigarette when he was 17. He was vaping the equivalent of 20 cigarettes daily (about one Juul pod)
Belcher said the short drive to the hospital was terrifying, and when he arrived, doctors told him to ‘call your mom, your lung has collapsed and it’s really severe’
Jonathan said: ‘It felt like my shoulder was a balloon about to pop. I was really short of breath and any breath I took made the shoulder hurt worse but I didn’t realize why’
With a piece of his lung surgically removed and emotionally traumatized from his brush with death, Mr Belcher has pledged to steer clear from the highly potent e-cigarette that caused his condition.
He said recently after the ordeal in April: ‘The whole experience was terrifying, painful and so bad that I will never touch a device that produces smoke ever again….I was truly looking death in the face.
‘I completely understand that it’s very hard to quit and the bottom line is it’s addictive.
‘But after the pain that I went through, the trauma that it created and the problems that it has made in my life since, the best advice I could give for trying to quit is think that this will happen to you.’
He had been vaping since the age of 17 and typically took in the equivalent amount of nicotine as 20 cigarettes.
For reference, one single Juul pod contains 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine, although it’s not clear which brand Belcher used.
The pain that morning woke Mr Belcher, who said it ‘felt like my shoulder was a balloon about to pop’.
He would learn later that the pain was caused by a collapsed lung, or pneumothorax, which leads to air leaking from the lungs into the surrounding cavity, or, pleural space.
The air in the pleural space increased pressure on the lung so that it could not expand as much as it normally does during normal breathing.
Mr Belcher said: ‘The moment they said, “you can call your mom, your lung has collapsed and it’s really severe”, I just broke down crying.
‘I will never forget when I called my mom, and the way she screamed and cried.’
To remedy the leak and relieve pressure on the lung, doctors inserted a chest tube to drain the air from the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Typically, the problem will heal on its own as the lung reinflates.
But the hole in Mr Belcher’s lung required surgery to repair and part of the organ had to be removed because it had ‘died’ in the process due to restricted oxygen.
He said: ‘I told the surgeon that if he was ready for surgery then I was ready for surgery as well. I was just in so much pain that I wanted something that could fix it.
Pneumothorax is fairly common and usually survivable. Roughly 20 per 100,000 males and 6 for every 100,000 females experience it per year, and taller, thinner people are more susceptible to it.
Typically, pneumothorax will heal once the air surrounding the lungs has been drained using a chest tube
Doctors had to surgically repair the hole left in Mr Belcher’s lung, which required them to remove part of the organ that had died due to lack of oxygen
Mr Belcher, who gets short of breath doing normal daily activities such as talking on the phone, has sworn off e-cigarettes
It is usually caused by a ruptured air blister, or ‘bleb’, that sends air into the space around the lung. It is believed that chronic vaping could lead to the formation of blebs on the lungs, while strong inhalation of a vape could cause an existing bleb to rupture.
The exact physiological effects of vaping e-cigarettes, which contain a highly-potent mixture of nicotine, propylene glycol and glycerol, and concentrated flavors are still being examined.
But claims that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes because it removes the carcinogen-laced tar and smoke from the equation are increasingly in doubt.
Cases like Mr Belcher’s are not unique. There have been myriad clinical case studies of vaping-induced pneumothorax in recent years.
Vaping has become an acute problem, especially among young people and those who have never smoked cigarettes in the first place – a major blow to e-cigarette manufacturers’ purported goal to switch smokers to safer vapes.
In 2019, 1.97 million never-smokers between 18 and 29 reported that they vaped, compared to just 1.37 million current smokers.
But, by 2021 vaping among young never smokers increased by more than a third, to 2.68 millon.
Jonathan was discharged on May 9th and claims the trauma of the incident was worse than the pain, as he now frequently struggles to sleep.
Although his lungs are now able to function on their own, Jonathan claims they will be weaker for the rest of his life.
Jonathan said: ‘The pain hasn’t been the worst part since coming home, it’s actually been the trauma.
‘It has affected my sleep, because I woke up to the lung collapsing. Now, I have a really hard time being able to sleep and wake up all through the night with really bad sweats.
‘It’s gone from being able to do normal things without getting winded to having to sit down after a phone call to catch my breath.’