Cleveland Veteran Among Those With Vaping Related Lung Disease

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Cleveland-area resident and Navy veteran Paul Lubell is among the many people across the country who have become seriously ill after vaping THC oil. 

The 59 year-old Beachwood resident, however, does not fit the standard profile of those who have contracted vaping-related lung injury.

Most are young, under the age of 35.

But, as cases continue to grow and federal health officials search for answers, it's clear that it affects older adults as well. 

Lubell said he was vaping THC in search of pain relief.

The veteran suffers from pain in his back, neck and knees. He is not sure when his problems started, but he wonders if it is related to his days on a Navy helicopter rescue team.

“It was fun. I was indestructible and good at what I did. Everybody wanted me,” he said, while reminiscing and looking at photos of his younger self posing on top of one of the helicopters.

He sometimes jumped out of the helicopter, smacking into the water during training and rescue missions. That could have been the genesis of some of his back pain, he said.

Lubell has had two back surgeries and suffers from serious neck pain.

Every day is a struggle, he said.

He has tried many different medications looking for relief, including opioids like hydrocodone, but that is not an option now.

“The VA (Veterans Administration) is not a friend of opioids at all. Unless you're coming out of the hospital for surgery or something like that, they do not give vets opioids,” he said.

“It leaves someone who is in chronic pain in a very tough situation, having to decide how to deal with it,” he added.

Lubell started using an e-cigarette device with pre-filled THC packets to vape earlier this year. When he vaped, the pain went away quickly, he said.

And when I say it took away pain it was almost instantaneous. Within the span of 10 minutes, my pain would be gone. It may have [just] been masked, but it made me capable of doing my daily activities,” he said.

He described the vaping cartridge as a tiny stick that screws on top of the vaping pen. When he inhaled, it pulled the THC and other liquids in the cartridge over a heating element.

When he exhaled, it created a cloud in the air, which is different from when he smoked marijuana, Lubell said.

“It doesn't have a stench to it. You could do it out on the streets. It doesn't have that – what's the word I'm looking for – stigma,” he said.

He started vaping with THC packets that he purchased from a friend.  A few months later, in July, Lubell started running a very high fever and went to the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

“He had this cough that was persistent. He just looked very, very sick,” said Dr. Amy Hise, who was on the team of physicians that treated Lubell.

He was put on very strong broad spectrum antibiotics. And yet, he continued to have fevers. He continued to feel unwell.  He had very flu-like symptoms,” Hise said.

After a few days, Lubell seemed to improve and was released, she said. But then, he grew ill again in late August.

Hise said she was surprised when he came back to the emergency department.

By then, however, she had seen a newly released alert from the CDC about the vaping illness. Lubell had also seen reports in the media about this quickly spreading problem related to vaping.

“He was forthright that he had been vaping. He stopped for a period of time until he started to feel better. And then he started it up again, and that's when his lung disease came back,” Hise said.

The doctors at the VA switched from antibiotics to treating him with steroids, based on information provided by the CDC, she said. He was soon released and on the road to recovery.

Even though vaping eased his pain, those two bouts of sickness were too much for Lubell.  He won’t vape again, he said.

Hise agrees with that decision.

“I think there's just too much that's not known about what's in these products to safely use them,” she said.

But Lubell is not alone in turning to marijuana for pain management. Medical marijuana is legal in Ohio for chronic pain and Dr. Melinda Lawrence, pain management specialist at University Hospitals, says that many patients are telling her they are trying it.

“That is probably something that I get from patients every day. And it’s not just people who are young in their 20s, who maybe think let me try some sort of THC substance. It can be from a young person to people in their 80s who are telling me they are looking to try anything to help with their pain,” Lawrence said.

Even though some patients say it works for them, there is not enough research to prove that it’s broadly effective, she said.

 “Personally I don’t recommend it for my patients, but maybe after we have more studies it can be something in the future,” Lawrence said.

Lubell, who has a medical marijuana card, is still planning to use marijuana – but he won’t vape. He gave his equipment and THC packets to health officials for analysis.

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