“Breathing is precious”: the daughter of a woman who died of vaping speaks

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This essay was originally published on Pepperdine University Graphic.

At first, the doctors said it was pneumonia.

On the way back from the hospital two days before her death, my mother groaned between coughs, “I’m never smoking again; I’m throwing out all of my e-cigarettes and weed pens.”

This was a groundbreaking statement from my mother, who,like many, had embraced vaping as an alternative to smoking with swift, open arms. Despite recent protests from loved ones, she was adamant for years that it was far healthier than her cigarette habit. Having always believed marijuana was not a dangerous drug to consume, Mom began to vape THC products in late 2018 — not long afterCalifornia legalized the drug for recreational use.
If I knew my mother, she would try to move mountains before she would declare she was quitting either drug. It’s easy to assume just how much pain she was in to say this.

My father, a doctor who is all too familiar with the dangers of vaping, responded to her declaration of quitting by saying, “Good, Mary. There are some things that are precious, like your vision and your breath, and you just can’t hurt those things.”
On Friday, Sept. 6, my father found her blue in the lips, struggling for such precious air but unable to grasp it. She had most likely suffered for hours. Her death came swiftly after.

Later, X-rays revealed a white substance infiltrating her lungs, clouds as silky as the puffs of vape she would exhale. Those clouds weren’t there when she had an X-ray two days before her death; they had developed as rapidly as an unexpected thunderstorm, unleashing an onslaught of destruction on her system and ultimately killing her. Relentless. No mercy given.

These X-rays confirmed what my family had feared; this wasn’t a simple case of pneumonia, this was thenew vaping illness sweeping the nation with fury. The white substance in her lungs was one of manysymptoms associated with this new disease. Just as many others had, she suffered from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms reported are coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain.

The Investigation
When Mom died, my father immediately requested an autopsy to confirm our suspicions. The deputy coroner working on the night of her death said in response, “An autopsy is not in the budget unless it’s requested by the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation].”

“Well,” my father responded, “I think this is one that needs to be investigated.”

Dad began to explain my mother’s death in the way he would repeat until it was practically ingrained in him: Mary Kerrie Davis took a trip to California in July. She vaped legal marijuana. She had a cough when she returned home. She developed what you could barely call pulmonary pneumonia, and she was an otherwise healthy woman; this is a sudden death that should be investigated. Yes, she also vaped nicotine for years.

Health & Wellness

The next day, Dad turned to a local Blairsville, Georgia sheriff. Again my father explained her death. The sheriff told him, “I don’t see how her vaping in California is a crime in Union County.”

Again, my father explained the vaping illness. With some pushing, the GBI performed their autopsy.

Everywhere we turned, the response was the same: Where was the crime? What are the mysterious circumstances? A Georgia judge my dad had contacted for advice said, “You know, in all my years of serving, I have never seen a death related to THC.”

Then turning to the world of medicine, Dad reached out to my mother’s primary care physician and close family friend. Agreeing that her death was concerning, he reached out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who in turn directed him to the Georgia Department of Health, who then advised that he file a report with poison control. We found ourselves at a standstill.

No one who my father contacted, whether it be law enforcement or medical professionals, seemed to be aware of the national vaping epidemic, aside from her primary care physician.

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