Sept. 20, 2019 -- Lincoln Rennie says he is known as a dedicated employee, not the type who would call in sick to play hooky. So in late August, when he woke up feeling ill, the 23-year-old welder from Orange, CA, went to work anyway. But once he got there, his stomachache worsened and his fever climbed.
He headed home, and his fiancé, Viri Alvarado, became concerned when his body temperature kept rising. When it got over 103 F, Alvarado talked him into seeing a doctor. He went two different times, but each time, he was told it was ''probably just a fever."
Still, it didn't break. Then it rose to more than 104, and he was beginning to ''talk crazy," says Alvarado, 20. Rennie admits: "I was definitely losing some cognitive function. I woke up saying everything was a scam and the pillow was my internet.''
That was it for Alvarado, who insisted he go to the emergency room that day -- August 31.
"The diagnosis about vaping-related illness came about the third day," Rennie recalls.
He stayed in the hospital 11 days, losing 22 pounds.
"I was on oxygen for 8 days," he says. He was prescribed corticosteroids, and he is still taking them.
Rennie is among more than 500 cases of vaping-related illnesses in the U.S. Like many of the vapers stricken, he is young and male. Nearly three-quarters of patients are men; more than half are under age 25.
And while public health officials have yet to pinpoint one substance or product as the cause, Rennie was vaping THC -- an ingredient linked to many of the cases -- before he got sick.
Rennie says he’s used medical cannabis for years to help him sleep. He began vaping nicotine about 10 years ago and then tuned to vaping THC about 5 years ago. He would do them as separate vapes, he says.
In June, he gave up the nicotine vape and vaped THC only. Costs were becoming an issue, as he would typically spend $50 for about a gram -- about a week's supply for him, he says.
About a month before he got sick, Rennie started buying off-market vaping cartridges, which he says cut his costs in half. These are cartridges (which are also called “carts”) not sold in legitimate retail stores, but often bought from friends or associates. He noticed the taste and effect differed between the brand-name carts and the bootleg products.
'They Couldn't Believe I Was Still Breathing'
Nathan Fagundez, 28, says he also bought bootleg cartridges before he got sick. After a few weeks of using them, "I couldn't breathe," says Fagundez, an agricultural pest control technician in Hanford, CA. In mid-August, he saw a report about vaping on TV, and right away, he knew what he had.
He headed to the hospital on August 13, and they found his oxygen levels so low, ''they couldn't believe I was still breathing."
His doctor told him it was acute lung injury due to vaping. "I was on the verge of being ventilated," or put on a machine to help him breathe, he says. But he improved enough to avoid that.
After 16 days in the hospital, on steroids and oxygen, he was released. He continues to take the steroids and use the oxygen.
"I have a plug-in oxygen" for use at home, he says. "And I have a portable tank to wheel around. I bring it for emergencies, if I exert too much."
Fagundez, a regular marijuana user, says he started vaping it about a year ago because when he used regular marijuana, the odor annoyed people he worked with.
He'd buy about 2 grams a week. "It was always off market," he says. That would knock the usual $100 price down to about $40, he says.
He relies on the vaping for his anxiety.
In the weeks before he got sick, he says, "I went with a buddy to pick up carts from LA." The seller, he says, ''had a whole lab in his garage."
Fagundez says he later tried to confront the seller, who denied doing anything wrong.
‘I Was Too Trusting’
Rennie says that looking back, there were signs of problems with the off-market carts. The difference, in taste and effects, was obvious.
Although none in his circle of friends got sick, he says his immediate friends weren't buying from the same source.
''I was too trusting. I believe there are safe options," Rennie says, and regulating the industry more would make it safer. "The scariest part of the bootleg [market] is, they look the same. They will take a brand-name cart, refill it, and say it's the same brand."
His doctors told him firmly: No more vaping. He agrees. "It was enough of a wake-up call, I wouldn’t chance it again," he says. Alvarado says she, too, is giving up vaping.
But Rennie doesn't want to give up marijuana entirely. "It's always been a positive medicine in my life." He hopes to go back to ''regular cannabis," as he calls it, as does Alvarado. And perhaps they will keep testing edibles to see if they could help.
Fagundez says he, too, has stopped vaping. His experience has also inspired friends to drop the habit, he says. "As soon as I hit the hospital, and they found out it was due to vaping, about 10 people stopped."
After his release, his doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, he says. "It zonked me out." He fell asleep for hours. So he's decided edibles are better to help calm him. His current favorite are chocolate and THC gummies.
"Edibles take longer to metabolize. I'd say it's a little more intense than vaping. [But] it gets the job done, and it helps with anxieties."
Back to Work: Uncertain Timetable
Rennie and Fagundez hope to return to work soon, but they’re not strong enough yet. Rennie isn't sure when his return date will be. "I still get really tired."
Fagundez tried to go back, but the hot weather worked against him. "Even when I walk the dogs, I become short of breath," he says. And that's only going about five blocks. He says it will probably take 3 more months to be able to return to work.
Both men are still being monitored closely. And they both wonder what's in store for their health. As Rennie says: "It's a scary diagnosis. It was definitely not something I expected to go through at 23."