Docs Become Detectives in Vaping-Related Pneumonia Cases

October 21, 2019

With the number of vaping-related illnesses on the rise in the U.S., it’s important to recognize the symptoms and know when to get doctors and hospitals involved.

Dr. Michael Plisco, a Mercy critical care pulmonologist and medical director of Mercy St. Louis’ extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program, cared for a patient with confirmed vaping related illness who was transferred to Mercy St. Louis for ECMO.

“By the time the patient arrived at Mercy, his lungs were very sick,” Dr. Plisco said. “While the ventilator helps a patient breathe, it can also do damage to a lung that is stiff with illness. It can also stress the heart, which is why we use ECMO.”

ECMO, similar to a heart/lung machine used in the operating room, takes the work and stress away from the body allowing the heart and lungs a chance to rest and heal. Different from a heart/lung machine, ECMO is intended to be used for an extended period of time up - days to weeks. However, it’s not a guarantee that things will go back to normal. There’s a critical window to use ECMO and if it’s too late, it may not be able to reverse the illness.  

Dr. Michael Plisco explains the detective work it takes to determine when a patient has vaping-related pneumonia.

“When a decision is made that ECMO is the right course of treatment, the family is involved every step of the way and informed of the process,” Dr. Plisco said. “We have a multidisciplinary care team, which includes the family, that rounds every morning. We look to see if ECMO is working and if there’s still a chance to reverse the progression of illness.”

According to Dr. Plisco, while the exact cause of these illnesses is still unknown, some reports have found evidence of oil in the lungs. The oil used in vaping loads the infection fighting cells down making the patients more susceptible to illness. Once the cells have too much oil, it makes it difficult to recover.

Dr. Plisco’s advice, “Don’t vape. If you’ve already started, stop.”