Within days, Caleb Herdman’s flu-like symptoms evolved into emergency bedside lung bypass surgery.
After a series of tests, doctors revealed the cause of the lung infection: vaping.
Shannon Herdman said her 16-year-old son got sick at work on Aug. 5 with what urgent care physicians treated as a stomach virus.
When those symptoms didn’t subside, Caleb went to the emergency room on Aug. 10 and was life-flighted to UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
He was eventually put on life support as ventilators weren’t getting oxygen into his lungs fast enough, and eventually went into full respiratory failure and had emergency bedside lung bypass surgery.
His lung infection was diagnosed as an inhalation injury.
Caleb was treated with dozens of medications, lost more than 20 pounds and muscle mass and has a long road of physical and occupational therapy ahead of him, his mother said.
He was discharged Aug. 27 and returned to school Tuesday, where he was welcomed with support by classmates and teachers.
“I feel like all of their prayers helped me through all that,” he said.
Shannon Herdman said she didn’t know her son was using a dab pen to vape for more than a year until he was in the hospital.
“I really wish I never started (vaping),” Caleb said. “It was a scary ride going through all that.
“Now I’m looking at it as God giving me a second chance to let others know how dangerous it is. It’s really not worth doing.”
Caleb purchased the dab pen and vaping supplies online, using his debit card, his mother said.
She said her son’s friends and classmates were vaping, and she also has acquaintances who do.
“They’re under the impression that it’s safer than cigarettes, but it’s really not,” she said. “It’s an epidemic right now. Just because it hasn’t affected you yet doesn’t mean it won’t.”
Because it’s an unregulated industry with little research about the short-term and long-term effects, Shannon Herdman said many vaping oils are marketed toward young children and teens and, the type of substance that affected her son was known for its mixture with pesticides.
As Caleb adjusts post-surgery, his mother said it’s unknown what the long-term effects of his vaping will be, considering the lack of research that exists. His doctors are using his case to share information with other hospitals, and Caleb is the first patient they’ve seen reach lung bypass surgery due to the side effects of vaping, she said.
Caleb said he continues to feel better every day as he builds his lung capacity, but he has to be cautious when using stairs, take measures to prevent sickness and stay away from smoke of any kind, fumes from cleaning supplies or heavy perfumes, as those could produce symptoms similar to asthma.
“We have a whole new normal,” Shannon Herdman said.
Caleb will follow up with his pulmonologist each month or every other month to track his progress and will go through physical and occupational therapy.
Although Caleb doesn’t remember the two weeks he was in the hospital, his mother said he now has a passion to prevent others from experiencing what he did.
“He realized this almost took his life,” Shannon Herdman said. “Now, his focus is, he’s trying to get it out there and he doesn’t want to see this happen to his family and friends.”
Shannon Herdman created a “calebstrong” Facebook page to provide updates on Caleb’s condition, sell wristbands to raise awareness about the dangers of vaping and share relevant news articles on the topic. A GoFundMe page was also set up to assist with the Herdman’s medical costs.
“I think it’ll have an impact in our community,” Shannon Herdman said. “It’s one thing to see it on the news, but it’s different when it happens in your own community.”