A young woman with connections to Warren County has experienced the near-death effects of vaping e-cigarettes after contracting double pneumonia, sepsis, and having to be placed on a ventilator to provide her with oxygen.
She and her family suffered through 10 days of fear and pain as her illness became grave.
Kalyn Roberts, 24 is the daughter of Park Theater manager Kevin Roberts. She currently resides in Pulaski and is a teacher’s assistant at Etheridge Elementary in Lawrence County. She is attending Martin Methodist College to receive a second bachelor’s degree in special education.
Kevin said doctors explained to him why patients are getting such severe sickness from vaping.
“It’s not the product in the vape which causes these illnesses, but the oil which goes into the air pockets of the lungs that take all of the oxygen in,” said Kevin. “A doctor explained to me that the lungs are similar to a brand new sponge and as the oil is poured all over the sponge, it creates suffocation. What’s killing people is the saturation of the lungs causing pneumonia. Then there’s nothing you can do as a parent, but watch your child drown in her own lungs.”
At the beginning of October, Kalyn began feeling sick but believed it was just a common cold. Roberts went to the doctor, but there was no diagnosis.
“I wasn’t getting any better,” said Kalyn. “I was nauseous and suffering from gastrointestinal issues, chills, a fever and cold sweats.”
Roberts went to her doctor’s office a second time where they tested her for common illnesses such as strep throat and the flu, but all of the results came back negative, and the doctor prescribed her antibiotics.
After six days of feeling very sick, Roberts began to experience more intense symptoms. She went to the emergency room in Pulaski on Sunday, Oct. 6 where blood work was done. The doctors told her some of her levels were abnormal and she was admitted.
“My lungs weren’t hurting at all. I had a dry cough for a little bit,” said Kalyn.
After more tests, the doctor advised her to stay at the hospital overnight due to being diagnosed with double pneumonia and sepsis. As treatment began, no complications were expected since she was healthy overall.
However, as the days passed, her health began to quickly deteriorate. Her father was soon called to the hospital.
Roberts admits to smoking Juul e-cigarettes for a year, saying she smoked one e-cigarette cartridge in two to three days, meaning she was smoking heavily. Her vaping progressed from smoking daily instead of just socially.
She believed vaping the Juul wasn’t bad for her. Although she admitted to using the nicotine cartridges, she says she has never smoked the cartridges containing illegal THC.
As her health began to continually digress, the doctors sedated her. Within two days of being in the hospital, the physicians chose to move her to intensive care since she wasn’t improving. The first breathing apparatus Kalyn was given was a nostril pin since her oxygen was slightly low.
“As the day went on, her health continued to decrease, leading her to be on a breathing mask,” says her father, Kevin. “During the course of Monday night, her oxygen level began to plummet significantly due to the worsening pneumonia.”
Kevin received a call from the intensive care unit saying his daughter wasn’t doing well, couldn’t breathe on her own and had to be put on a ventilator.
“Kalyn was basically put on life support. I felt devastated,” said Kevin. “During my two-hour trip to Pulaski, I was terrified she wouldn’t be alive once I got there. Her mother, Kathy Roberts, was on a trip out of state so I called her and told her you need to get back home now. She drove straight home for six hours not knowing if she’d find her daughter alive or not. She held it together on the trip but fell apart once she got there.”
By the time Kevin reached Pulaski, Kalyn’s condition had deteriorated even more. Even with the ventilator, her oxygen levels weren’t being adequately kept up. During the course of that day, she had gone from receiving 60% of oxygen to 40% to 20%, until finally reaching only 2%. The ventilator was keeping Kaylyn as stable as possible.
A tube was inserted down her throat and into her lungs. The doctor told her parents they couldn’t do anything else for Kalyn. She would have to be transferred to Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital’s lung center.
Kalyn had approximately nine wires or cables hooked to her giving her fluid, antibiotics and monitoring her heart. She was transported by helicopter to Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital. During the drive, Kalyn’s parents worried if she would be alive once they reached the hospital.
“Those thoughts of planning funerals start coming to your head,” said Kevin. “That feeling of helplessness as a parent just sinks into your stomach. Every call I received terrified me. I didn’t know if it would be the call telling me she had passed.”
At the hospital in Murfreesboro is when Kalyn became very concerned about her health.
“The clearest memories I have are the nurses and doctors telling me they couldn’t keep my oxygen high enough and were going to have to intubate me,” said Kalyn. “That’s the first time I remember being truly scared. I asked them if I would be OK. I panicked and began to realize how serious the situation was. The next clear memory I have is the respiratory nurse telling me to get ready to cough so they could pull the tube out.”
Roberts’ parents researched treatments to help their daughter. Kalyn’s mother, Kathy, found evidence of steroids helping vaping-related illnesses. As a high amount of steroids were given to Kalyn, she began to improve.
“Wednesday through Thursday was a rollercoaster. On Thursday, she began to improve to the point where she could do a breathing test through her ventilation tube and have it removed,” said Kevin. “As her lungs were recovering, Kalyn was also diagnosed with ARDS, or Advanced Respiratory Disease Syndrome.”
Roberts’ ventilation tube was removed after she was administered massive amounts of antibiotics and steroids. Ten percent of her body weight had been lost, although she was on a feeding tube.
Kalyn was released from the hospital Tuesday, Oct. 15 and is still recovering from losing weight, the effects of the medicine on her body, and she has to do breathing exercises to increase the capacity of her lungs. She is going back for follow-up exams and letting her lungs heal naturally.
Kalyn is still weak.
“She’s getting up to climbing two or three steps at a time now, when before it was hard for her to sit up, walk and go to the bathroom alone,” says Kevin.
Kalyn has returned to work and school. She isn’t afraid of possible negative side effects down the road and thinks the worst is over.
“After I got out of the hospital, I began to appreciate little things such as standing up, leaving the hospital to go home and going to the bathroom without help. That was a big deal,” says Kalyn. “It’s really made me appreciate the simple things in life, like being able to go to the bathroom and walk by myself. Everything is simpler for me now because as long as I’m not cooped up in a hospital, I’m OK. The experience has put many things into perspective.”
A doctor at the Pulaski hospital reportedly attributes the illness to vaping due to Roberts’ lungs containing new scarring which showed the issue wasn’t ongoing or caused by respiratory infections or past illnesses.
“The companies who say vaping is OK and better than smoking are giving false information,” said Kevin. “Kalyn was close to death on a few occasions and all of this happened in only a week.”
ABC News states while some cases of lung illness occurred among smokers who used only nicotine e-cigarettes, the majority of cases were among smokers who used THC vape products, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roberts denies using a THC product and says she only vaped the nicotine-based Juul cartridge. Her father says the danger is not in the nicotine or other products in the e-cigarettes, but the base of the juice which clings to the lungs and causes suffocation. Propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin are chemicals in the products, which supposedly saturate the lungs.