The Tainted Vape Cartridge Journey: From China’s Labs to Your Lungs

September 26, 2019

The supply chain begins in China, runs through Los Angeles, disperses to regional pen factories, and ends up in the lungs of unsuspecting consumers.

Jon Doneson started feeling ill on a Friday morning in June, after he arrived home in New York on a red-eye flight from the West Coast. He’d traveled to China, then to California, as part of his job managing the back office of his wife Susan’s apparel company. He hoped to re-acclimate to Eastern time, so rather than resting he went to the gym. But he became ill after his workout, vomiting violently and sweating heavily.

Doneson, 52, wrote it off to fatigue. In subsequent weeks Susan pointed out that he had a strange cough. But to Doneson it wasn’t particularly bothersome.

Then, on August 12, he woke up around 5:30 a.m. feeling something different.

Jon Doneson was quarantined and fighting for his life. Then a pulmonologist recalled that he’d mentioned using a vape pen.

“The cough was actually very painful,” he says. He experienced night sweats. He had a fever and pain. His doctor diagnosed bronchitis, but the prescribed meds failed to dent the symptoms. At a follow-up visit, a chest X-ray indicated that Doneson had double pneumonia. This time his doctor prescribed doxycycline for the infection.

About ten days later, though, Doneson felt so awful that he asked his wife to take him to the doctor, who told him to go straight to the emergency room. When doctors at Manhasset’s North Shore University Hospital learned he’d recently visited China, they quarantined him and tested him for various ailments. All came back negative.

Next came a battery of nearly a dozen infectious disease specialists and Centers for Disease Control officials. They clustered around Doneson, who even in his feverish state knew how surreal the scene looked—bed-ridden in a pressurized room with a red quarantine sticker on the door. As he recalls it, “I was totally in disbelief.”

Doneson, a Queens native who now lives in Roslyn Heights, considers himself a healthy person. He runs and works out, doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks. He never dreamed he’d be the patient in a scene out of a Hollywood contagion movie.

As his situation worsened, doctors asked Susan Doneson to fill out a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ form. She was emotionally devastated. Jon tried to calm her. “Listen,” he told her, “I had a rock star of 52 years of a life.” But he wanted to stay alive for their 10-year-old son.

He might have died had a pulmonologist not noted a small detail while obtaining his medical history: Doneson said that a few months earlier, he’d started using a THC vape pen.

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