Every breath is painful for Julia Itzin.
While she was in the hospital, suffering from something her doctor said is commonly referred to as "vape lung," she would record videos of herself crying as she struggled to speak.
"I'm not OK today," she said in one of the videos. "My chest hurts so bad."
Now, out of the hospital, they’re hard for her to watch.
U.S. & World
"I look dead," she said. "I'm gone."
Itzen, of Los Angeles, said it's been a long road since she collapsed on Christmas Day and was rushed to the emergency room. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only confirms if someone's death is directly connected to vaping, not whether someone's ongoing symptoms are related. But Dr. Daniel Dea says he saw similarities to others with vape lung.
"Fortunately, she didn't have to go to the intensive care unit," Dea said. "She didn't need life support. [But] she did need to go on oxygen and she also needed to go into the hospital for two weeks."
Not everyone who suffers from a vaping-related illness survives. At least four deaths from vaping-related lung disease have been reported in California.
Overall, there have been 2,758 hospitalizations or deaths associated with the use of e-cigarette or vaping products across the country as of Feb. 4, according to the CDC. Sixty-four deaths have been confirmed in 28 states and Washington, D.C.
Itzen said she started vaping more than five years ago to help her quit smoking.
"My sense of smell came back, like scary – like a bloodhound. My sense of taste came back," she said.
Itzen said she thought she was doing everything right. She wasn't using THC, marijuana's psychoactive ingredient that has been one of the many components blamed for vaping-related illnesses, just nicotine vapes purchased from licensed shops.
By doing so, she was avoiding the risks the American Vaping Association warns about on its website, which says that "the evidence continues to indicate that poorly manufactured street vapes containing THC or other substances are to blame for the vast majority of all of these illnesses. Nicotine vaping products have been used around the world for over twelve years with no evidence of any prior 'outbreak' of lung illnesses."
"It wasn't just punk kids [using it], it was doctors and stockbrokers," Itzen said. "It was adults who were trying to quit cigarettes."
A week after leaving the hospital, Itzen is still on multiple breathing treatments each day.
"I am so lucky to be alive, that it was caught," she said.
But she's still seized by fits of coughing, and it's still difficult for her to catch her breath. Dea said the corticosteroid treatment she's on decreases inflammation in the lungs, but the body must repair the damage done to it on its own. It can take a long time to recover.
"If you want to be like this," Itzen recorded herself saying in the hospital, "keep vaping."