The mother of a teen vaper, who will need a lung and kidney transplants, admonished FDA investigators when they arrived at her home

By Johnny Dodd
November 26, 2019 09:58 AM
Credit: Audra Melton

Walker McKnight’s brief vaping habit may not have killed him, but the five months he spent in an Orlando, Fla. hospital, connected to a respirator as doctors fought to keep him alive, destroyed his left lung and both his kidneys.

Weeks after the frail college student returned home in July, two investigators from the FDA knocked on the family’s front door, peppering Walker with endless questions about where he purchased the mango-flavored pods that he vaped in his Juul e-cigarette.

His mother, Candy, quickly unloaded on them.

“I’m glad to see you here,” the 49-year-old critical care nurse told the investigators. “But where the hell were you four years ago when you approved these stupid things [to be sold]?!”

Like countless other parents across the nation, she was angry and frustrated that e-cigarettes—which are marketed as having less health risks than traditional cigarettes—are available, despite not being deemed as safe by the FDA.

“That’s the last time we ever heard from them,” says Walker’s dad, Dave, 56.

While e-cigarettes are not new, CDC officials say the past several months have brought an “alarming epidemic” in vaping-related illnesses as well as 47 deaths in the U.S. linked to vaping.

Walker was almost one of them.

Walker McKnight

In high school, the health-conscious athlete — who often spent five hours a day working out — would occasionally take a drag off a friend’s e-cigarette.

But it wasn’t until November 2018 — shortly after he started his freshman year at Valencia Community College — that the then 19-year-old Walker decided to purchase his first Juul.

“It gave me a really intense, good feeling,” says Walker, recalling how a couple of hits helped take the edge off the pressures of school. “I could feel my whole body throbbing and tingling.”

Three months later, doctors battled to keep his inflamed lungs from collapsing and his organs from shutting down. “I begged my parents to let me die,” recalls the college cheerleader, who is just one of thousands of young people across the nation who have been hospitalized with serious lung illnesses associated with vaping.

As health officials scramble to identify the cause of the outbreak, Juul, the nation’s largest e-cigarette manufacturer, faces lawsuits from several states for allegedly targeting teens and young people in its marketing campaigns.

“Walker was literally dying in front of our eyes,” says Dr. Charles Hunley, a critical care specialist at Orlando’s Regional Medical Center, where six potentially vaping-related cases have been treated in recent months.

By the time a weakened Walker — who had lost 80 lbs. during the ordeal and now needs a lung and kidney transplant — finally left the hospital, media reports of teens whose lungs had been damaged by vaping started making headlines. The McKnights are raising money for his medical bills on GoFundMe.

“I just don’t understand how they could allow this company to start putting these products on the market without first testing them,” says Candy. “No parent should have to go through this.”