Is this really how I die?

Charlie Gstalder is a first-year English major. He is a staff writer for the Newswire from Westchester, NY.

All right, I joked about this in the Features section two weeks ago, but now I’m actually serious, I think. For those unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, throughout the past few months, reports of an unknown vaping-related lung illness have been spreading. The victims have been young, able-bodied and otherwise healthy. Doctors are becoming increasingly worried, and politicians are reviewing possible bans.

The death toll just hit six. Let that sink in: Six people are dead. Six healthy, young, fit people are dead. Lawmakers and doctors are urging people to stop vaping. Major newspapers are listing symptoms in an effort to stop the madness. Hospitals are scrambling to stop the use of vaping devices. We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know where this is coming from.

So, I’ve begun to ask myself, is this really how I die? Not from a military grade yet somehow legal weapon being fired in a crowded space? Not from a drunk driver or a blown tire? Not from a collapsing bridge or by being drafted to fight an enemy I don’t know in a country I don’t want to be in for a nation I’m not even sure I love? Not in a hate crime for being different or from falling down the stairs? Not from a fire? Not from a gas leak? Not from an allergic reaction? Not from an opioid dependency caused by a necessary surgery? Not from old age with my family and loved ones at my bedside, drifting peacefully off into oblivion? Am I really going to die from this, a Juul?

Am I really going to die because when I was 16 years old, anxious and depressed and on crutches from an injury in a sport I might never return to. I felt my lungs must not matter anymore because I wasn’t a runner anymore. I was broken, not looking for an addiction. Because the shell of myself that existed in 2017 hobbled into the dark corner store that didn’t ID and asked the man for a starter pack? Because I felt like nothing and the world was all dark and I needed something, some chemical to maybe help it a little bit?

Because everyone was doing it in the bathrooms and on the trains and at parties and in malls and in cars? Because it looked cool? Because my favorite fruit is mango and the orange capped pod happened to hold juice in that sweet, sweet flavor?

Is this really how I die? Not suddenly or expectedly or happily or sadly? But hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital bed because my body rejected the flavored nicotine I was putting in it? Because I was so very young and so very not developed? And because ever since that day, no matter how many times I’ve tried, no matter how many times I’ve succeeded, no matter how many people I help quit, I still can’t fully rid myself of the tremor and slightly dry feeling in my mouth that means it’s time to take a rip? Because maybe I’ll never be able to shake the feeling fully? Is this really how I die? Is this really how my peers, friends and enemies die? Struck down by an unseen foe, one that we invited into our bodies in exchange for a momentary head rush? From USB style sticks? From big tobacco’s death rattle?

Or maybe not. Maybe this will be the thing they fix. Maybe unlike being murdered in a church basement, skyrocketing rates of suicide and lead in our drinking water, this will be the thing that prompts change. Maybe because “She’s got a son,” this will be what forces regulation, legislation and all the other-ations that exist. Because we all know that no law to help stop gun violence will pass until one of these senseless tragedies hits the political sphere, until it is a senator or president’s child who lies as one casualty amongst a bloody heap of bodies, torn apart from weapons we designed to kill opposing soldiers.

But those politicians do have kids, and those kids might too become victims of the latest evolution of cigarettes. So maybe, just maybe, this isn’t how I die after all.