Last summer, Daniel Ament was a typical teen looking forward to his junior year at Grosse Pointe North High School near Detroit. The 16-year-old was an avid sailor and a varsity athlete who ran cross country.
But, like many of his peers, he also vaped nicotine and marijuana — a habit that eventually landed him in the emergency room.
On Sept. 5 he was admitted to St. John Hospital in Detroit after suffering from symptoms resembling pneumonia. His condition deteriorated and he spent 29 days on life support. When he awoke weeks later, he was shocked to learn he had received a double-lung transplant.
The Oct. 15 procedure was described by transplant doctors at the Henry Ford Health System as “the first double lung transplant in the world for a patient whose lungs were irreparably damaged from vaping.”
Today, Ament is determined to use his powerful survival story to help others understand the dangers of vaping. He’s started a non-profit foundation, Fight4Wellness and plans to continue speaking to youth and creating public service announcements to remind young people that vaping is more than a recreational pursuit — it can be deadly.
“For me, most of the stuff I heard was that it was completely safe, that it was helping people quit cigarettes,” Ament, now 17, tells PEOPLE. “I never thought it would be any health risk that serious.”
He says most other kids don’t think it’s dangerous, either.
“It’s more rare to find someone who doesn’t vape, especially around my area,” Ament says, noting that he sees kids from all over the country on social media making jokes about their vaping habits.
“No one cares that it can be harmful, and it’s an issue everywhere,” he says. “Literally everyone is vaping… and even though the age is 21 it’s really not stopping anyone. They are going to get it no matter what. It really has to do with stopping them before they get into it.”
Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a New York City-based family and emergency medicine physician who has treated many vaping patients, praises Ament for stepping up to warn his peers.
“It is a blessing this young man who had a double lung transplant is alive, and he is so courageous and brave for sharing his story, his testimony of near death, as he is saving the lives of many others via prevention,” she says.
Nesheiwat calls vaping a “teenage epidemic that has affected millions” with short-term effects that can often be deadly.
“Vaping is highly addictive, and many kids are not aware,” she said. “They are curious, or use it to fit in, for peer pressure, anxiety, or they simply can’t quit.”
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaping is on the rise among youth.
From 2018 to 2019, the number of middle and high school students who were using e-cigarettes rose from 3.6 million to 5.4 million. In addition, through mid-January, the CDC reported that at least 60 people have died from vaping-related deaths, with an additional 2,668 people from all 50 states reported hospitalized with significant lung problems related to vaping.
Nesheiwat says that vaping affects brain development and can have an impact on mood, behavior, thinking, decision-making skills and judgment.
The artificial chemicals used in vaping liquids can damage and destroy cells in the lungs, causing inflammation and cell death. Certain flavors of vape cartridges “literally kill bronchial cells,” she said, and have been banned.
Vaping can also cause nicotine toxicity, which can result in seizures, she says. It can even lead teens to become smokers.
“Many people who vape will go on to become regular cigarette smokers in six months to a year,” Neshiewat said. “Smoking is the No. 1 cause of death in this country — it causes more deaths than drugs, guns, car accidents, HIV and alcohol combined.”
Ament, who is recuperating at home with his new lungs, has seen his own life altered significantly. He hasn’t yet returned to classes at school — a homebound teacher visits three times a week.
To this day, he remembers very little of his ordeal. He went from having no symptoms, to coming down with a fever and experiencing headache and fatigue. “I went to the hospital and didn’t remember anything, and I woke up with new lungs,” he recalls.
“I had no time to process anything. I was freaking out. I was asking the nurses over and over what happened. It was a traumatic experience.”
Ament lost 40 lbs. and had to re-learn how to walk. He was forced to rely on others during his recovery.
But he is determined to not let the harrowing experience define his future. While in the hospital, a doctor suggested he become an anti-vaping advocate.
Ament, who has always wanted to start his own business, began thinking about creating a non-profit to help kids realize the important truth that they should never vape, not even once.
When he makes in-person speeches, he shows kids before and after slides, including photos of the scars that snake across his chest. He makes sure they know that he nearly died.
And it seems like his message is getting out there. In just one day recently, more than 20 young people reached out via email to ask for information or how to get help.
And while Ament still feels physically weak, he says his new project is empowering and makes him feel like he’s doing something good.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from everyone,” Ament adds. “I want this to be bigger and to be doing as much as we can, finding more ways we can help people with resources so that I can have more impact.”