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Vitamin targeted as cause of vaping injuries

U.S. health officials are looking closely at vitamin E acetate as a potential cause of the severe lung injuries that have sickened thousands of Americans who have used vaping devices, including more than three dozen who died as a result.

A study of fluid taken from the lungs of 29 patients battling the condition found all of them had signs of vitamin E acetate, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

Vitamin E acetate is a thick and gummy syrup, similar in consistency to honey, that some illegal makers of vaping liquids use to dilute their product in order to reduce the amount of active ingredients they need to add.

“These new findings are significant,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, in a conference call, declaring the discovery a breakthrough in the investigation. “For the first time we have identified a potential toxin of concern, in biologic samples. These findings provide direct evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury.”

Vitamin E acetate is widely used in food and skin care products, where it is safe, Schuchat said. There is a distinct difference, however, between inhaling something and swallowing it. Previous studies have found that when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may affect lung function, she said. New York state officials identified it as a possible culprit in September.

The number of Americans sickened in the outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries has been steadily increasing. As of Nov. 5, there were 2,051 cases reported in 49 states, the District of Columbia and one U.S. territory, the CDC said on Thursday, with 39 confirmed deaths.

Regulators had signaled in recent weeks that the outbreak was likely tied to the use of black-market vaping products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, though they hadn’t drawn a direct link to any one product, behavior or ingredient. The CDC has said that in a small percentage of confirmed illnesses, patients had reported using nicotine-only products.

There are hundreds of devices and ingredients at play in the vaping market, and not all are legal, which has made identifying the source of the outbreak much more difficult.

The rash of illnesses has coincided with increasing alarm about use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices by teens. According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 4.1 million high-school students and 1.2 million middle school students will have used vaping products at some point this year.

Fire causes $4.4 million in damages at eye clinic

A Thursday night fire caused $4.4 million in damage to the Chippewa Valley Eye Clinic on Eau Claire’s south side, firefighters say.

The fire, the cause of which is under investigation, was reported at 6:15 p.m.

Upon arrival at the clinic at 2715 Damon St., crews could see smoke coming from the roof and eaves, Eau Claire Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Kelly said.

The value of the damage is $4,426,800. The building and its contents are considered to be a complete loss, Kelly said.

Fire crews were hindered by cold temperatures. A city bus was brought in to help firefighters rehabilitate out of the weather.

Twenty firefighters battled the blaze.

Firefighters were assisted by the Eau Claire Police Department, Xcel Energy and city street crews, Kelly said.

Firefighters were able to recover several items for the clinic.

Firefighters remained on the scene until after noon Friday.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, Kelly said.

Officials with the Chippewa Valley Eye Clinic met Friday morning to determine how to move forward but could not be reached for comment.

The clinic’s website said the Eau Claire clinic “will be closed for the unforeseen future.”

“All scheduled surgeries will be unaffected,” the website said. “We will notify you with updates.”

Besides the Eau Claire clinic, Chippewa Valley Eye Clinic also has locations in Menomonie and Rice Lake.

Cribbage a family affair

Like many Chippewa Falls kids, I perfected my counting skills playing cribbage: “15-2, 15-4, 15-6, and six more is a doz.” As the youngest of eight, games like 500 Rummy, Sheepshead and cribbage were the only way to compete with siblings two or three times my age. We sometimes saw black and white photos of the Kennedys playing football on the rambling front lawn of their Hyannis Port estate. The Sees moved dirty dishes and heaping ashtrays to one side of the kitchen table and played cribbage in our cramped Chippewa Falls home.

The summer I turned nine, I was playing my older brother and winning by a huge margin. Did I have a “perfect 29” cribbage hand, four 5s and a jack, the highest possible score in one deal? Let’s say I did, and I was little-sister-loud about it. “Skunking” it’s called, when you win by 31 points or more. I don’t remember our exact exchange but I am sure I was a haughty winner, a character flaw I still recognize in myself.

Down the homestretch, did I yell “Skunk!”? Let’s say I did. Brother had enough. He slapped my face. My Juicy Fruit flew across the room. I instantly started to wail, more from surprise than anything. Mom came running from the kitchen. I plumped out my lip in her direction and pointed to my gum on the shag carpet. Five-foot-nothing Mom stormed toward gangly teen brother, screaming into his chest. Brother ran out the back door and squealed away in Dad’s boat-like Chevy Impala. I cried harder at such big drama. Nothing like this happened before or since, which is why I still laugh about it.

This Saturday night, my husband, Bruce, and I have a drink and play on a board my father made for me when I got married the first time, a 30-year-old relic. Dad crafted cribbage boards out of scraps he picked from the trash, wood from a neighbor’s fallen tree, or existing boards from thrift sales which he repurposed by covering up “Las Vegas” or “Wisconsin Dells” with his own painted alphabet noodles and shellac. Many seem works of folk art now, family heirlooms even. Others are still gag gifts.

Unlike 19th century Eskimo, who fashioned cribbage boards from walrus tusks, Dad made some of his out of used toilet seats. He scavenged neon colored pegs from old Lite-Brites, something Sir John Suckling, British poet and gambler, could not have imagined when he invented cribbage early in the 1600’s. Settlers brought the game from England to America. Originally played primarily by men, in Wisconsin cribbage intersects with the family tavern, with camping and dorm rooms, and more recently with coffee shops and microbreweries. As always: cheap, fun and easily portable.

Tonight as I count my cribbage hand, I say playfully to Bruce, “Hmmph. Twenty-one points. Is that all?”

He teases, “Think I could get your brother to come over and teach you a lesson?” Point taken loud and clear: sore losers are bad but poor winners are worse.

Years into my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis — when she couldn’t even count coins — Dad still took her to cribbage tournaments every Saturday at a rural tavern, Four Corners (now Joel’s 4Corners). One time, in the midst of a round against rival partners, she asked Dad, “Have I played this game before?” He nodded. “This is fun,” she exclaimed. They went on to win the tournament, all muscle memory on her part. Did the competition wonder if my parents’ strategy was an octogenarian shake down? No one would have known that for this old man, playing cribbage with his wife made life seem almost normal. Maybe she wasn’t really slipping away.

When climbing stairs became too challenging for Dad to leave home, he played cribbage for money with his friend Wayne, who showed up at Dad’s twice a week for four years. The two of them swapped the same 7 bucks back and forth up until Dad died six months ago.

I don’t recall teaching my 28-year-old son to play cribbage, which means he likely learned the way I did: from watching.

April 2016 I get the second-worst phone call a parent could receive: accident, brain bleed. The worst call is a dead child; I am shocked but hopeful as I book a flight to Texas and pack within minutes. Out of habit, I throw in my travel cribbage board, as necessary as a toothbrush when I leave home. Twelve hours later I exit my last plane and spot a uniformed police officer at the end of the ramp. This is it: my son is dead. I steady myself on the railing. The officer immediately speaks of Alex in the present tense and rushes me to his trauma unit room.

Alex’s face is unrecognizable: purple eyelids puffed shut, alien head swollen twice its size and wrapped in a blood-stained bandage. Only my son’s nose is familiar to me. When a doctor explains Alex’s skull fracture, I visualize cracking an egg on a curb. But unlike Humpty Dumpty, Alex will heal.

That trip the cribbage board lay in my bag for days, a talisman, reminder of better times. A few weeks later I visit after Alex’s release from a traumatic brain injury rehabilitation center. I bring along one of Dad’s homemade cribbage boards he chose just for his grandson, all sleek wood and perfectly drilled holes. Alex and I play at his kitchen table, late on a Saturday afternoon. I am on high alert: what skills has he lost? Can he still understand the complexities of this game? Of life? Part of Alex’s rehab homework means doing Sudoku and reading, both of which he breezes through but hates. Cribbage is fun — not really a test.

Ten minutes into our first round I’m about 25 points ahead. How can I skunk a guy with a head injury? I try not to fixate on the 12-inch incision on the top of his head, like stitching on a basketball, a lifesaving “bone flap” where surgeons cut his skull apart to relieve pressure on his swelling brain. I want to throw the game, but I’m getting the best hands ever. Alex slowly comes from behind, whooping at me as he passes my red peg with his green one, counting out loud dramatically. His East Coast roommate comes down to see our Wisconsin family ruckus. I take it all in: my slow demise on this cribbage board — a treasure made by my father, one my son might someday play on with his own kids — Alex’s lightning-quick counting and wise moves to beat me.

“He’s gonna be okay,” says a voice in my head. “My son is really gonna be okay.”

Next Saturday: An inglorious hunting story from Nickolas Butler.