‘It’s torture’: Is a mysterious cannabis-related illness underdiagnosed in Canada?

CBC News
Cannabis related Illness CBC News | James Alexander Michie

A mysterious cannabis-related illness is turning up in emergency rooms in Canada, but exactly what causes it is unknown. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Regina Denney’s 17-year-old son Brian called her in a panic; he couldn’t stop throwing up.

It was April 7, 2018 and the Indianapolis teen asked her to take him to the emergency room — but doctors there couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

He was severely dehydrated and constantly vomiting.

“As we’re sitting there talking, another doctor happens to walk by our room and she pokes her head in and she says, ‘Do you smoke marijuana?’” Denney said.

“And he said yes. And she said, ‘Does it get better with hot showers or hot baths?’ And he said yes.”

Brian Smith Jr. was diagnosed with a rare condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS).

When his lab results came back, his mother said the teen’s kidneys were shutting down and his liver wasn’t functioning properly.

“It was just crazy,” Denney said. “They were able to rehydrate him. And [the results] improved. So they released him the next day, but didn’t give us any information about what CHS was, what causes it, what to look for.”

He was a heavy cannabis smoker and his mother convinced him to stop, at least until they could see a gastroenterologist 45 days later.

Denney said he still had symptoms leading up to that appointment and thought if they were related to his cannabis use, he would have been symptom free. So he started smoking again.

Brian Smith Jr. was diagnosed with a rare condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). (Submitted by Regina Denney)

What they didn’t know was CHS can present symptoms weeks or months after stopping cannabis use.

By October, Denney said her son had lost more than 40 pounds.

“You could see his bones. He looked sick,” she said. “It’s torture.”

On the morning of Oct. 24, 2018, she woke up at 5 a.m. to find her son sitting on the couch in the family’s home, clutching his stomach.

He assured his mother he was fine and told her to return to bed.

“So I went back to bed, got up later on in the morning, and he had said he was nauseated and then he started vomiting. I held the bucket for him, I got a washcloth, I fixed his pillows, I brought him drinks,” she said.

“At one point Brian walked out of the room to go the bathroom and he said ‘Mom, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to quit smoking.’ and he laid back down and he grabbed his back.”

Denney suspected kidney damage, so she called 911.

“They said they were on their way. So I came back in and he looked at me and he said, ‘Mom, I can’t breathe.’” she said. “And I rolled him over and he had quit breathing.”

Denney and a neighbour performed CPR until paramedics arrived, and they tried to revive him for 30 minutes.

“I said, ‘Please just try a little longer. He’s 17, just please try a little longer.’ They tried for 45 minutes, there was nothing they could do,” she said.

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Source: Adam Miller | CBC News

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