>>Jake Agosto is an adorable kindergartener with rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. Physically, he is indistinguishable from his classmates at his Chapel Hill elementary school; he dangles from the monkey bars and tears down the slide with the best of them. But a life-threatening allergy sets Jake apart from his peers. A single peanut could shut down his airways, slow his heart, and end his life.
“Sending him to public elementary school made me nervous,” explained Jake’s mother, Tania Agosto. “There’s so much you can’t control. You can hope he’s in a peanut-free classroom, but you never know who might hand him a sandwich.”
Before Jake started school, Tania met with the school nurse and the principal to set a plan for her son. He’s always within two minutes of an EpiPen—a pre-loaded needle that can be used to administer life-saving medication in the case of an allergic reaction. When Jake heads to the playground or to the music room, his pen travels with him. Teachers who have been trained in its use hand it off every time he changes classrooms.
As terrifying as it is to worry about her son’s allergies, Tania points out that her family is one of the lucky ones. They’ve identified Jake’s allergies, have a plan in place, and have a prescription for the EpiPen. For every kid like Jake who has been diagnosed, there are hundreds more who have no idea they are one bee sting away from a major hospital stay or worse.
According to recent research, >>8% of children have a major allergy that could lead to a serious reaction. Of those, a large number will have their first reaction at school. In North Carolina, teachers and school nurses do not have access to EpiPens for students who haven’t been given a prescription. This means a child experiencing their first reaction may die while waiting for medical care.
Fighting the Red Tape
It doesn’t have to be this way. North Carolina is one of only five states in the country that doesn’t have a law allowing schools to stock EpiPens for general use. During the last legislative session the House of Representatives >>passed a measure that would require two EpiPens to be kept on the premises of every school in the state. But when the measure was passed to the Senate for approval, >>it was stalled. Senators said they >>worry about the cost of the measure.
The maker of the EpiPen has said they will provide pens to all North Carolina schools free of charge, but that subsequent pens will need to be purchased. The device typically expires after six months, and costs about $110 for a pack of two. This means each school would need roughly $220 a year to meet the need.
Late last year President Obama >>signed a law encouraging schools to keep EpiPens on hand. The bill would also prioritize funding for states that require epinephrine in schools, and that ensure trained personnel are always on hand to administer the treatment.
Saving a life, providing peace of mind
As a lifelong educator, who has spent several decades teaching in Chapel Hill schools, Jake’s mom Tania says that ensuring staff training should be one of the highest priorities. >>School nurses aren’t always available, she says. Many schools only have part-time nurses, or the nurse’s office is far away from the cafeteria or the classroom, where a student could be having a reaction.
“When someone has a reaction, it’s a mad scramble,” she said. “And if the EpiPen is locked up in the nurse’s office, there might not be time to find the keys. There should be one in every hallway, if not every classroom.”
When a child is exposed to an allergen, within seconds their throat might begin to constrict, and their heart might beat irregularly. Within moments the child can pass out. Time is of the essence, Tania said. Having an EpiPen on hand can mean >>preventing the loss of a child.
Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from easily accessible EpiPens. Recently, the Founder and Board Chair of >>Women AdvaNCe, Laura Edwards, got stung by an unknown insect in her yard. Within a few short minutes she was unconscious. While waiting for the paramedics, a neighbor who was a doctor administered a dose of epinephrine via another neighbor’s personal EpiPen.
“[My friend] saw the distress that I was under and jumped in her car and tried to get me 5 minutes away to the hospital,” Laura wrote in a letter to her friends. “I did not have that time. Had this one guy had not offered his own EpiPen then I am not sure how this would have turned out.”
EpiPens are not a treatment in themselves. They are an emergency measure meant to provide a short amount of time until paramedics and other medical personnel are able to provide treatment. The epinephrine works by narrowing blood vessels to helping to stabilize the body. The pen is administered as a shot to a fatty area such as the thigh or buttocks.
After being transported to the hospital, Laura Edwards spent time in critical care, and needed an overnight stay before she was able to go home.
Like defibrillators– which have now become ubiquitous at gyms, universities, and even malls– EpiPens are life-saving devices that provide critical care in an emergency. >>Email your Senator and ask that the NC Senate make passing the EpiPen law a priority during this short session. You can also sign this >>Change.org petition and spread the word to your friends. To date, no child has ever died in a North Carolina school due to an allergy. It’s important that we keep it that way.