Kim McFerrin was in seventh grade when she had her first asthma attack on the soccer field at her school in Northeast Salem, Ore.
"I kept sneezing and the more I kept sneezing, the harder it was getting for me to breathe and it got to the point where I couldn't breathe at all and I knew my inhaler was across the street and on the other side of the school," Kim recalled.
Kim's inhaler was locked in the principal's office, because even though the school knew about her illness, it was against school policy for her to carry an inhaler with her.
"I was actually afraid for my life. I didn't know if I would get back in time to be able to use my inhaler, or to be able to do anything to help me breathe," Kim said. "When you can't breathe you never know what can happen."
Eventually, Kim's mother encouraged her daughter to sneak her medicine into class with her, which she did until she graduated from high school in the spring of 2003.
A Zero-Tolerance Policy
Asthma affects more than 5.2 million school-aged children, according to the American Lung Association. Across the United States, many schools have a strict "zero tolerance" policy toward all drugs, even prescription medication.
While 25 states currently have laws specifying that children must be allowed to carry their asthma drugs with them in class, the remaining states have no statewide legislation on the issue, which means it is left up to school administrators to decide whether or not children can carry their own asthma medication.
Dr. Christina Johns, a Good Morning America medical contributor and an expert on emergency pediatric care, says that the inability of children to have their medication within reach is dangerous. "In the emergency department at Children's National Medical Center, where I've worked as a physician for the last six years, asthma is the number one diagnosis we see in our patients," Johns said. "And one of the only ways to keep children out of the hospital is to get them their medication immediately."
Every year 5,000 people - children and adults - will die from asthma attacks because their medication wasn't handy or because they weren't able to get proper medical care in time, said Dr. Kim Witzmann of Children's National Medical Center.
"By having those meds available to children to be used when they start to feel those symptoms, that's the best way to prevent serious life threatening illness and possibly death," Witzmann said.
Call on Your Doctor
Legislation has recently been introduced in Congress that would encourage schools to let children carry their medication with them, so they can treat themselves when they feel a potentially dangerous asthma attack coming on. There is a bill in the House waiting to be heard by committee, and a companion bill being drafted by the Senate.
But until new legislation passes, many kids - and parents - are on their own.
"It doesn't get any better without the inhaler," Kim said. "When you have an asthma attack, you have to have it right there."
If school policy forbids students from carrying around an inhaler, the most important thing parents can do is to get their children's doctor involved, Johns said. "Together you should go to the school administration and say look, we have to work out a plan," Johns said. "You have to make the school see that an individualized care plan can work out. And you have to get the school to say - maybe in writing - that the inhaler is not going to be locking up somewhere, that your child can use it. Doctors are very convincing advocates in situations like this."
Some schools ban inhalers because they fear lawsuits if children huff inhalers all day, and are afraid that children will let other kids play around with the inhalers and risk adverse reactions. Others schools stress that they believe that medical devices should only be used in the nurse's office.
While Johns wouldn't advise parents to tell their children to break school policy, she says schools should be reminded that inhalers can be a life or death issue, and that a 911 call and an ambulance may be a lot more intrusive than letting a child carry an inhaler..
The age at which a child can carry around their own inhaler depends on their developmental abilities. But in general, the child should be able to demonstrate to a parent and their doctor that they know the proper technique for using the inhaler, and can name the symptoms and trigger of an asthma attack.
To see if your state has legislation on asthma drugs in school, check with the Allergy amp; Asthmatic Network, Mothers of Asthmatics: http://www.aanma.org/cityhall/ch\_childrights.htm
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