Our toddler daughter stopped breathing in our arms after eating a bite of food to which she was severely allergic. The EpiPen injection we quickly gave her likely saved her life. Alex was stung by a bee when in his 30s, and unexpectedly had his first anaphylactic reaction, losing consciousness within minutes. Quick action on a friend’s part, and an EpiPen injection, likely saved his life.
We knew nothing about anaphylaxis until these experiences, but we learned from both that it happens quickly and unexpectedly, to people who know they have allergies, as well as people who don’t. We also learned that epinephrine (epi) auto-injectors, administered in a pinch, can halt potentially fatal symptoms of anaphylaxis, re-open airways, and save lives.
Years ago, before these episodes, Alex recalls not paying enough attention to paperwork notices about his students with severe allergies. Now, as California Teacher of the Year (2009), he wants to right that past oversight and help all of our state’s students and school staff members who may suffer an anaphylactic reaction at school.
We believe Senate Bill 1266 — requiring public schools to stock auto-injectors and provide training for school staff volunteers (in addition to school nurses) — will do just that. The bill is up for vote in the California State Assembly on Aug. 14, and we urge our legislators to vote “yes.”
Anaphylaxis results in 200,000 emergency room visits annually, and first-time anaphylactic reactions can occur at any age. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 1 in 25 children have severe food allergies, and about 17 percent of them have reported reactions at school. At least 25 percent of first-time anaphylactic reactions occur at school, and fatality can happen within minutes.
Until we learn the causes and cures for anaphylaxis, we must focus on education for prevention and crisis response — especially in our schools.
With all due respect to our teachers unions that don’t support this bill, because they want only school nurses to administer auto-injections, we offer an alternative perspective. Most of the time during anaphylaxis, there isn’t time to summon a medically-trained person to administer an auto-injector. Medical training is also not needed to administer one — they’re designed for simple administration in a crisis by anyone.
We train our family members, friends, babysitters and our children’s willing school faculty to recognize anaphylaxis symptoms and use auto-injectors. It’s a simple process and new models even digitally talk you through it.
Only allowing school medical personnel to administer auto-injectors, and thus not training additional school staff volunteers, is unrealistic and unnecessary. It could also cost lives. Tragic deaths, like that of 7-year-old Ammaria Johnson at her Virginia school in 2012, could potentially be avoided with stocked auto-injectors and more trained staff members.
Alex has visited countless schools throughout California, and has talked with many teachers personally about this issue. Without exception, his colleagues tell him they would rather be trained and prepared to help a student having an allergic crisis than not — that they want to know when and how to use auto-injectors, because they care about their students’ safety first.
Nowhere does this bill require any school staff members to administer an auto-injection if they are uncomfortable doing so, nor does it hold them liable. Nowhere does it say we shouldn’t hire more school nurses — we absolutely believe hiring more school nurses benefits schools in many ways, but that’s not the point of this bill.
Bottom line, the more people at a school site trained to recognize symptoms of anaphylaxis and use an auto-injector, the safer it will be for all students and staff members who may suffer a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Our family allergist tells us, “if in doubt, use the auto-injector — it won’t do any harm to give it, but it could do major harm not to.” We’ve seen firsthand how the quick use of an auto-injector can save lives. Not having access to an auto-injector, or not giving it quickly enough, risks lives.
We urge our state legislators to vote “yes” on Senate Bill 1266, for the protection of all students and staff members who may experience anaphylaxis in California public schools.
Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, a Top-Four Finalist for National Teacher of the Year, and a resident of San Diego. Megan Pincus Kajitani is a writer, educator, and resident of Carlsbad.