‘Superhero’ needles save lives

By Gregory Cappis

Dr. Sarah Boudreau-Romano said she worries every time her children leave her side to go to school. She hopes they return a little a bit smarter, but most importantly, that they make it home safe.

Alex Simko, a 16-year-old high school student, used to share similar worries. She said she feared leaving her parents’ arms every day to go to class because she thought it might be the last time she would be able to say goodbye to them.

What causes these worries? It’s not drugs or gang violence, but food. When Simko was four, she almost died from a severe allergic reaction. Three of Boudreau-Romano’s four children have food allergies. Boudreau-Romano, a pediatric allergist, fears that one of them will suffer a serious reaction while away from her and what she calls “her family’s superhero”—epinephrine. Boudreau-Romano’s kids and Simko are just a few of the approximately 6 million children in the U.S. who suffer from food allergies.

Epinepherine is the drug used to treat severe allergic reactions. It has saved the lives of Simko and two of Boudreau-Romano’s children. U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin held a press conference at Children’s Memorial Hospital, 2300 N. Children’s Plaza, on Nov. 14, to introduce a new piece of bi-partisan legislature that they believe will sail through Congress.

“I think this is a 100 to zero issue,” Kirk said.

Durbin said the bill is designed to defend against unguarded moments in school when classmates share a sandwich or candy bar, and an allergic reaction occurs.

The bill would allow school administrators to inject children in anaphylactic shock with epinephrine even if they do not have a doctor’s note diagnosing them with food allergies. Dr. Jacqueline Pongracic, head of allergy and immunology at Children’s Memorial Hospital, said 18 percent of food allergy reactions occur while children are at school, including first-time severe reactions.

“While food allergy accidents are inevitable, we must ensure that measures are in place to provide children with access to life-saving medication such as epinephrine,” Pongracic said.

She also said that studies show that when epinephrine is administered promptly after a reaction, the risk for fatalities is greatly reduced.

The new bill would also change the law regarding who is allowed to administer the drug. Currently, only school nurses can inject the needle into students’ thighs. The bill would allow all school teachers and faculty members to deliver the medication that Boudreau-Romano refers to as a “game-changer” and “life-saver.”

The new legislation also includes a Good Samaritan clause. Even if a teacher makes a mistake and delivers the drug to a child showing symptoms of anaphylactic shock who is not actually suffering from an allergic reaction, the teacher cannot be held liable for any negative side effects.

And, in most cases, the side effects are minimal. A child may feel like his or her stomach is in knots or have a raised heartbeat for two minutes if they unnecessarily receive epinephrine, according to Pongracic.

Although this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be accomplished, according to Jennifer Jobrack, Midwest director of philanthropy at the Food Allergy Initiative, an organization that funds food allergy research.

“Creating safer schools is important, but it is not enough,” said Jobrack, whose son suffers from food allergies. “What is most urgent and within our grasp is finding a cure.”

A cure would help mothers like Jobrack and Boudreau-Romano, and children such as Simko, conquer their fears of going to school, or “the minefield,” so they can concentrate on their studies without the fear of choking, losing consciousness and going into anaphylactic shock.