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Proposed bill requires lifesaving EpiPens in schools

| Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 9:34 p.m.
Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Mike Swantek, 17, of Robinson demonstrates how to use an EpiPen on the thigh of a mannequin at Parkway West Career and Technology Center in Oakdale on Monday, May 20, 2013.
Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Dr. Darby Copeland, executive director of the Parkway West Career and Technology Center, along with another administrator, used an EpiPen to revive a teenager last year who had an allergic reaction to peanuts.

Darby A. Copeland administered epinephrine two or three times last school year to a student who was allergic to peanuts. The teen could barely breathe.

“He would have died each time,” said Copeland, executive director of Parkway West Career and Technology Center in Oakdale. He is also a nurse and paramedic.

Copeland and other school officials in Allegheny County are big boosters of Senate Bill 898 proposed by state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon. The bill requires school districts to keep a supply of epinephrine injectors called EpiPens in their schools. The legislation also requires the state Department of Health to give free training to school staff in how to administer an injection to someone with a life-threatening or anaphylactic reaction to food or a bee sting.

“It's a no-brainer. It's certainly going to save children's lives,” Copeland said.

Smith said he does not know how many school districts have EpiPens available and how many do not. He said he introduced the bill because one in 13 children has a food allergy, but many have not been diagnosed or forget to bring their EpiPen to school.

“Really, there's no more important place to keep children safe but in a school setting,” he said.

Smith said eight states, including Maryland and Virginia, require schools to have EpiPens. About 30 other states plan to introduce legislation to require schools to stock them.

When someone has a life-threatening reaction because of an allergy, the soft tissues in the neck may swell, blocking the airway, causing the person to suffocate within minutes, Copeland said. The EpiPen sends adrenaline throughout the victim's system and slows the allergic reaction.

About 200 of 1,800 children in the Mt. Lebanon School District have severe reactions to food allergies and bee stings, even mosquito bites, said Deanna Hess, chairman of health services for the district. She estimated that when Mt. Lebanon began stocking EpiPens about seven years ago, when about 6 percent of students had severe allergies. Now it's about 12 percent, she said, because of increased diagnoses from doctors.

Every student with a severe reaction in Mt. Lebanon has a treatment plan completed by a school nurse. Hess said each school in the district stocks EpiPens in a first aid kit in the nurse's office and lunchroom. The cafeterias also are close to the playground where students might be stung by a bee.

“Everyone in the school district has to know how to use an EpiPen — the custodian all the way up to the principal, and they get trained every year how to do it,” Hess said.

Hess said Mt. Lebanon uses the EpiPen four or five times a year and that the device absolutely saves lives.

“I'd rather err on the side of using it and save a life because I don't know what's going on inside their system,” she said.

Kathleen Butterini, school nurse for the middle and high school in the Avonworth School District, said it keeps EpiPens in the nurse's office and that the athletic trainer has one, too. She takes EpiPens, inhalers and student medications to school-sponsored events in case they are needed there.

Butterini said she has used the EpiPen on two students.

Teresita K. Kolenchak, spokeswoman for the Penn Hills School District, said that it has EpiPens in all of its buildings and that district staff are trained in how to use them.

Kate Parker, a North Hills mother whose daughter has a food allergy, started a support group called Epimoms. She said she carries an EpiPen with her and has used it on her child a couple times. She supports Smith's bill.

“It's very scary to watch your child (have trouble breathing),” she said. “You want to keep all children safe.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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