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Food Allergy

Time to End Food Allergy Tragedies

Originally published in Allergic Living‘s Spring 2012 edition.

Little Amarria was the wakeup call. We have the tool, the auto-injector, to stop the senseless allergy deaths like hers. Now we have to use it.

ON THE first day of school after Christmas of 2011, 7-year-old Amarria Johnson and her Grade 1 classmates in Richmond, Virginia bounced outside of Hopkins Road Elementary after lunch to play. You could usually hear Amarria before you saw her: she loved to sing, in church, for the video camera, in the car, at school. She would sing for anyone, and she had big plans to be a star on the Disney Channel.

For this first day back to school, Amarria’s mother had carefully rolled her daughter’s long hair in a bun. The girl was excited to be going back. “She loved everything,” her mother Laura Pendleton told Allergic Living. “The world was an awesome, innocent place.”

Then a child in the playground gave her a peanut. Amarria had always avoided the peanut butter and jam sandwiches that the school offered for lunch every day because she had an allergy to peanuts. But this time, for reasons no one knows, she popped the peanut into her mouth.

Amarria knew right away she was in trouble. She asked the teacher outside to help. That was exactly what she was supposed to do. But then the system failed her.

The teacher walked Amarria to the school’s health clinic, where an aide searched for an epinephrine auto-injector with Amarria’s name on it. An auto-injector shoots epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, into the body. The drug can stop a severe allergic reaction outright or buy enough time for paramedics to arrive. Amarria desperately needed that shot of life; in the minutes after she arrived at the clinic, she was struggling to breathe. But the clinic did not have an auto-injector prescribed for Amarria.

A Child Runs Out of Breath

Over the next few minutes, the girl ran out of breath, right there in the clinic. Just before 2:30 p.m., the school called 911, but by the time firefighters and police arrived, Amarria’s heart was failing. The rescuers tried CPR; they tried to restart her heart with a defibrillator. They rushed her to Chippenham Hospital, but it was too late. Amarria was pronounced dead shortly after she arrived. The cause of death: anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest.

It is such a senseless, heartbreaking loss of a little girl so full of life. But beyond the tragedy, this disturbing issue has emerged: there were likely auto-injectors prescribed to other students in the Hopkins Road Elementary clinic. (Allergic Living has learned this was likely the case, though the school board declines to comment on specifics.) If an auto-injector was there, however, the aide was not allowed to use it. Why?

“Many of our students [in Chesterfied County] have EpiPens at school,” acknowledged Shawn Smith, the board’s spokesman. “It’s illegal to give a prescription drug to someone else,” he said.

The staff at the county’s public schools are instructed that they are only allowed to use an epinephrine auto-injector if it is specifically prescribed by a doctor for the child in question and if the school has the child’s written action plan for allergy emergencies. “Absent those two,” Smith said, “we’re unable to carry out the doctor’s [verbal] orders.”

Next page: Why we can stop the tragedies – now

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