The Nurse Who’s the Allergic Student’s Protector

in Food Allergy Advocates
Published: July 16, 2014

cathyowensWhen parents hand their children with food allergies over to the school system, they hope there will be someone like school nurse Cathy Owens around, setting anaphylaxis policy and ensuring kids are safe.

Owens has been passionate about anaphylaxis ever since the star of her school’s drama program came into her office struggling to breathe. Her on-the-spot decision to give him another student’s epinephrine auto-injector saved the young man’s life, and set the stage for California to become one of the first states to allow public schools to keep “stock” or unprescribed epinephrine auto-injectors on hand.

Owens, now the coordinator of health services for Murietta Valley Unified School District in California, has dedicated her career to improving the safety of students with anaphylaxis at school. She has become a trusted resource in the state and across the nation: she is an Epinephrine Resource School Nurse, has spoken at a national nursing conference and helped to write California’s standards for anaphylaxis training.

In the latest installment of The Allergy Advocates series, Allergic Living salutes Owens for her hard work and unwavering commitment to student safety. She is a person who goes above and beyond in her work to make epinephrine accessible to any student who might need it, says Connie Green, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Food Allergy Network.

“I often hear about schools wanting to adopt stock epinephrine but not knowing how to – this is when I turn to Cathy. She has always, always helped by sharing her knowledge, experience and encouragement,” says Green.

Senior Allergic Living contributor Claire Gagné speaks to Cathy Owens about how she became the ultimate protector of students at risk of anaphylaxis.

The launching point for your anaphylaxis advocacy was quite dramatic, with a student going into anaphylaxis in your office – tell me what happened?

Retrospectively, it was probably more dramatic than it seemed at the time. Corey was a 15-year-old student who did not have a history of food allergies. He had mild asthma. He had come into the health office for another reason, and while there began to have breathing difficulties, which rapidly escalated.

My first assumption was ‘Corey is doing a good impression of someone either choking or having breathing difficulties,’ but then I looked at him and instantly knew this was not an act. I asked if he was choking and looked for outward signs or symptoms and there was nothing other than this significant breathing restriction. I told the health tech to call 911 and tried to get his breathing under control. But he escalated rapidly.

What happened then?

I had my stethoscope and I was able to listen to him, and there was just no air exchange. Panic set in. I knew at this point he wasn’t going to make it if we had to wait until the paramedics got there. He did not have an EpiPen but we did have another student who had a bee sting allergy. I had no other tools in my toolbox, so I grabbed that student’s auto-injector and gave it to him.

When the paramedics arrived about three or four minutes later, he was able to exchange a little bit of air, but was still having significant problems. They took him off to the ER. I followed and the parents met us there.

When the doctor came out, he said they had stabilized him, that he had had a severe anaphylactic reaction, but someone had given him epinephrine at school. [Since she hadn’t had authorization to do so,] that’s when I thought, ‘Uh, oh. Maybe I should just excuse myself and go back to school.’ But the doctor commended by actions. And Corey’s parents were extremely grateful.

Next page: Aftermath, and the road to advocacy

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