Asthmatic Canadian teen dies after school policy won’t let him carry inhaler

Ontario, Canada resident Sandra Gibbons is pushing to change the law so that no one else’s child dies in school from a preventable asthma attack.

Gibbons’ 12 year old son Ryan died October 9, 2012 after he began to suffer from symptoms of asthma on the playground, but didn’t have his inhaler because, his mother says, the school repeatedly confiscated it from him.

Ryan’s mother says the school has a policy of not permitting students to carry asthma inhalers on their person. Rather, the inhalers – albuterol or ventolin, depending on your locale – must be kept under lock and key in the principal’s office.

And that policy, she says, got Ryan killed.


Ryan Gibbons, 12, died when he had a fatal asthma attack at school and did not have an inhaler on him, as school policy doesn’t permit kids to carry inhalers.

In response, Ryan’s mom is pushing for passage of a nationwide law that permits children to carry asthma inhalers in school.

Ryan’s school district, interestingly, seems to be claiming that they have no policy against students carrying their own inhalers. Ryan’s mom asks, on a Facebook page she set up to campaign in favor of the new law, why, then, did teachers repeatedly confiscate Ryan’s inhaler (she says they have), if no such policy banning inhalers exists?


The problem isn’t entirely limited to Canada.  In the US, states have laws requiring schools to permit students to carry asthma inhalers. But, those laws can permit the schools to require a parent’s signature on a medical release form.  That requirement might have almost gotten one student, 17 year old Michael Rudi, killed.

Rudi rushed to the nurse’s office during an asthma attack since he no longer had his inhaler, which was confiscated by the school a few days before.  Rudi’s parents never signed the consent form permitting him to carry an inhaler in school, and the school argues that all prescription medicines must be accompanied by consent forms.

So, in the middle of a deadly asthma attack, the school refused to give him his medicine, and rather, called his mom, who rushed to the school, only to find her son behind a locked door in the nurse’s offce, collapsing on the floor (it’s not entirely clear why the nurse would have locked a student in medical distress behind a door – this part of the story is a bit sketchy).

Then there’s the UK, where there’s a debate going on as to whether schools should be permitted to carry extra albuterol in the nurse’s office.  The problem?  Albuterol is a prescription medicine, and school nurses don’t generally dole out prescription meds to students.

A few things.

1. I have asthma, caused by allergies.  And I didn’t fully appreciate how dangerous asthma is until I asked my doctor this year (I’m in year 5 of my diagnosis) when I should use my inhaler.

I always thought you weren’t supposed to over-use the inhaler, for some reason.  My doctor was not thrilled when I asked him this question.  He told me that you ALWAYS use your inhaler the moment you sense any tightness in your chest, that it was deadly serious.  He explained that your lungs don’t have many nerve endings, so you don’t really feel your lungs.  So when you reach the point that you’re actually noticing your chest is tight, your lungs are actually ten times worse than you realize.

So, at the point that a student feels he or she need their inhaler, they need it now.

2. I’ve had allergies for about 30 years now (I can thank DC for giving me those).  And over years I’ve noticed that many people who don’t have allergies don’t seem to entirely believe in allergies.  They think you’re exaggerating, or are a hypochondriac, or simply a whiner.

In my case, my allergies were annoying until the asthma kicked in – now they’re deadly.  Get me near a strong perfume or cologne, even strongly scented soap or laundry detergent, and I start to have serious problems.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to change seats in a plane or theater or public transportation to get away from someone who overdid it with the fragrance that day.  That’s an awareness campaign begging to happen, all by itself.


Ryan Gibbons

But it gets worse. I’ve had a problem in my apartment, where the exhaust from someone else’s dryer backs up into my dryer and fills my apartment with their scented detergent/fabric softener, triggering my asthma, sometimes twice a week.  When I emailed the building-wide list begging whoever it was (and it’s pretty clear who it is – there are only a few other units that share the same vent), I was scolded for having the temerity to suggest that we limit someone’s “freedom” to choose their own smelly detergent.  (Mind you, the alternative was spending $6,000 of the building’s *(read: condo owners’) money to try to fix the problem – and it wasn’t even guaranteed that that particular fix would even work (and it didn’t).)

It also took me three and a half years of begging, bugging, and finally threatening, my condo association to get action on this (and the problem is still not resolved).

Bottom line: A lot of people don’t take allergies, and asthma, seriously.

First let’s talk about Ryan’s school.  I can understand why schools worry about kids carrying prescription drugs.  There’s the “drug abuse” problem, and also the overall legal liability problem (aka litigious parents), of kids carrying prescription meds on them.  Thus the reason some schools want the parents to sign permission slips for the kids to carry the drugs on their person.  Still, there’s really no excuse for any school to not have some way for kids to carry albuterol on them – and while I get the “permission form” requirement, we’re talking about life-saving drugs.  This is simply insane.

What’s equally insane is that it’s taken the Canadian parliament over a year now to address this issue.

Now let’s talk about the Canadian parliament. Ryan’s death happened over a year ago. And while in the US it would likely take more than a year to get a law passed – but not always. When a story shocks the senses, it’s amazing how quickly lawmakers can move. When AMERICAblog revealed that you could buy anyone’s cell phone records online for $89, by buying Gen. Wesley Clark’s own phone records and publishing them (redacted) on this site, Congress got the law passed (it passed the US House unanimously) and President Bush signed it, that same year.

So it’s not impossible for lawmakers to act quickly. And even though this is Canada, and not America, I have a hard time believing that no legislation, no amendment, has ever gone from inception to passage in under a year.

It’s usually only a matter of political will.

(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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