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

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?

teen-dies-asthma

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.

ryans-law

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 | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • KateHatesU

    They watched that child die right there in the school while they called mom. This is beyond disgusting. Rot in hell you bastards.

  • http://fighttherightwingnuts.blogspot.com/ mike31c

    Sue these idiots into the ground.

  • Mark_in_MN

    Sorry, I can’t really agree even with what you say. Yes, it might be better if people with asthma saw a doctor regularly. But not everyone does. I’d rather allow asthmatics to treat themselves with OTC albuterol than not be treated at all, and I think that’s the real-world scenario that keeping it prescription only creates for far too many people, especially those who have relatively mild asthma but can use an inhaler now and then. Hopefully the ACA will decrease the number of asthmatics that go untreated because they are uninsured.

    And then there is the unbelievable silliness that goes along with getting a new inhaler. One always has to wait 20+ minutes for a pharmacist to take the order (the record of a prescription is confirmed when you ask for a refill), pull a box off the shelf, slap a stupid label in it, and hand it over. That process, which hardly needs an actual pharmacist to complete, should be able to be completed in a couple of minutes, even with it passing through a pharmacist’s hands. Then, depending on the size of the inhaler that give me when I go in (which constantly varies), I usually only need to refill it a couple of times a year, if not once a year. This invariably means that a medication I’ve used as needed for decades now has met that magical (and unnecessary) annual expiration, which means it takes several days for the pharmacy to get a message to the clinic and the clinic to respond, only to have the pharmacist take more of my time to insist on a consultation (which it should be my absolute right to refuse, as my physician has already given me instructions about the medication) as if I’ve never had this medication before, even though I’ve had a prescription for it for over 25 years.

    I and others like me should be able to simply go in to a pharmacy and walk out in a few minutes with a new albuterol inhaler. If you don’t want to make it over the counter, fine, then we should invent a new way of handling such drugs that involve some ID card that enables us to buy it as if it were OTC.

    Pharmacy is one of the last bastions of paternalistic medicine. It’s time, no, it’s overdue for getting with the rest of the medical community and became more responsive to customers/patients and more of a team rather than authority driven approach.

  • Guest in MN

    Albuterol isn’t over the counter (and Primatene Mist is gone thank god) because IF you need it you should be seen and evaluated by a physician, NP or PA. Using albuterol indicates you (may) have asthma and need a daily controller medicine. Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the lungs – albuterol does nothing for the inflammation. It’s only a muscle relaxor so if the inflammation builds up and you’re producing the sticky mucus in the lungs eventually your airways are so plugged you can’t breathe and Albuterol will do NOTHING for you once that happens. People die from asthma as this article demonstrates and asthma is not a disease that should be self treated which is what OTC meds are – self treatment. And you DO need to be concerned about using too much Albuterol. The airways have receptors that pick up Albuterol and make the muscles surrounding the airways relax – use to much Albuterol too often and the receptors become numb to the medication and it no longer works.THEN you’re really in trouble.

  • Guest

    LAWSUITS are the reason for zero tolerance policies and why schools must have strict policies that apply to everyone. Teachers/ principals are not allowed to use common sense when it comes to medications – they’re getting sued when they do! In the USA, every state (I believe it’s all 50 now) have laws that allow a child to carry their inhaler BUT that child has to be old enough to understand how and when to use their inhaler and how often. If a child is too young to tell time they don’t know how long to wait before using their inhaler again. There is a lot more going on in schools and they’re simply trying to make sure they don’t get sued (again) and are trying to treat all kids equal. YOU try and make all parents happy and deal with unruly nasty kids who spray their inhaler all over other students and then YOU deal with the parent who bitches everyone out because their kid was sprayed in the eyes with albuterol. YOU figure which pills are ibuproferon and which are illegal drugs and you deal with the parent screaming in your face in the health office because THEY didn’t bother to tell you little Jonny has asthma..because YOU are supposed to know that automatically with 1500 kids running the halls…there are reasons for policies even though they don’t make sense to you and they are there because parents often refuse to provide information so a school nurse can do her job and make sure THEIR kid is safe and taken care of. Nurses want to provide excellent care to children but they can’t do it in the dark, without information and they sure as hell don’t want to be sued.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    The “zero tolerance” policies in place in so many schools (and other places) are, as far as I can see, an abdication of the administrations’ and teachers’ responsibility to use their judgment in handling these sorts of questions, which is one reason that we agree to hand our kids over to them for a portion of each day. If they’re not going to exercise that judgment, let them go work for the TSA.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    Dust mites, and certain scents. I have had to get off a subway train and wait for the next one because of someone’s cologne.

    Although in my cases, allergies are not forever: I suddenly developed, around age 13-14, severe hay fever — could not go outside in the late summer or fall. Also an allergy to cat dander, which was a problem: we had three. By the time I was twenty-one, they’d pretty much vanished, except for a sensitivity to dust and pollen in the fall — but only in the fall. And even that seems to have disappeared.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    Lawsuit against the board and administration, criminal charges against the teacher(s) responsible: manslaughter.

  • Indigo

    Well, we agree about cats, anyhow.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    It’s all about that “zero tolerance” BS craze that hit in the 1990s. Rather than use common sense and reasoned judgment, it was easier just to say “No X, no exceptions” — with X being whatever they deemed a kid shouldn’t have or do.

    Bring a plastic picnic knife to school? Expulsion and arrest. Bring a couple ibuprofen? Same thing. Need immediate access to a medication that, unless it’s taken right away, might as well not be available at all? Confiscated.

    I’ve said this below in the comments and I’ll say it again: Our schools have become day-prisons for our children. And we wonder why they’re falling behind in education?

  • grandpamike1

    You know, I have a grandchild who is asthmatic, and, God forbid, if this happened to him, I would consider a US 2nd Amendment remedy. Stupid laws, stupid administrators following them.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I have cat dander allergies, too — and it’s the same thing for me. A few cats don’t bother me, some just a little, and some — orange tabbies especially — will bring on an allergy attack even if I just sit on a sofa they’ve been near.

    I was also tested and it turns out one of my other big ones, besides certain types of pollen (hence I’m classified mainly as ‘seasonal allergies’) is dust mites.

  • grandpamike1

    How do stupid laws like that get passed ? Are school nurses, and or authorities unwilling to act to possibly save a life, or follow the “law” and let a person die. I guess stupid politicians and laws they pass are not entirely singular to the United States.

  • usagi

    You know, it was a different world then (we’re talking late 50s or early 60s). And it apparently didn’t cause them any long-term problems since they’re still together.

  • Mark_in_MN

    Albuterol really isn’t one that needs to have concern about abuse. And it’s really quite safe, besides. It’s one of those prescription medications that I don’t understand why it’s still not available as an over the counter medicine. With Primatene Mist over the counter for so long, which really does pose some significant dangers, one has to wonder why albuterol isn’t available that way.

  • Mark_in_MN

    I know what you mean about people not believing the allergy thing. There are times that I can walk into someone’s house or apartment and tell instantly that they have a cat without having seen it, known about it, or seen cat things around. Other cats don’t bother me much at all. But some cats have just the right proteins, or something. It can happen at homes where people are meticulous about keeping things clean, too. Some people are simply amazed when I say “You must have a cat” after I enter. Many years ago when I was last given the allergy tests, the woman who was doing it felt one of the spots, felt it again, paused, and said something like “I’m supposed to rank these from 0 to 4, I’d like to rank this a 6 or 7. I’ve hardly seen anyone react this much before.” I asked what it was. It was the test for cat dander.

  • Mark_in_MN

    the inhalers – albuterol or ventolin, depending on your locale

    Actually, Ventolin is a brand name (from GlaxoSmithKline). The drug name is albuterol. Albuterol might also be known as salbutamol outside of the United States.

  • MyrddinWilt

    If it was me I would have gone apeshit at the school and brought a nasty lawsuit.

    Lawsuits are a good way to force this sort of change. The school was obviously negligent. In the US the school board would be looking at a $4m settlement and a huge increase in their premiums. Then the insurer would go round and check that all the schools whose policies they were writing were not doing anything similar.

    Feedback does work…

  • Zorba

    Years ago, when my daughter was in Middle School (she is in her mid-30′s now), I had to fight the school tooth and nail to get them to allow her to carry her albuterol inhaler at all times, even during (and maybe especially during) her PE class.
    I offered to sign any medical release form they wanted (they didn’t have such for inhalers at the time), I wrote a permission letter, and I had her doctor write them a formal letter that it was a medical imperative for her to carry her inhaler at all times, because it might well be too late if she had to go to the office to get it while suffering an asthma attack. Still no dice.
    I finally called the principal and told him that if anything bad happened to my daughter as a result of her not having her inhaler on hand, I would not only be suing the entire school district and the Board of Education, I would be suing him, personally, and he (and the district) would be hearing from my lawyer.
    The next day, she received permission to carry her inhaler.
    I would have hoped that it would have gotten better since then, but apparently, it certainly hasn’t.

    This is nuts. I can understand why schools do not want kids to carry around such things as Ritalin or Adderal, which, unfortunately, some kids do sell to others. And you are not going to die if you do not take your ADHD medicine right then and there. But an inhaler?
    Give me a f*cking break.

  • Taz

    Lucky she wasn’t charged with attempted murder. What an idiot!

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Suggestion for John: You might be able to install a vent valve in your condo, where your dryer plugs into the wall vent. In residential usage, they’re intended mainly to keep cold outside air from infiltrating into a utility/laundry room, but I’d imagine a good one ought to be able to keep most of your offending neighbor’s stinky fabric softener from leaking into your place.

    Anyway, personal comment first: As for allergies, yeah, until you’re breaking out in hives or have snot running down your nose (insert obligatory Jethro Tull power chords), people simply don’t believe, “I can’t go there because I’m allergic to X.” Or “eat that” or “be in aromatic proximity to that.”

    You ought to see what it’s like for those of us who get migraines…

  • emjayay

    You should be able to put in a simple closable baffle in your dryer vent tube to prevent backup from another dryer for far less than $6,000.

  • emjayay

    I’m guessing the inhalers are probably fine long after the date. Since they work quickly, you should be able to tell in a minute if it’s still good, and do the new one if not.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I find the tone associated with the discussion to be unserious. Your response is evidence of my point. This is one of those “outrage” issues that can’t be discussed unless you 100% agree. And if you don’t fully agree, people will nitpick you to death.

    I hate cats too :)

  • judybrowni

    Still more harmful zero-tolerance nonsense in our schools.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Yes — it’s about control. Over the last few generations, our schools — public and private — have been systematically turned into little “day prisons.”

  • ArthurH

    That is the bane of the world. People put in a position of authority abusing that authority by arbitrarily making up rules to show they are the boss. If they only had used a little common sense or compassion. I hope the people responsible for this travesty never have another decent night’s sleep.

  • Monoceros Forth

    That was an astonishingly irresponsible thing for your aunt to have done, one of the meanest practical jokes I can think of. And yet I have a small bit of sympathy with those sceptical of claims of food allergies because I have known just that sort of person, and I suspect that many of us here have known someone similar, who elevated his fussiness about food to a guiding principle of life and would remind you at every relevant moment of his vaguely described “intolerances” to half the foodstuffs on the menu. It’s a bit like what’s happened with coeliac disease. It’s a very real metabolic disorder yet it’s attracted scads of pretenders who trumpet their supposed intolerance of gluten (which is, by the way, surely one of the greatest gifts of the gods to a parched and broken world) to anyone who might listen. It is also indisputable that far, far more people claim to have allergies than actually exhibit allergic reactions in blind testing.

  • Indigo

    It’s not a game, John.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I don’t buy the “don’t say America” game. Otherwise we’d have been calling Mexico nothing these past several years that it was called the United States of Mexico. Since there are two US, and you can’t call a country what comes after “United States.” People call themselves Jesús too, and we’re perfectly capable of understanding that just because you’re Jesús, that doesn’t mean another guy can’t be Jesus.

  • SL Abrin

    Allergies not only are at cause for serious physical reactions, but behavioral (as an effect) as well.

  • perljammer

    OK, this just goes to show that for any extreme position, there is an equal and opposite extreme position. By the way, I’d be interested in seeing a citation of any authoritative source to back your contention about schools having no legal authority to confiscate doctor prescribed medication?

    Maybe a little common sense would be better. Like, asthma inhalers, epi pens, and similar emergency symptom relief medications are fine; pain killers, psychotropics, Ritalin — not so much.

  • usagi

    You’re right about people not believing in allergies. I detest them. I won the genetic lottery in my family and have no food allergies, but half my family could die if they ingest nuts (“Who wants an epipen in their stocking this year?”).

    A funny (at least now) family story is an aunt who was raised with the belief that allergies are all in the person’s head, so shortly after the wedding, she baked my uncle a pie with very finely ground nuts in it to prove it to him. After he got out of the hospital, she reevaluated.

  • perljammer

    John, I’ve had allergy-induced asthma for over 15 years now. Take heart, it can improve. My low point was a week-long hospital stay after an attack that wouldn’t respond to my emergency inhaler; that’s my one “near death” experience. I’m thankful my wife was there; I might have been able to dial 911, but I don’t think I could have given any information. Today, after years of Advair use, I’m pretty much symptom free. I use an Albuteral inhaler maybe once every 4 to 6 weeks; those inhalers just get thrown away mostly unused after passing their “discard after” dates. I still pay for them, though; just can’t shake the feeling that paying for them and not using them is better than not paying for them and needing them in a critical situation.

    The school situation you describe is a maddeningly familiar story. Bureaucrats don’t seem to be able to come up with policies that embody any common sense. Limit access to prescription drugs to combat drug abuse? OK, but who abuses Albuteral, for crying out loud?? How about just limiting access to drugs that actually get abused? Too complicated? Too much chance of assuming liability (I’m betting on this one)? Reminds me of the “zero tolerance” policies on weapons that end up with kids being suspended for pointing a finger and saying “bang”.

  • I_HATE_THAT_DAMN_WORD_VIRAL

    This is ridiculous, Schools whether American, British, Canadian etc.. have no legal authority to confiscate any Dr. prescribed medication from any student. If a child’s death is caused by their not being able to have access to their medication then the person who confiscated it should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. In this case, the school was clearly responsible for the death of Ryan Gibbons and therefore should be made to pay compensation to his family or face prison time and as far as I’m concerned both would be best.

  • Indigo

    O Canada (which is “not America”)! Seriously, John, you meant “not the United States” I hope.

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