Schools play major role in well-being of kids with asthma

Asthma medication
Each morning before school, second-grader Maylena Carter takes her asthma medication while school nurse Dr. Betsy Garcia watches.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

When Denika Jackson dropped her son Keontae Gaskin at a summer school program in June, she had no idea that it would put the 13-year-old in a situation that could have triggered an asthma attack.

While the school has documentation of her son's severe asthma, Jackson said officials apparently did not pass that information to Keontae's teacher.

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When his class went to swimming lessons at an indoor pool, her son had to warn the teacher about his breathing problems.

"He was like, 'I have asthma and I can't come in here,'" said Jackson. "He said the teacher was like, 'Oh well, whatever.'"

Editor's note: This story is part of a series that explores health disparities among certain groups of Minnesotans and the growing importance of data to understand the causes. The report was done in collaboration with the Healthy States project, American Public Media's focus on information, insight and experiences in health.

The teacher told Keontae to sit out class on a bench alongside the indoor pool. But that was a terrible idea, Jackson said, because lung-irritating chlorine fumes are everywhere inside an enclosed pool area.

"That's an asthma attack waiting to happen," she said.

The episode was an important reminder that schools can make a big difference in the lives of students who have asthma, for better or worse.

Keontae's eyes turned red and he was uncomfortable, but he did not have an attack. School officials later reprimanded his teacher for not finding a safer place for him to wait for his classmates.

But Jackson found it frustrating that she couldn't trust the school to take the proper precautions with her son.

Since 1999, the Minnesota Department of Health has trained more than 900 teachers and other school personnel so they are better prepared to help students manage their asthma while in school. The agency also has published a list of asthma tips for physical education and health instructors.

Many schools in Minnesota are making asthma a top priority to improve student attendance and learning.

At Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School in St. Paul, 10 percent of the students have asthma.

At a time when some Minnesota schools have opted for health aids instead of school nurses to save money, Principal Patrick Bryan said he knows his highly-trained school nurse is a good investment.

"When it really comes down to the essential needs of children in schools, I would not compromise with health care," Bryan said.

Betsy Garcia, Capitol Hill's school nurse, is a board-certified nurse practitioner. Garcia, who also has a doctorate in education, said most of the students who have asthma in her school have their disease under control. But she said there are always students who haven't yet been diagnosed and don't understand what's happening to them when they suddenly experience an asthma attack.

Keontae Gaskin
During afternoon sports, Keontae Gaskin, 13, and his fellow campers at Camp Superkids, decide which games to play.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

"It's very, very frightening if you've ever watched a child have a severe asthma attack," Garcia said. "Then ... you have to call their parents and say, 'your child is having trouble breathing.'

It's important, she said, to reassure parents and tell the child, "You're going to be okay."

Alecia Mobley of St. Paul recalls getting a call like that a year ago about her 8-year-old daughter Maylena.

"Dr. Garcia called and said 'Something's not right. Something is not right,'" Mobley said. "And so when Dr. Garcia calls you, you act and you move,"

Maylena had been feeling under the weather after going on a field trip the previous day, but Mobley thought her daughter was well enough to go to school. However, when Garcia visited Maylena's classroom later that day, she noticed that the second grader was breathing heavily - and having her first asthma attack.

Her mother rushed her to the doctor's office, which immediately transferred Maylena to a hospital to stabilize her breathing.

"Dr. Garcia was quite literally a life-saver for us," said Melvin Carter, Maylena's father. "And so we were really thankful for her being there." Health crises such as Maylena's don't occur every day at Capitol Hill, but Garcia said her asthma students still keep her very busy.

"It never ends -- making sure that their medication is here, being alert and saying [to a student], 'come on [over] here, let me listen to your lungs,'" Garcia said.