Benjamin Motley Jr. watched last year at Glenn Hills Middle School as an ambulance carried away a pupil suffering a severe asthma attack.
"He never came back to school," said Mr. Motley, now the principal at Lamar Elementary School. When two of his pupils earlier this year came to the office wheezing heavily, and with the school nurse out, Mr. Motley decided his staff needed more education on how to manage asthma. A week later, he got an e-mail about training seminars from the CSRA Asthma Coalition.
"You send up a prayer and get a confirmation of it," said Mr. Motley, who has asthma himself.
Further confirmation of the seriousness of the disease came last week when 11-year-old Carissa Taylor, a fifth-grade student at Diamond Lakes Elementary School, died from complications from asthma, the school's principal announced in a letter to parents.
Four asthma deaths in children last year between September and November alarmed Augusta health advocates and led to the coalition. There had been three from 1999-2003. That prompted health officials to contact the Georgia Division of Public Health, which in turn requested an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The investigation did not find any particular environmental cause but found that the children were not consistently using their controller medication, which are usually corticosteroids designed to help keep symptoms from flaring up, and were instead relying on their rescue medication. Overuse of the rescue medication can lead to desensitization that makes it less effective, the CDC report noted. In at least two cases, there was a delay in seeking medical attention of at least 36 hours after symptoms started and the caregivers and children themselves might not have realized the severity of the attack, the report noted.
The CDC investigators suggested greater education of parents, children and school personnel, a suggestion the CSRA Asthma Coalition is dedicated to carrying out.
"If people aren't aware of what's happening, sometimes they don't know how to respond," said Sadie Stockton, chronic disease prevention coordinator with the East Central Health District in Augusta and a member of the coalition.
Part of that training took place last week at Lamar Elementary, where pediatric respiratory therapists Cliff Dennis and Sandy Butler from Medical College of Georgia did an "Asthma 101" presentation for teachers and staff. About 50 of the 330 pupils at the school have some form of asthma, said physical education teacher Karen Hammett.
The school is also without a full-time school nurse and Mr. Motley feared teachers might not be equipped to help pupils should an asthma crisis arise.
"You may be the only thing between survival and nonsurvival of the child," he told his teachers.
After the training, he felt teachers would have more confidence taking on asthma. The coalition is also pushing for students to get an Asthma Action Plan that spells out what medications and what steps to take if problems arise, said MCG respiratory therapist Jennifer Anderson.
MCG will hold a free event Oct. 28 at Fort Discovery where as many as 200 children will get a free asthma kit worth $100 and instructions how to use it, in addition to a talk on asthma triggers. The main focus remains on education and opening the lines of communication between health care providers and caregivers to prevent asthma deaths, she said.
"We just don't want it to happen again," Mrs. Anderson said. "It's so sad."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics will hold a free asthma awareness event from 2-4 p.m., Oct. 28 at Fort Discovery.
Using a $15,000 grant from Kohl's, 200 children will receive free asthma kits worth $100 and instructions on how to use them. It will also feature a talk on asthma triggers. To register for the event, call (706) 721-3712 or (706) 721-3225 .
You can contact the CSRA Asthma Coalition at (706) 721-3225.