School should be a safe environment, a place to learn without fear.
Similarly, a school bus should be a place where students are not endangered by the simple act of drawing a breath.
Charlotte Keeports, a first-grader at Warren Area Elementary Center, was riding the bus home after school on Monday, Nov. 11.
She smelled peanuts.
She had an allergic reaction.
“Her throat was tightening,” her mother, Katie, said. “It was obviously bothering her and it had in the past.”
“I never expected an airborne reaction, and she had one,” she said.
Charlotte told the bus driver.
He had all the answers.
Driver Tom Ludwiszewski has been an emergency medical technician for 25 years, and is certified in both New York and Pennsylvania.
“She had classic signs of anaphylactic shock,” he said. “She had red cheeks, she told me she was having trouble breathing and she was starting to feel sick.”
Anaphylaxis is a serious danger. “It can go from a good situation to a bad situation in a matter of seconds. I knew it was a crisis,” Ludwiszewski said. “We weren’t going to mess around.”
It’s only a three-minute trip from WAEC to Beaty-Warren Middle School and the bus was most of the way there already. Ludwiszewski didn’t hesitate, and took two more actions to help Charlotte. He called to the back of the bus to make sure the student who had the snack had put it away. Then, he called in more help.
“I called 911 and told them I had a seven-year-old female that was allergic to peanuts possibly going into anaphylactic shock,” he said.
The need for medical assistance for Charlotte was not his only concern. He was at the wheel of a bus close to its capacity of 77 student passengers.
With Charlotte in the front seat of the bus – away from the snack and close to Ludwiszewski – her condition was at least not getting any worse. The driver made sure all of his charges were safely stopped at Beaty.
He sent the bus monitor for the school nurse. “She came out and assessed (Charlotte),” Ludwiszewski said.
They agreed that Charlotte was not in immediate danger.
Charlotte had an EpiPen (epinephrine injector) with her in case of a severe allergic reaction. Ludwiszewski said he decided not to take that step.
“She wasn’t in that severe anaphylaxis,” he said. “We kept her in the front seat, kept her calm, tried to keep the (other) kids calm.”
An ambulance arrived within moments and Charlotte was whisked away to Warren General Hospital.
Katie Keeports is a kindergarten teacher at WAEC. She was in her classroom when the news arrived. “The principal came in and told me Charlotte was in anaphylactic shock and was taken to the emergency room,” she said. “I was panicked.”
When she arrived at the hospital a short time later, Keeports said she found her daughter safe and sound.
Although he’d been told Charlotte was fine, Ludwiszewski couldn’t help worrying.
“When she got on the bus the next day, I gave her a great big hug because I was so happy to see her,” he said.
“I was very pleased with his actions,” Keeports said of Ludwiszewski. “I feel like he was well trained and he took action immediately. It could have been pushed under the rug.”
“I wrote him a thank-you note,” she said.
“When I read it, I got a real deep catch in my throat,” Ludwiszewski said.
“It brought tears to our eyes,” Warren Bus Lines Owner Susan Klark said.
Policy and protections
Warren County School District policy prohibits eating and drinking on school buses.
“There is no district policy on peanuts or peanut butter, but we do take precautions to address the peanut allergies,” Interim Director of Pupil Services Ruth Nelson said. “Each elementary classroom that has a child identified with a peanut allergy posts ‘This classroom is peanut free’ on the door and sends a notice to all parents with students in that room.”
“All cafeterias have a designated peanut-free table where students may sit,” she said. “The cafeteria no longer serves peanut butter sandwiches.”
The district’s food service provider uses a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds, according to Keeports.
“We take every precaution that we feel we can to avoid harm to any of our students without infringing on the rights of all students,” Nelson said. “In this particular incident on the bus, we applaud the driver for his quick and appropriate response.”
The allergy concern is receiving attention at the highest national levels.
According to the Associated Press, the issue of food allergies in schools is getting attention from President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, Obama signed a bill that gives a financial incentive to states to stockpile emergency medications in schools that could save lives in the cases of allergic reactions.
The deaths of two girls in Illinois and Virginia from severe food allergies have helped spur efforts to get schools to stockpile epinephrine.
Epinephrine is considered the first-line treatment for people with severe allergies. The medication is administered by injection through preloaded EpiPens or similar devices.
Keeports would prefer that her daughter not have to use such a device.
“I would discourage people from bringing (peanut butter products) into the school because of the safety of the kids who do have allergies,” Keeports said. “It can be life-threatening.”
“I think we all want our kids to be safe at school,” she said. “I think that’s the main priority of school – to keep kids safe. It shouldn’t be a frightening environment.”