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Relief for Asthmatic Children Is Rolling

The Breathmobile, a health clinic on wheels, helps kids breathe easier. Now in its third year, it's administered to some 1,800 patients at 18 East Los Angeles schools.

September 29, 1997|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last week, on a hot and smoggy Los Angeles afternoon, Wanda Shirey and her children were breathing easily, even outdoors.

Only two years ago, such a muggy day would have kept Shirey and her asthmatic children trapped inside their home.

"We would have been locked up with the air conditioner on full-blast, trying to breathe," said Shirey, 44. "And now we're free."

What set the Shireys free is the Breathmobile, one of the nation's only fully equipped mobile health clinics designed to bring preventive asthma and allergy care to low-income children. Now in its third year, the Breathmobile has treated some 1,800 patients at 18 schools in East Los Angeles.

The Breathmobile's primary mission is to reduce emergency room and hospital stays among children who traditionally have had poor access to specialized preventive medical care. The clinic on wheels--a joint project of the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America / Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, USC Medical Center and the Los Angeles Unified School District--provides free screenings, tests and medical supplies to students whose families don't have insurance. Similar services in other facilities would cost families $200 or more.

An estimated 152,000 children in Los Angeles County have asthma. The condition is the No. 1 reason for school absences and the leading cause of childhood visits to emergency rooms.

The mobile clinic, which is staffed by a board-certified allergist, two registered nurses and an administrative clerk, is a converted 34-foot-long motor homes outfitted with two examining rooms, a video room, patient intake center and computers. The unit usually treats up to 30 students at each school, then returns every six weeks for follow-up visits.

Initial studies show that the program has succeeded in lowering costly emergency room visits and hospital stays, as well as school absenteeism, said project director Dr. Craig Jones of USC. In most cases, hospital stays have gone from several days each year to outpatient care. Also, school absences have dropped from as many as 30 days to fewer than five days per school year for students who are treated.

"But we are really just barely touching the surface of the problem right now," said Jones, who originally proposed the idea for the Breathmobile.

The lone Breathmobile will soon have company. Two new units will visit 36 schools in the San Fernando Valley and in the Fairfax / Hollywood area, Jones said. Ultimately, he would like to see five units treating Los Angeles students.

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Last week, 5-year-old Ruben Lozano, a kindergarten student at 4th Street Elementary in East Los Angeles, made his first visit to the Breathmobile. During his 45-minute visit, the youngster and his aunt learned how to manage chronic lung disease and how to use a new medication.

"We're very glad for this program," said Ruben's aunt, Irma Lozano, 23. "I learned a lot about asthma I didn't know."

With five of her eight children suffering from asthma, Wanda Shirey--herself an asthma sufferer--is no stranger to the Breathmobile. On this day, she is at 4th Street Elementary, which two of her children attend.

"Without Wanda, our clinic would be defunct," joked Dr. Jean Hanley Lopez, the USC physician on board, who also has asthma.

Before the Breathmobile rolled into Shirey's neighborhood, Shirey and her children thought they had bronchitis. Some of her kids missed more than 30 days of school each year because of chronic coughing and wheezing.

Exams at the Breathmobile diagnosed the problem. The Breathmobile team prescribed effective treatments for each of Shirey's children, who range from kindergarten age to high school age.

"It's really been great," said Shirey, sitting in front of the Breathmobile with her 5-year-old daughter, Vivian. "There have been no horror stories, no trips to the hospital. I can't believe it."

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