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Jumping down the rabbit hole in Sacramento

Teachers and nurses unions oppose a bill that would allow non-medical school personnel to give a life-saving drug to epileptic children. The result? A healthcare bill to help kids appears to have little chance.

May 26, 2010|Steve Lopez

Although Arnold Schwarzenegger and I don't always see eye-to-eye, he was on to something when he described the Sacramento sausage factory like this:

"Money goes in. Favors go out. The people lose."

Case in point.

Pasadena resident George Fatheree's 8-year-old son, Clayton, has had epilepsy since he was an infant. For the most part, medication controls the condition, but Fatheree and his wife live with the nagging worry that their son will one day have a damaging seizure when no one is around who is trained to help. That's why Fatheree is all for Senate Bill 1051, which acknowledges the statewide shortage of school nurses and would allow non-medical campus personnel to administer a life-saving drug to children who suffer seizures.

The bill was introduced in February by Bob Huff, a Diamond Bar Republican. But despite some slow progress its fate is uncertain, which is frustrating to Fatheree and other parents of an estimated 63,000 epileptic children who attend California public schools.

One day, a Democratic senatorial aide explained the holdup to Fatheree.

"The exact words were, 'This bill would be a lot easier for the senator to support if it had a Democratic author.' "

Translation:

It doesn't matter how much sense the bill makes. It's opposed by several powerful labor unions that grease the palms of Democrats, including the California Teachers Assn. and California Nurses Assn. To mask their true agenda, which is to protect nursing jobs and avoid additional duties for teachers, the unions argue that a seizure is too serious a matter to be handled by non-medical staff.

But Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego professor and advisor to several school districts, disagrees. He says the drug of choice for seizures, Diastat, is so simple to use, it's routinely administered by parents, siblings and babysitters.

"It is safer to have non-nurses do it than not to have them do it," said Taras, given that late response to a seizure can cause brain damage or other lasting disabilities. He said it takes about half an hour to train someone when and how to use Diastat, which is administered with a rectal syringe. Even if the drug is administered unnecessarily, he said, "It's not a dangerous thing." Supporters also note that training of school personnel would be VOLUNTARY, not mandatory.

But Democratic legislators live in mortal fear of ticking off their sugar daddies, just as Republican legislators answer to their own masters.

"So all of a sudden it's a jobs bill for the unions rather than a health bill for the kids," said Sen. Huff, who is hoping the bill will move through the appropriations committee this week and on to a floor vote.

Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who's running for state superintendent of schools, supports the bill but admitted the "just-say-no bullies" — the "alphabet soup" of teacher unions known by acronyms like CTA, CFT and UTLA — intimidate Democrats.

"They've all just said, 'Our jobs, our jobs, our jobs.' Yes, we empathize and we're trying to get more jobs," Romero said. But she suggested it's time for Democrats to "examine their conscience and reflect on whose interests should be served first."

A similar bill, by Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton), would have allowed non-medical school staff to administer insulin to diabetic children. But with many of the same groups opposed, the bill got no Democratic support and died.

As for Huff's bill, the CTA warns on its website that it would "put the health of students at risk and subject teachers … and other school employees to legal liability...." It says, despite doctor claims to the contrary, that "the wrong dosage could cause the child to die from respiratory failure."

Bonnie Castillo of the California Nurses Assn. called Diastat a "very dangerous medication" that shouldn't be put in the hands of non-medical personnel who "are already multi-tasking because we've cut to the bone."

Then what's her recommendation?

Put nurses back in the schools, and let teachers teach.

I'm all for that, but it's not happening any time soon. So what's more frightening, the possibility of an improperly administered emergency treatment, or having a kid "writhing on the floor," as Romero put it, while adults stand on principle and a 911 call doesn't bring help in time?

Parents don't expect school employees to examine their kids at the door and monitor their health all day, says Julie DesJardins of Los Angeles, they're just looking for a few good volunteers. Her daughter, Camille, 6, has epilepsy and has to be taught at home because she's too medically fragile.

"We'd like to be able to send her to school," said DesJardins, a board member of the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

As for George Fatheree, he's able to send his son to public school in Pasadena because a teacher and an aide volunteered for Diastat training, not that they've had to use it yet. But many districts and schools don't allow staff other than nurses to undergo that kind of training.

Arthur Partikian, a pediatric neurologist at County USC Medical Center, treats more than 700 children with epilepsy and said some of the hysteria about misuse of Diastat is "complete nonsense." The families he works with are often uneducated and there's a language barrier, but "I don't think twice about prescribing the medication. The training is very simple.... It's safe and it works."

Partikian has taken that message to Sacramento. Let's see if anyone is listening.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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