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Couple seek peanut-free schools in SD 159

The Matejkfamily parents Lori Brian with their children Ryan Maddie.  |  File photo

The Matejka family, parents Lori and Brian with their children Ryan and Maddie. | File photo

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:41AM



The Matejka family of Mokena is sadly familiar with the case of Katelyn Carlson, 13, of Chicago, who died three years ago after eating Chinese food cooked in peanut oil at a school party.

The case hits close to home because their daughter also suffers from a severe peanut allergy.

It was the death of Carlson and a Virginia student that prompted President Barack Obama last week to sign a measure offering financial incentives for schools to stock epinephrine, the first treatment needed for those with severe food allergies.

While Lori Matejka termed the new law “fantastic,” she and her husband, Brian, are looking for more. They’re seeking to make the Mokena District 159 schools peanut-free after their daughter Maddie, 8, had a severe allergic reaction Nov. 7 at Mokena Elementary School.

According to her parents, a student in her third-grade classroom opened a bag of trail mix during snack time, and the airborne dust caused Maddie, who was sitting nearby, to have a severe reaction that resulted in a trip to the emergency room at Silver Cross Hospital.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Matejka said. “She could have died.”

District 159 Supt. Omar Castillo sent a letter Friday, reminding parents to be more careful when they send snacks to school. Out of 1,750 students in the district, 50 have known food allergies, he said.

Castillo has invited parents of students with known allergies to a “roundtable conversation” at 9 a.m. Monday at Mokena Elementary to talk about their concerns. As the parent of a child who is allergic to cashews, Castillo said he can relate to these parents.

Illinois already allows schools to carry extra EpiPens, injections preloaded with epinephrine, and District 159 schools keep extras on hand for emergencies, Castillo said.

Maddie’s allergy was discovered when she was 18-months old. Since she has been going to school, her family has had a plan in place on how to handle her allergy. The plan stipulates that she is entitled to a peanut-free environment and includes a diagnosis and prescribed treatment from her doctor.

Her parents said teachers must check all food brought into her classroom. At lunch, Maddie sits at a sanitized and designated peanut-free table. Her parents have provided EpiPens, which are kept in the nurse’s office for her.

But on Nov. 7, “the plan failed every step of the way,” Lori Matejka said.

Within seconds after the student opened the trail mix, Maddie’s throat began to close, Lori said. Their daughter was sent to the nurse’s office where, her parents say, she was given an incorrect dose.

Paramedics were called, and Maddie was taken to Silver Cross Hospital by ambulance.

“It scared her. It scared us. It was a horrible experience,” her mother said. “We’re so grateful she is OK, but she’s afraid to go to school and we’re afraid to send her. This could have been avoided 100 percent.”

Castillo declined to discuss specifics about the incident but said he was aware of the Matejkas’ desire for a peanut-free school zone.

Maddie returned to school the following Monday but is “very nervous” about it because each reaction is more severe, Lori said. She said she and her husband carefully review the treatment plan every year with her teachers and staff.

“We told her teacher how important it is that she is not around peanuts, that no nuts are allowed in her classroom,” Lori said. “You cannot be lax.”

The couple plan to make their request for peanut-free schools in District 159 at the Nov. 20 school board meeting.

“It is such a prevalent and such a deadly allergy,” Lori said. “It’s a small sacrifice for families to make (to be peanut-free at school). We really need to do this before a child dies.”

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, school board members will hear a presentation on Epi emergency kits, which would provide EpiPens for children and adults throughout the school, similar to automatic external defibrillators, Castillo said. Staff could be trained on how to properly administer them.

Allergies are increasing — not just to peanuts but milk, wheat, eggs and gluten. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 4 to 6 percent of U.S. children have food allergies, but Advocate Children’s Hospital pediatrician Grace Carreon believes it is higher. The numbers have increased by 50 percent since the 1990s, according to the CDC.

No one knows exactly why the numbers are increasing, Carreon said. Genetics are part of it, but it could also be food processing and food preservatives, she said. And as people are more exposed over time, they could develop more symptoms, Carreon said.

“If it were just genetics, we would not be seeing such an increase. Something else is causing it,” she said. “For some reason, peanuts cause a more severe reaction than other foods.”

Reactions vary from hives to itching to swelling of the lips, face and throat and wheezing and trouble breathing. In anaphylaxis — a severe reaction such as what Maddie experienced — there is constricting of the airways, a swollen throat and a severe drop in blood pressure.

While food avoidance is critical, it is tough to predict and prevent “accidental exposure,” Carreon said, adding that the new law may not be the full answer but does offer more safety.

Is a peanut-free school the answer?

“That’s a tough question to answer,” Carreon said. “It’s a drastic measure. If it’s a food, you do not want to limit it so extensively and unnecessarily.”

Castillo said a peanut-free policy is an option but not necessarily the solution.

“Not all food allergies are due to peanuts,” he said. “We cannot control everything.”



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