Fatal Fire Ant Bites Ignite Adrenaline Debate
By Gabriel Macias
For Reporting Texas
On Sept. 11, 2013, Cameron Espinosa, a center for Corpus Christi’s Haas Middle School football team, stepped on a mound of fire ants. Four days later he died.
Espinosa, 13, suffered anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction to the bites. He lay in the mud for over 10 minutes. A quicker response time or emergency access to epinephrine, adrenaline that counters the effects of a severe allergic reaction, might have saved his life.
The issue was dealt with on a federal level in the wake of Espinosa’s death. The School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act went into effect in November of last year. The act encourages all schools in the United States to stock epinephrine. By October 2014, 45 out of 50 states had some type of law or guideline allowing schools to stock the drug, with legislation pending in three, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education Organization. Seven states now require schools to stock it.
Responding to a public outcry, the Corpus Christi Independent School District conducted an investigation in the weeks after the incident. The investigation concluded that middle school games should be played on centralized fields, school administrators should have emergency access to epinephrine, there should be more physical exams, more medical record sharing and more outdoor field inspections.
But a Corpus Christi School Board member, Hector Salinas, wondered why it took a death to raise awareness of allergic reactions.
“In a setting like at a school, where you have as many kids as you do, it seems to me that people that are in that profession need to know all the things that have to do with safety and precautionary measures,” Salinas said.
Ryan Elizondo, a coach present at the game the day of the incident, declined to comment due to ongoing litigation. Josephine Limon Espinosa, Cameron’s mother, has attained legal representation that is considering a lawsuit against the school district. The family wants to know if any district faculty or staff member should be held responsible or if a third party is to blame, such as the manufacturer of the insecticide used to treat the field for ants.
The school district now requires every coach and athletic trainer to carry the EpiPen, or epinephrine auto-injector, during practices and games in all sports. The district will also conduct annual EpiPen training for its almost 500 employees, including nurses, trainers, principles and coaches, which began at the outset of the 2014-2015 school year, said district director of communications Lorette Williams.
The district purchased 118 injectors at a cost of $30,000 for its 59 schools. Wesley Stafford, the former President of the Texas Allergy Asthma & Immunology Society and a Corpus Christi area physician, donated his time to conduct the almost two-hour long district-wide training sessions.
“We’ve trained a few hundred people,” Stafford said. “We just go through and discuss what the symptoms of anaphylaxis are and how they would be able to identify it.”
Stafford said anaphylaxis is not difficult to diagnose, and use of the EpiPen is not life-threatening if administered and not needed. He has also trained districts such as London and Taft in South Texas.
Stafford is working with TAAIS president Theodore Freeman and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, to draft a bill that will allow emergency access to epinephrine statewide. The legislation should address the liability issues and is slated to appear before the Texas legislature in 2015. It is designed to give trained personnel the legal right to try to save a life without penalty or risk of prosecution.
“People get scared to do anything,” Freeman said. “They think ‘Well if I do something then I can get sued.’ And they’re right. But if we specifically protect them from it, the risks of using epinephrine are almost non-existent. It can be lifesaving.”
The district’s middle school football games are now played at Cabaniss Field or Buccaneer Stadium – the most maintained, up-to-date facilities in the city. Community support at the games has increased. There is an ambulance on standby at every contest, so the players are safer.
It is a new reality Espinosa will never get to enjoy.