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In Ryan’s Memory

After a young boy’s tragic death, Ontario moves to make schools safe for children with asthma

By John Chenery

Sandra Gibbons, her face wet with tears, slowly rose from her seat in the public gallery of the Ontario legislature to acknowledge the applause of the house. It was the day she had worked and hoped for, and the day she had feared might never happen.

It was April 30, 2015, and Sandra, a single mother from the small town of Aylmer in southwestern Ontario, had just watched members of the provincial parliament rise, one by one, to vote on Bill 20—Ryan’s Law (Ensuring Asthma Friendly Schools). When it was all over, the vote was unanimous. The bill passed and went on to receive royal assent on May 5, World Asthma Day 2015.

For Sandra, it was a bittersweet triumph—the culmination of a journey that began on a chilly October morning in 2012, when her phone buzzed with the call that every parent dreads. Her 12-year-old son, Ryan, had been rushed to the emergency department. He died before she could reach the hospital.

Ryan had been diagnosed with asthma when he was a baby, and his early childhood was punctuated by attacks severe enough to require rush trips to the hospital. “But as he got older, he got better at managing the disease,” says Sandra. “We still had to be careful, but there wasn’t that constant worry.”

tk-ryan3When she kissed her son goodbye on October 9, 2012, there was no sign of trouble ahead. But during recess, Ryan started to have difficulty breathing. He headed for the principal’s office to get his fast-acting reliever inhaler. The local school board prohibited students from carrying prescription medication, and Ryan had been sent home more than once for keeping his blue emergency puffer hidden in his backpack. No one knows for sure whether the outcome would have been different had Ryan been carrying his inhaler. His anguished mother thinks it might have, and lung health experts say that anyone with asthma, children included, should carry a reliever inhaler at all times and be ready to use it at the first sign of a flare-up.tk-ryan2

“The reliever inhaler provides quick relief and makes it easier to breathe by relaxing the muscle band constricting the airway,” says Carole Madeley, Director of Respiratory Health Programs with the Ontario Lung Association. “It is vital medication, and the risks associated with its use are minimal if taken as directed by their health care provider.”

The push for change
On May 7, 2013—World Asthma Day—Sandra told her story in front of the TV cameras during an Ontario Lung Association media event at the Ontario legislature. She called for a comprehensive review of asthma policy in the province’s schools, including ending the ban on children carrying their inhalers. “I hope that we can learn from what happened to my son,” she said.

Jeff Yurek had already started. The recently elected member for Elgin-Middlesex-London is Sandra’s MPP and had read about Ryan’s death in the local press. When contacted by the regional representative of the Ontario Lung Association, Yurek (a pharmacist by profession) enthusiastically agreed to take up Sandra’s cause.

After consulting with asthma and education experts, he drafted a private member’s bill—Bill 135: An Act to Protect Pupils with Asthma (Ryan’s Law)—and presented it for first reading on November 30, 2013. As well as requiring school principals to permit students with asthma to carry their reliever inhalers, the bill provided for the implementation of asthma education and preparedness programs. Yurek’s legislation became bogged down in committee discussions and faded away when Premier Kathleen Wynne called a snap election.

Yurek does not give up so easily. On July 17 last year, he stood in the legislature to table his new private member’s bill for first reading of Bill 20, Ryan’s Law (Ensuring Asthma Friendly Schools). An April 30th vote passed the bill into law.

John Chenery is Communications Manager for the Ontario Lung Association.

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