The Red Cross honored school bus driver Susan Lecrenski on Thursday for helping a student survive a severe allergic reaction that she suffered on Lecrenski’s bus, after the teen had left her Epi-pen at home. (Photo: LIN Television Corporation)
To hear Agawam Mass. school bus driver Susan Lecrenski tell it, she was just doing her job. But what others are calling the 58-year-old’s quick reaction to help one of the high school students on her route survive a life-threatening allergic reaction, is much more.
For her “compassion and heroic actions,” writes the American Red Cross of Western Massachusetts on its website, the organization honored Lecrenski, and a student on the bus who assisted her, as Hometown Heroes at the 2015 awards ceremony of the same name in Springfield, Mass. on Thursday.
“I feel very honored,” the veteran driver of 30 years tells Yahoo Parenting. “I hope my story raises some awareness because a lot of bus companies don’t make CPR, First-Aid and Epi-pen training mandatory. It should be. Drivers should know how to do these things if the need arises.”
Unfortunately that need was urgent last October, when a sophomore student on Lecrenski’s route known to have a severe nut allergy experienced an intense reaction triggered by airborne particles possibly from the student sharing her seat.
“I will never forget that morning,” says Lecrenski. “It happened very quickly, like in a heartbeat.” Around 6:45 a.m. that rainy morning, a girl sitting behind Lecrenski began coughing. “Then she was really struggling, having a very hard time choking and not being able to breathe,” adds the driver, who, at that point, was less than a minute away from arrival at the high school. “A boy who’d sat down next to her said, ‘I think she’s having an allergic reaction. I know she’s allergic to peanut butter and I had it this a.m. but I brushed my teeth. Is she allergic to me?’”
What nobody knew until that moment was that the 15-year-old (whose name has not been released) had an airborne allergy – and had left her Epi-pen at home. (An estimated 15 million people in the United States have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education organization. Severe reactions include anaphylactic shock, which if not treated immediately with epinepherine, can be fatal.
Lecrenski radioed the school that there was an emergency and she thought she’d need an ambulance, stopped the bus on the side of the road, instructed the boy to move to the back, then yelled out asking if anyone had an Epi-pen. (Lecrenski says their school’s drivers aren’t allowed to carry epinephrine injectors on the bus due to temperature-control issues).
Senior Whitney Shortt, who was also honored at Thursday’s event, had one and offered it right away. “That was the most unselfish thing,” says Lecrenski, “because who knows, she may have had a reaction too and she gave up the only one she has. I was very proud of her.”
“They wanted me to sit tight and send somebody,” the driver continues, but instead she broke protocol and gave the girl struggling to breathe Shortt’s Epi-pen. “I was 45 seconds from the high school and just thought, I’m not sitting here not doing anything. If it was my child I would absolutely want someone to give them an Epi-pen and comfort them and get them help.”
A mother of two grown children herself, Lecrenski says she’d never encountered a health emergency like this before. But the even bigger surprise to her was hearing other school bus drivers tell her that she shouldn’t have administered the epinephrine for liability reasons. Commenters on the local news story about the incident leveled similar criticisms. “I say it’s a liability if you don’t do it,” counters Lecrenski. “You don’t just sit there on side of road and say to your supervisor, ‘This girl can’t breathe!’ That’s morally and ethically wrong in my personal opinion.”
So Lecrenski gave the student the medicine and drove on to the high school, where a nurse was waiting and firemen were en route with an ambulance. “One of the firemen told me, ‘If you didn’t do what you did, this could have turned out very differently,” she says, noting that the student was rushed to the hospital and is thankfully a-OK today. “I just said, ‘I hope I don’t get fired.’”
She didn’t, but says she does handle things on her bus differently these days. “Now I’m highly vigilant about allergies,” says Lecrenski. “The bus is a confined area and you don’t know if the person sitting next to you will have a reaction to anything.” She also asks the student she helped the same question every morning: “Do you have your Epi-pen?”
The kids, after all, “become a big part of your life,” she says. “I feel like they’re my children.” And like the proud mother she is, Lecrenski brags to Yahoo Parenting that Shortt, who offered the other student her medicine, plans to go pre-med in college.