When volunteer Julia Schroeter was bitten by fire ants during a fall field day at Okatie Elementary School several years ago, she thought little of it -- she figured her flushed feeling was from the day's heat.
But when Schroeter's tongue swelled and her breathing grew labored, she decided to see the school nurse. And Meg Hendy knew something serious was going on.
Hendy immediately injected her with an EpiPen -- an epinephrine auto-injector used to treat allergic reactions -- to stop Schroeter's throat from closing. Then, she called 911.
When the paramedics arrived, Schroeter said they told her husband that she probably wouldn't have lived had she not received the injection.
The EpiPen that Schroeter was injected with was one that every school in the Beaufort County School District keeps in the building for exactly such situations, according to Hendy, now the school nurse at Bluffton Middle School and the lead nurse of the southern county schools.
"I think it's not even an opportunity at this point, it's a necessity," Schroeter said. "You don't know when a child will show that reaction, or when a teacher or parent will have that reaction."
Although the district has had the injectors in schools for years, according to Mossy Oaks Elementary school nurse Terry Nash, the rest of the state is just catching up.
In June, South Carolina passed the SAVE Act, or Safe Access to Vital Epinephrine Act. This is a law that allows schools, both public and private, to stock the life-saving drug for individuals without a prescription.
The injectors are kept in a locked cabinet, Hendy said. There can be some side effects such as increased heart rate, dizziness and shakiness if it is given to someone who doesn't need it or by mistake.
South Carolina is one of 16 states that enacted similar laws this year, joining 11 states that already had them, said Liana Burns, senior manager of policy and programs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Of the 27 states, only four require schools to stock the auto-injectors. However, Burns said all the laws allow stocking without a prescription for an individual person -- often a legal hurdle -- and provide legal protection for those who administer the epinephrine.
"We will just continue as we've been doing," said Nash, who also is the lead nurse for northern Beaufort County schools. "But it can be critical, even if for just one student. I think that's one of the reasons it's become a law, the concern was so great that they took it to the legislatures and now it's a law."
Beaufort County has stocked the EpiPens, a brand of auto-injectors, in the schools for more than 20 years, Nash said.
Each early childhood center and elementary school has an adult EpiPen and junior EpiPen in stock, Hendy said. Each middle school and high school have an adult injector in the school.
Students and teachers who have a known allergy are supposed to bring their own auto-injectors to keep at school. The ones in stock are meant for those who don't know they are allergic, Hendy said.
"There's always bee allergies, always peanut allergies, always ant-bite allergies," said Hendy, who's used the injectors more than a dozen times. "Every time I've used it, it's a life-saving situation. Your airway is the size of your pinky and that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for swelling -- so it's something that's definitely necessary."
Every school nurse and emergency response team are trained in how to administer the injectors, and many teachers also have been trained. On average, there are 10 to 12 trained staff members in every school, according to Nash.
However, anyone can administer the EpiPen in an emergency, Hendy said.
The district received the EpiPens as donation this year from Smith Medical Partners, Nash said. They received about 70 pens, which Hendy said would have cost about $3,500.
In past years, this district has prepared for and covered this cost in the budget. But Nash and Hendy hope they can continue to work with companies willing to donate the medication for a life-saving cause.
"You never know when a child is going to be susceptible to something," Schroeter said. "I think it's critical and it's crucial -- it's about being proactive and saving lives."Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.