What do you say to someone who’s helped you breathe easier?
“Thanks for making my life more livable,” said Cassandra “Casey” Tervalon, 10. That's what the fifth-grader from Melrose’s Lincoln Elementary School told Charles Thiel upon meeting the 82-year-old coinventor of the first metered-dose inhaler at an Innovations in Technology awards dinner last month, which preceded the 15th annual Allergy Asthma Day on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Tervalon was there with Mia Catalini, 11, her friend and classmate, who also has asthma and allergies. The team was awarded honorable mention for its entry in a national Ultimate Inhaler contest, sponsored by the Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics, a nonprofit patient education and advocacy organization and family-to-family network founded in 1985 to help families affected by asthma and allergies.
The girls, who use inhalers to ease their symptoms, are coleaders of Lincoln’s Asthma Club, formed a few years ago by the school nurse, Gail McCarthy.
Last fall, McCarthy urged the students to enter the contest, which had age group categories and “American Idol”-style voting to select the winners. She even created a few designs based on both personal and professional experience.
“My son had asthma. I had it as a kid,” McCarthy said.
Using the club as a platform to educate the students about their disease — asthma has no known cause or cure — McCarthy had another reason to lead the charge.
“I wanted to empower the kids,” she said.
Inspired, the girls dreamed up a future design they named The Wear-Ever Necklace. Envisioning something with both a decorative and practical, purpose, the girls believed that compared with the current inhaler —
Modeled after their own active lives, playing softball, dancing, and acting, the friends pictured inhalers they could wear with pride, decorated with jewels or sports motifs. “That way you could look fashionable and still have your medication with you at all times,” says the bouncy Tervalon, who had her first asthma attack at nine months old and her first asthma-related hospital stay at 18 months.
Though the girls were not given any prize money as honorable mentions, they were invited to attend the event in Washington. Both sets of parents expressed reluctance: Besides the expense of a family trip, the event was scheduled during MCAS testing week.
But Tervalon persisted with her parents, Brett and Cindy. Finally, they offered to pay half if Casey raised the remainder.
But how, she wondered? Tervalon’s parents suggested, in addition to the usual bake sales, that she write Senator John Kerry. Her parents sent copies to the national mothers’ group as well.
When the people at Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics saw the girls’ enthusiasm, they found it hard to resist.
“We weren't planning to do it, but just had to do something,” said Laurie Ross, a representative of the group. Each Melrose family was given $1,000 to help defray costs.
In addition to attending the awards ceremony and meeting Thiel, the girls also were greeted by Congressman Edward Markey and were asked to present their creation to an audience of about 90 adults, including representatives from pharmaceutical companies that manufacture inhalers.
“We wanted to say, ‘Look, this is what people need. You need to design this,’ ” said Ross.
Once home, the girls were treated like celebrities by their classmates. This summer, they plan to pursue the possibility of a patent for their designs.
As for McCarthy, three of her designs entered in the over-18 age group were selected as honorable mentions. Single-use inhaler powder strips, which she pictured “like the size of a stick of gum or smaller;” “Sure-grip inhalers,” for people who have problems holding an inhaler; and “Penhaler,” a portable, 4-inch pen that a user could simply press to activate a mist of medicine, with a refillable tube inside.
McCarthy keeps moving. She has already started a Diabetes Club and next on her list is a food allergy club, similar to the one she created and ran for five years at nearby St. Mary’s Elementary School in Melrose.
“She’s really made a great impact,” said Cindy Tervalon.
Mia’s parents, Stephanie and Thomas Catalini, agreed. “No way would I ever have submitted [the designs for the contest] if it was just left up to me,” said Stephanie. “It was all Ms. McCarthy.”