Family calls for Edmonton firefighters to carry epinephrine after death of 33-year-old man

Justin Mathews, 33, collapsed outside an Edmonton fire hall after suffering anaphylactic shock, but firefighters at the scene had to wait for an EMS crew to give him epinephrine that could have saved his life.

'First responders need to have EpiPens with them. Ten minutes, when you're in anaphylactic shock, is too long'

Justin Mathews was taken off life support on Oct. 7 after he suffered anaphylactic shock from inhaling a walnut shell-based product on a work site. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Justin Mathews, 33, collapsed outside an Edmonton fire hall after suffering anaphylactic shock, but firefighters at the scene had to wait for an EMS crew to give him epinephrine that could have saved his life.

In her family home on Monday, with her parents by her side, Shari Reklow stares at pictures of Mathews, her brother. 

"This one is his 30th birthday, and that's Justin being a goof," said Reklow.

Nearly three weeks after her brother died, she's still focused on what may have led to his death.

Mathews was testing the air quality at the Rossdale fire station on Oct. 2.

Work crews were using walnut shells to sandblast paint off the walls. Mathews was allergic to walnuts. He left the building after struggling to breathe and collapsed outside soon after.

Firefighters were first to respond, but Justin didn't have an EpiPen, a disposable needle that lets people give themselves an emergency dose of epinephrine — a hormone — to treat severe allergic reactions.

The fire crew didn't have one either, and they're not trained to use them. That meant they could only administer CPR until paramedics arrived.

Later in the hospital, doctor's informed Mathews's family that 80 per cent of his brain was damaged due to a lack of oxygen.

"First responders need to have EpiPens with them. Ten minutes, when you're in anaphylactic shock, is too long," Reklow said. "You can't wait that long."

Shari Reklow, sister of Justin Mathews, wants to find out why her brother worked on a jobsite where walnut particles were airbourne, despite his allergy to walnuts. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Edmonton fire chief open to discussion

Winnipeg and Toronto allow their firefighters to administer epinephrine.

In Alberta, the decision to allow Edmonton firefighters to use EpiPens would have to come from the provincial government.

It's something Edmonton's fire chief said he is interested in looking into.

"Our staff are certainly on scene in a timely manner many, many times where they could deliver lifesaving measures, should they be approved — and, of course, properly trained," Chief Ken Block said.

The city's fire crews already use naloxone to save opiate overdose victims. The lifesaving medication is used as an antidote to opioids such as fentanyl, a powerful and often deadly narcotic.

"We've done so 80 times," Block said. "We respond to roughly 50,000 emergency events a year, of which 68 per cent are life-threatening medical events."

'Alberta Health needs to await the results'

An Alberta Health spokesperson issued a statement on Wednesday in response to questions about the potential use of EpiPens by Edmonton fire crews.

"Alberta Health needs to await the results of the Occupational Health and Safety investigation before making any recommendations," the statement said.

"However, we are certainly open to discussing the issue with firefighters. We would want to ensure any changes in Alberta take into account national best practices and policies in other provinces."

Food Allergy Canada calls for use of EpiPens

Food Allergy Canada, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to helping Canadians with food allergies, said it is watching Mathews's case and any outcomes that follow.

Beatrice Povolo, the group's director, said she would fully support more firefighters across Canada being trained to use EpiPens when dealing with patients suffering from anaphylactic shock.

"I think it's very important for people to look at that option as part of their first aid kit, for example. And for firefighters, it seems to be quite a natural fit in terms of first responders," Povolo said. "Definitely something we would encourage.

"Food allergy in Canada is a growing health concern. It affects 2.6 million Canadians right across the country," she said.

"So it's quite a significant condition and people need to understand that it can unfortunately be a life-threatening condition."


About the Author

Travis McEwan


Travis McEwan is a video journalist who has not won any awards. Originally from Churchill, Man., he's spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca