Courtney Curley lay on her bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, struggling to breathe. An otherwise healthy teenager and three-sport athlete — a forward for the Churchville-Chili High School soccer team, as well as a hurdler and high-jumper — Curley had been in the PICU for almost two weeks because she’d caught a cold.
A normal, run-of-the-mill cold.
But with her seasonal allergies already in high gear, the cold had triggered her asthma, which sent her to the emergency room. “It’s happened three times now,” said Courtney. “It was getting hard, especially because of all the school I was missing.”
For much of her youth, Courtney’s family had tried to manage her treatment through her pediatrician. But the trips to the hospital had become a near-regular occurrence, and it was becoming obvious that she needed specialized care. She was referred to Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo, M.D., Ph.D., Chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Golisano Children’s Hospital.
After an allergy test and a look at her past treatment, Jarvinen-Seppo came up with a plan to try to get Courtney back on to the soccer field — and keep her far away from the hospital. Through a combination of targeted therapy and preventive allergy injections, the hope was that Courtney would be able to avoid any flare-ups.
As recently as five years ago, Courtney’s treatment may have looked a bit different. While Golisano Children’s Hospital specialists have always offered treatment to youths with allergies, the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology didn’t exist. Jarvinen-Seppo was hired in 2014 to start the division, and in just a few short years, she’s added four other physicians to the roster.
“It’s a specialty that is growing all over the country, in part due to the increase we’ve seen in food allergy, but also because various environmental allergies appear to be on the rise as well,” said Jarvinen-Seppo. “Rochester is no different — it was clearly an area of need.”
A return to roots
The division’s creation was a return to Rochester’s roots in pediatric allergy, as the university served as one of the country’s leading centers in the field for the better part of the 20th Century.
Dr. Jerome Glaser, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, created what were among the first pediatric allergy clinics in the country, launching them at Strong Memorial Hospital and Genesee Hospital in 1930. In 1946, Glaser was one of the first physicians certified for specialized allergy care by the American Board of Pediatrics (his certificate read “No. 5”), and a decade later, he published one of the seminal books on the subject, titled Allergy in Childhood.
One of Glaser’s trainees, Dr. Douglas Johnstone, succeeded him as the Director of Pediatric Allergy at Strong Memorial Hospital in 1955. Johnstone carried out landmark studies showing that allergy injections in children could prevent the development of new allergies and subsequent asthma.
Johnstone’s work, in turn, was continued by one of his trainees, Dr. Robert Schwartz, who led the pediatric allergy program in Rochester in subsequent years while also serving as Chair of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology, as well as editor of the journal Pediatric Asthma, Allergy and Immunology.
But the program stalled in the mid-80s, and wasn’t revitalized until Dr. Eric Dreyfuss, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, approached the then-Chair of Pediatrics, Dr. Nina Schor, about restoring it. Dreyfuss ultimately made a large gift to support an endowed Chair for the Chief of the soon-to-be-recreated division, which would help the university attract candidates.
Soon after, Jarvinen-Seppo became the first to hold the reconstituted position.
Now, just four short years later, the division provides comprehensive evaluation and management for conditions including hay fever, hives, recurring infections, food allergies, eosinophilic gastrointestinal disorders, drug allergy, anaphylaxis, dermatitis, and eczema.
Specialized clinics have formed, including one for esophagitis — run by Dr. Jeanne Lomas, who came through fellowship at URMC and started on faculty in 2015 — and one for immunology disorders, led by Dr. Maria Slack, who also joined faculty in 2015.
Two other clinicians, Dr. Jessica Stern and Dr. Puja Sood Rajani, have also come aboard in the last two years, and the division also supports two researchers, Dr. Antti Seppo and Dr. Bridget Young.
As for Courtney, her treatments now consist of a bi-weekly dose of omalizumab. She’s also getting allergy shots to help manage her seasonal allergies.
And she hasn’t been back to the hospital — or even had reason to use her inhaler — in months.
“It’s been nothing short of life-changing,” said Chris Curley, Courtney’s father. “We can’t say enough about what this care has done for her.”