Thursday, May 6, 2010

Coping with a Child’s Medical Emergency: Part I

As a parent, I’ve spent my share of hours in the emergency room. Between my two children, I’ve taken about a dozen trips to the ER, two in an ambulance. Some examples: in high school, my son suffered a broken jaw and facial injuries when he was hit in the face with a baseball during practice and in elementary school, my daughter slammed a car door on her own thumb. Medical emergencies are traumatic for everyone, especially when they involve young children who are not yet able to communicate well or fully understand what is going on around them.

When my son was a toddler, he suffered a series of fever-related seizures starting at 17 months and ending when he was about 3. Most children never have seizures despite high fevers; my son had 6 in 18 months. While his situation was never life-threatening, my husband and I faced some terrifying moments as my daughter, who was six at the time, looked on. My experience with my son’s seizures taught me some important lessons about coping with children’s medical emergencies. In this short series of posts, I’d like to share some important tips that I hope you never use.

Since you are using the internet to read this blog, you know that there are many websites that can help you decide whether or not a situation is a medical emergency. We won’t focus on preventing or identifying emergencies; instead, we’ll discuss coping strategies if one does occur. First, we’ll offer 5 tips to help you be better prepared both before and during the first minutes of a medical emergency. Next time, we’ll talk about how to deal with the emergency room experience and the repercussions that may arise after the emergency is over.

1. Be prepared.

Even though you can never be fully prepared for a medical emergency, here are some important steps you can take.
. Keep essential information (emergency phone numbers, your doctors’ contact information, significant allergies, insurance information, and descriptions of any prescription medications) with you at all times.
· Take a class in infant/child CPR and first aid. Even if you never use any of the skills you learn, taking the class can help you feel less helpless during an emergency. I took the class (the first time) after my son had his first seizure and it helped a great deal. Ideally, you should take the class several times, every year, if you can.
· If you have an ongoing medical issue, like we did, you’ll want to keep a history of events (like medical tests, dates of prior ER visits, and current medications) with you. It is easy to forget important details in a crisis.

2. Stay functional.

There is no point in telling you to “stay calm” because few parents can remain calm while dealing with a child’s emergency. As you might imagine, your emotions will be overwhelming but you should try to do your best to concentrate on getting a complete picture of what is happening, listening carefully to instructions, responding clearly and concisely to questions, and taking any needed action. Your instincts will typically keep you going, though a part of you might feel confused or detached. If you start to panic, remember that your child needs you. Some tips to fight panic: try to consciously relax the muscles in your face, shoulders and neck, slow your breathing, and focus all of your attention on one thing at a time. Tell yourself that you can fall apart later. I can tell you from experience, you will.

3. Make sure that the emergency personnel can find you.

Depending on your emotional state, you may need to ask someone else to call for help or remain nearby to answer questions and provide your location. When you are under extreme pressure, it is not strange to become confused even about places you know well. If you are outside, check to see if your location is easy to spot from the road. If not, look for a landmark that you can describe or a bright colored object you can use to mark your location. If you are inside of a building, send someone outside to meet the emergency personnel.

4. Follow all instructions from emergency personnel.

Medical professionals are trained to collect the information they need and to assist your child very quickly. You may not understand the reasons for their questions or the actions that they take but it is important that you don’t interfere. You can be a vital resource or a massive roadblock for those who are trying to help your child. Do your best to be part of the team.

5. Consider asking someone else to care for your other children.

Whenever possible, you should avoid taking your other children into the emergency room. My daughter has vivid memories of the sights and sounds in the hospital (including blood spurting on a curtain) that could have been avoided. Obviously, you don’t always have time to make an extra call during a crisis but if someone else is caring for your other children (such as friends and family who meet you at the hospital), you’ll be able to focus your attention on the child who is ill.

Next time: Arriving at the emergency room and helping your child (and yourself) deal with the emotions after a medical emergency.

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