What to do if your child needs immediate medical attention.
Preparing for an Emergency
The best time to figure out what to do in an emergency is before it happens. If you come up with a plan ahead of time, you won't waste precious minutes searching for phone numbers, documents, and the best way to get to the hospital. Here's what to do now to be prepared for an emergency later:
1. Ask your child's doctor which hospital or medical facility he recommends in the event of an emergency. The closest facility isn't necessarily the best one. If there's a nearby children's hospital or a facility where physicians and nurses are specially trained and certified in pediatric emergency medicine (often found in a large teaching hospital), your child will be best off there.
Most children's hospitals and all pediatric emergency departments are equipped with infant- and child-size testing devices and trauma equipment, and their personnel are trained to work with children, notes Richard Ruddy, MD, director of emergency medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. However, if your child's condition is life threatening, you won't have a choice as to where he's taken. In most states, the paramedics will take him to the best-suited facility, which probably means the closest hospital, unless there's a strong pediatric hospital or emergency service relatively close by.
2. Practice the drive to the hospital. That way, you'll know the fastest route there and exactly where the emergency entrance is. If you work outside the home, figure out how to get to the hospital from your workplace as well.
3. Keep essential information about your child easily accessible. Put it in your diaper bag and on the refrigerator, and post it by the main phone. Include:
- Your baby's first and last name
- Date of birth
- Medical history, such as asthma, heart problems, and allergies
- Names of any medications he's taking
- Immunization history
- Insurance provider
- Social Security number
- Both parents' names
- Your home and work phone numbers
- The pediatrician's name and phone number
Though many parents are under the impression that they should also have some sort of consent form that gives the baby's caregiver the right to make medical decisions when a parent can't be reached, such consent is unnecessary. If a parent isn't there, an administrator can make decisions. If the child's life is threatened or he's seriously hurt or ill, the medical staff will do whatever needs to be done, notes Joe Burley, an emergency medical services supervisor at University Hospital in Newark.
4. Post a list of emergency phone numbers on the refrigerator and next to the main phone in your home. The list should include:
- Your local emergency service (911 in many areas)
- The hospital emergency room
- Police and fire departments
- Your address and the nearest intersection, in case you've got a new or temporary babysitter who has to relay information to emergency dispatchers
- The pediatrician or family practitioner
- Two nearby friends who can be called upon to help
- The Poison Control Center (800-222-1222, or to locate the center nearest you)
5. Invest in a calling card. Many hospitals don't permit the use of cell phones due to concern that they may interfere with electronic equipment, such as monitors. Keep a calling card or a stash of change in your purse so you can update your pediatrician and family members immediately.
6. Take a CPR course. One of the most important steps you can take to safeguard your child's heath in the event of an emergency is to learn how to do infant CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This simple procedure could save your baby's life. Not only will the course teach you how to resuscitate your child, but you'll also learn how to assess a sick child's airways, breathing, and circulation. To find a class near you, check with local hospitals and police and fire departments in your area. For more information, contact the American Red Cross.
In the Event of an Emergency
Now you've prepared yourself for the worst. Here are the steps to take in case something actually happens.
1. Determine if you should call 911 or drive your child to the hospital yourself. This depends on the nature of the injury. According to Dr. Ruddy, you need an ambulance if your child may be suffering from any of the following:
- A head, neck, or spinal injury
- An active seizure
- Heavy bleeding or potentially severe blood loss
- Labored breathing
- Abnormal behavior
You may want to consider taking your child yourself if he has a potentially broken or fractured limb, slow bleeding, or pain. But if you have any doubts about the severity of the injury, call for an ambulance, especially if you're alone. If your child becomes more unstable, you won't be able to tend to him and drive at the same time. Or you may be too distracted to drive safely, which could harm both of you.
2. Call your pediatrician. If your child's condition isn't life-threatening, make this important call before rushing to the ER. The doctor may make the transition to the emergency room easier by calling ahead to say you're coming or have you start some therapy before heading over, says Dr. Ruddy.
3. Gather what you need for the trip. If your child has ingested something poisonous, take along the container of the toxic substance. If he's passed blood in his urine or stool, take a long a sample in a disposable cup or in the diaper -- if you have time. Pack some books and crayons in case there's a long wait. Finally, don't forget your child's favorite object.
4. Be prepared to answer questions in the ER. Once you arrive, a triage nurse makes a rapid assessment of your child's condition by taking the vital signs, asking you about the problem, and performing a quick visual and sometimes physical evaluation, explains Timothy Yeh, MD, director of critical care at Children's Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. You'll also be asked for your child's medical history. Then he's either treated immediately or sent to the waiting room. And you may need to wait a while, as the sickest patients get first priority. Keep in mind that while you're waiting, your child may not be able to receive any pain medication. Next, your little one will be examined by an emergency medical physician (or in a teaching hospital, a pediatric resident); he may call in a specialist if he feels a higher level of expertise is needed. You may also want to request a specialist if your child requires treatment but his condition isn't life-threatening. If you're not sure what to do, call your pediatrician.
5. Ask about follow-up care. Before you take your child home, be sure to get a clear, written description of the care he needs. For example, if your child has stitches, find out how they need to be cared for and when they'll be removed. You should also be aware of things to look for that indicate you should call a doctor.
While there's no way to be prepared for every possible medical emergency, readying yourself as much as possible can make the experience less stressful -- and it could mean the difference between life and death.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.