I'm a Parent and a Pediatric ER Nurse: What You Need To Know About Kids' Emergencies

Medical emergencies can be terrifying, but knowing the best way to respond can make all the difference in your child's recovery. An ER nurse offers tips you can use.

pediatric ER nurse

Parents / Alex Sandoval

Parenting is one of life's greatest adventures, but it can be difficult to figure it all out on your own—especially when it comes to the tough medical moments. It's never easy seeing your child get injured or having them wake up with a high fever.

But knowing how to assess medical emergencies and deciding when to take your child to the emergency room is something all parents should be aware of. Creating a plan of action ahead of time can be critical in saving your child's life. Nearly 30 million children visit the ER each year in the United States, and we all know that visiting the ER is both expensive and time-consuming. Having a basic idea of what conditions require an ER visit can help you avoid unnecessary trips.

I'm a mom of four—ages 10, 8, 6, and 4—with one on the way, so I know how difficult these decisions can be. I've also been a pediatric ER nurse for 10 years and my experience has helped me learn how to navigate medical emergencies. Here's what all parents need to know about the pediatric emergency department.

Trust Your Gut

The number one rule is to use your gut. You know your child best. If you have a gut feeling that your child needs emergency care, trust your instinct. If your child is awake, alert, breathing, and isn't experiencing uncontrollable bleeding or another life-threatening issue, consider calling your pediatrician first. They can help you determine the best steps to take next. Being familiar with the resources available at your pediatric office will also allow you to decide whether to go to the emergency room or not.

Pay Attention to the Severity of Symptoms

When deciding between the pediatrician and the ER, it's important to remember that your pediatrician is the one who should perform wellness checks and treat common ailments, such as ear pain, fevers, colds, cough, allergies, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or behavioral issues. When debating a trip to the emergency room, it should be reserved for more severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, a decreased level of consciousness, heavy bleeding or a deep wound, serious burns, signs of dehydration, seizures, and head injuries with symptoms.

In the most emergent situations, don't be afraid to call 911. They will be able to take your child to the hospital quickly and start on-the-spot treatment when necessary. If your child is unresponsive, has a neck or spine injury, can't breathe, or has received significant trauma, then it's best to call an ambulance so treatment can begin immediately.

Keep Track of Home Treatment

If you're able to, treat your child at home first. For example, if a child suffered a painful injury, parents can give them over-the-counter pain medicines before going to the ER. That might make a big difference in your child's comfort level and make the examination process easier. Keeping your child calm and informed allows for the medical staff to work quickly and safely. So if giving your child medicine before going to the ER provides comfort for your child, then it is best to give them some. But always keep track of the time and dose you gave and pass that information along to the staff, should you choose to visit your pediatrician or ER.

Parents should also let the medical staff know of allergies to any medications, past medical and surgical history, list of current medications, and the last time your child ate or drank so the medical staff can adequately begin treatment.

Know What To Expect at the ER

Remember ERs are not first come, first served. The sickest patients will be seen first, and if the triage nurse has you wait, that's a good sign. Wait times might range anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours depending on what's going on—but this is variable, so there's no way to predict wait times with certainty.

Also, if your child needs things like laboratory tests or X-rays, these procedures will take additional time.

Parents might want to bring writing supplies (like a notebook and pen) to document any recommendations or instructions provided; they can also take notes on their phone. Oftentimes, parents leave the emergency room feeling exhausted and sleep-deprived, so these reminders will be helpful once you return home. Other helpful items to bring include a change of clothes and a phone charger, especially if you expect to be there for a while.

Stay Calm and Honest

Your child is very in tune with your anxiety levels. If you panic, they are likely to panic as well. For children, the anxiety about what could happen is sometimes worse than the actual pain. Your child will look to you for reassurance, so your job is to let them know everyone is there to help them and that they will be well taken care of.

Also, tell your child what to expect in the ER. Be honest with them. Talking your child through the process, like when vital signs are taken, will help things go more smoothly. The calmer you are as a parent, it's likely the more calm your kids will be.

Children might get frightened by seeing seriously ill or injured patients, and parents can comfort them by acknowledging this can be scary, but the staff is doing their best to help patients get better.

Don't Be Afraid To Speak Up

Parents should also remember to speak up for their children, as you know your babies best. If you think your child is in pain, say so. If you feel like they are not ready to be discharged, tell the ER staff. Be an advocate for your child.

The Bottom Line

When children are sick, parents are their safety blankets. Planning and knowing how to react in medical emergencies allows for smooth reaction times and calm decisions to be made that could ultimately save your child's life.

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