A Trip to the ER

Know when to go, what to take, and what to expect.

The initial moments stay with us always. The dull thud of his little head against the pavement. The sight of her cut thumb. His croup. Her persistent fever.

We’re filled with anxiety when our child is sick or injured, but we know the best thing to do is stay calm. At some point, we may have to decide whether a trip to the local emergency department is in order. It helps to have some guidelines about when to go, what to take, and what to expect when you get there. Here’s what the experts have to say.

Determine if a trip to ER is necessary. Sandy Burnside, director of the Dembroski Emergency Department at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre says a parent should take a child to the ER if he/she has a sports injury, broken bones, burns, eye/ear/facial injuries, cuts that may need stitches, severe ear pain, persistent vomiting and diarrhea or high fever and if the child is experiencing severe pain or having difficulty breathing. These are just general guidelines, says Burnside. “If ever in doubt,” she advises, “always err on the side of caution and bring the child to emergency.”

You can also call Telehealth Ontario, says Burnside. “They’ll assess your child’s symptoms and advise you on your best option.” Telehealth is available in Ontario 24 hours a day: 1-866-797-0000 (toll-free).

Bring along essentials. Having the proper documentation and supplies with you will help speed up your trip to the ER and reduce unnecessary anxiety or delays. Put the following list on your fridge for easy access in an emergency. Keeping an up to date file with information about your child’s medical history and current medications is also a great idea.

Be sure to bring:

  • your child’s current Ontario health card,
  • a list of any medications your child is currently taking, including any holistic treatments. Be prepared to discuss details of past illnesses, health issues, allergies, disabilities, or surgeries, if any.
  • books, toys and games to help distract your child during what could be a long wait,
  • “the bag” with everything you’d normally take on an outing, such as diapers and a change of clothing, and
  • a cell phone so you can keep other family members up to date. (Cell phones are permitted inside the hospital’s common areas.)

Keep accompanying family members to a minimum. “It’s best to limit the number of people who come to 

the ER because of space limitations and to reduce the chance of infection,” says Burnside. One or more parents or the child’s caregiver should attend. Other children should be left in alternative care, such as a babysitter, older sibling, friend or relative, if possible.

Understand how the ER works. When you and your child arrive at the ER the first person you will likely meet is a triage nurse who will assess your child’s condition. “In the emergency department, patients who have the most severe illnesses and injuries will be seen by a doctor first,” explains Burnside.

The triage nurse is a highly trained emergency nurse who will ask you questions about your child’s illness/injury and then make a decision about how urgently your child needs to be seen by a doctor. The nurse relies on national, standardized guidelines to help her make this decision. You will then be asked to register and take a seat in the waiting room. “The nurse may be able to give you some very general information about how long you have to wait,” says Burnside.

The triage nurse regularly checks on patients to determine whether or not there has been a change in condition.
Be prepared in case it’s a long wait. Burnside says that ER staff understand that waiting, especially with a sick kid, can be frustrating. “Although ERs always strive to minimize the wait, the unpredictable nature of patients’ emergency illness/injury makes it difficult to determine how long you will wait.” If the department is treating many critically ill or injured patients, you may have to wait longer. Of course, if a child’s condition worsens, or the parent has any concerns, the parent should talk to the triage nurse, says Burnside.

Ask if a sick child may eat or drink. It’s better for a child not to have any food or drink while waiting, says Burnside. That’s because many tests require that the patient have an empty stomach. If it’s been a while and your child is hungry or thirsty, speak to the triage nurse.

After your visit, seek further care if your child’s condition worsens. If your child’s condition gets worse or problems develop after your visit to the ER, contact your family doctor, local clinic, Telehealth Ontario, or return to the hospital, advises Burnside.

Author: Jonathan Bennett

Jonathan Bennett is a parent of two children under five. He is also an award winning novelist and poet. Jonathan is the current Board Chair of the Kawartha Haliburton Children’s Aid Society, and is the Communications Lead at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre.

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