My College Freshman Went to The ER: What This Mom Learned

The tone of my son’s voice was different than it had been earlier in the day. His breathing was labored and he was so congested, I could barely understand what he was saying. Yet, I managed to string together some key words like “tingling in my legs” and “really stiff and sore.”

14 tips if your college freshman has to go to the ER.

I was processing as quickly as I could while trying not to panic. He had already been to the campus Health Center and gotten a Z-pack a few days before so there was no other alternative at 6:30 pm on a Thursday. My freshman son had to go to a local ER. Without me.

Fortunately, his roommate was there to take him quickly which made me feel better. It was the most comfort I would experience for a full 24-hrs until I could get there in person.

Here is what I learned from my child’s trip to the ER and subsequent hospitalization 7-hrs away from home:

1. In a situation like this, a student’s friends are the lynch pin to their safety and a communication life line. Not only did my son’s roommate drive him to the ER, he bowed out of a fraternity commitment to stay at the hospital where he was joined by another friend and my son’s girlfriend. They remained at the hospital until he was admitted and settled in his room at 1 am. They communicated with me constantly and were endlessly patient through all my questions. Another friend was back in the dorm washing all his bed linens once he was diagnosed with an infectious disease. He has chosen his friends wisely and now has a family away from home.

2. Someone should have your kid’s phone pass code. My son’s friends knew the pass code for his phone which made it much easier for them to call me, answer my texts and get info for forms. This could make a huge difference in an emergency.

3. Know the hospitals surrounding the school and pick one. My son is in a major city and has options; that is not always the case. If there are multiple facilities, look at Google reviews for the ER, in particular. We had the stellar choice of either a 2.6 or 2.4 star rated hospital so he went with the one he knew how to get to. I wish I had investigated the area before we needed an ER so a plan would have been in place. See note about urgent care below in #5.

4. When kids are over 18, the administrators really do not contact a parent before treatment, even if said parents are responsible for payment. My son had an EKG, chest x-ray, CAT scan and a spinal tap while I sat home, 500 miles away in Maryland. I did speak with a nurse eventually because my son handed her the phone and said, “Please talk to my mom.” According to the University, my son has to request and complete a form authorizing me to see records and get information every time he is seen by a health care professional. There is no blanket authorization available. Conversely, when he was 17 and on campus, I had to authorize them to treat him but I was able to complete one form that was effective until he turned 18. It is a double standard that is complicated and frustrating.

5. The health center on campus is limited in capability and appointment times. My son attends a large state university and routinely has to wait a day or two for appointments. There is no urgent option no matter the situation. The school assigned a case worker to him and despite her maneuvering, he could not get a same-day appointment at the health center when he had complications upon release. He had to go back to the emergency room again and be evaluated there. Get informed about other urgent facilities, like a Minute Clinic or a walk-in clinic, ahead of time. In non-emergencies it is helpful to get checked out somewhere other than an expensive and time-consuming ER.

6. My son was not confident enough to argue with a medical professional. In the ER, my son was diagnosed with viral meningitis which comes with specific instructions to lie flat for an hour after the spinal tap. Normally independent and a leader, he did not mention this directive to anyone when an orderly came in to take him for a chest x-ray well before the rest period had elapsed. I believe this movement led to the complications he suffered days later. But no one cares what I think, which is maddening. Empower your child to raise objections if something seems in direct conflict with a previous medical order or seems “off” in general. We know in an ER, often one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, especially in the diagnostic stage of the process.

7. A roommate or friend should have parental contact information for circumstances like this. My son’s roommate and girlfriend both have my number and feel comfortable using it. If the roommate is a stranger to you, get their number and float a text or two so you are not only an emergency contact. You have no idea how intimate they will become with your child in a crisis; a pre-established rapport will make all the difference in the world. If the whole roommate situation is not particularly close, your kid should have another on-campus option for contact: a friend, RA or someone who will assist if the roommate is not comfortable doing so.

8. Even if you give your child a list of questions to ask doctors, there is no guarantee those questions will get asked or that your child will retain any of the answers. I finally texted questions to him to help him remember when a nurse came to check on him, and still got very sketchy details afterward. In his case, he was exhausted and his brain was fuzzy from dehydration and fever. The friends, again, filled in where they could and the rest I got through WebMD (a moment of weakness) and by calling our family doctor. This leads directly to #9…

9. Look at the hospital website and see what resources are available to you from afar and then push to gain access to those resources. After the fact, I saw that the hospital system has an online patient portal. If they had given us access to or information about that portal it would have reduced a lot of my anxiety. If a friend is capable of signing my son into the emergency room and paying with my credit card, he should be able to enroll him in an electronic personal health program. They never mentioned it in the 3 days he was in the hospital, even knowing he was far from home.

10. Most hospitals require a credit card to cover the co-pay or urgent care fee as well as the insurance card. Thankfully, my son had both. However, he just handed my credit card over to them without any questions. They could’ve been running up a huge tab on that card and he had given them blanket permission. This scared me almost as much as the diagnosis. Make sure the card your kid carries has limited funds for just such an emergency; ours had an incredibly high limit which could have been disastrous. We will be changing that ASAP.

11. Talk to your child about the importance of keeping all those “stupid” papers they are given in the hospital. My son’s professors have all asked for different documentation. His adviser just advised him to email his teachers which he had already done. Not super helpful. However, in a large university, this may be the only advice you get. The hospital had given my son a medical excuse but without mention of meningitis. His return to class was completely subjective as in, “go whenever you feel up to it.” So, he ended up combining the note with his discharge instructions so the professors got the full scope of his illness and recovery time. Because he didn’t have a scanner, he took pics of all of documents in the hospital and attached them to an email. The pics also help when the papers get lost in the organizational nightmare known as the dorm room. Most doctors will not elaborate on a specific illness for privacy reasons but the more information the better when talking to teachers.

12. The meningitis vaccine does not prevent viral meningitis. My son has been vaccinated which helps protect him from bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis is much like the flu in that there are many strands that affect people differently. One person may have the same virus my son had and just feel really bad without it developing into full-blown meningitis. When we received it, I thought the vaccine covered all types of meningitis. Based on the number of inquiries we received about the vaccine (including the ER staff) it appears it is a common misconception.

13. If your gut says go, then go. RUN. I ended up on an airplane the next day because there was a lot to unravel and he was seriously ill. I could not picture him being released back to the dorm – the land of no sleep, bad food and chaos. I had decided to take him to the hotel with me for a night or two to let him heal. I stayed a night in the hospital as well because it helped both of us sleep more soundly. Or as soundly as you can in a room where they check on the patient every 2 hours.

14. All the medical staff in the world can’t replace mom. I could see the joy and relief on my son’s face when I got there. I had called in every favor I could in order to get to him quickly and found everyone—friends and strangers alike—was happy to help. I believe the nurses were happy to see me as well because they pegged me as “mom” the minute I got off the elevator. I began asking questions, signing forms and taking charge so my son could just focus on healing.

Finally, I learned that he can survive left to his own devices, which means we must have done something right. My son even took the time to fill out a form before discharge nominating his ER nurse for an award. She was with him for a bad spinal tap and got him through those tough hours and procedures without me. He made sure to circle back around and show his gratitude which means that, in the end, he will be just fine.


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About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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