My Son’s Spring Break Nightmare: What I Want Parents to Know

My husband Joe and I were winding down on a quiet Sunday evening. Our 20-year-old twin boys left for their spring break trip to Mexico earlier in the morning. We didn’t have enough time with them this visit, but the sushi dinner and belly laughs with them the night before more than made up for the briefness.

spring break nightmare
Students on a spring break trip. (Pixaby)

We worried about our teens when they went on a spring break trip.

We worried because they stayed up all night working on homework they knew they wouldn’t get to while in Mexico. They got up early to drive to San Diego to catch a flight to Cabo.

They left without eating breakfast, and we knew, based on their typical habits, they wouldn’t be grabbing any food shortly. We prayed for their safety and felt good about our conversation before they left: Stay together; keep your eyes and ears open. Watch out for each other, and so on.

We prepared dinner and decided what show to watch to end our fun and beautiful weekend with our boys. Joe was upstairs when his cell phone rang on the kitchen table. I looked at it and saw a Las Vegas number. I disregarded it, thinking it was just another telemarketer or charity requesting money. Then a text came in on my phone. “Lynn, can you please call me? It’s a medical emergency regarding Riley.”

I looked at the text, screamed, and threw my phone across the table. NO, NO, NO, NO!! Joe ran down the stairs in a panic, “What? What is it?” It’s Riley…there’s been an accident. I was beyond consoling. There was panic, confusion, fear, and hysteria…just as you would imagine after getting a phone call like that about your child.

We dreaded calling the number for fear of what they would say. The young man who answered the call seemed uncomfortable and cautious when he spoke. He wasn’t making any sense to us, and it all seemed unclear what had happened. We screamed into the phone, “Is Riley dead or alive???” He wouldn’t spit it out. He said he wasn’t sure what happened but wanted to contact us as soon as possible and….“SPIT IT OUT!!!”

He said he was taken to the hospital but wasn’t sure about his status, so he said he would find out and call us back. We hung up and fell to our knees. “Oh please, God, don’t take our son.” We prayed out loud, asking for God’s mercy. We decided to do mantras and take one step at a time. We tried to gather our thoughts. We agreed that when he calls back, he will say, “Riley is stable.” We chanted, “Riley is stable,” “Riley is stable,” and “Riley is stable.”

You know the term, my life flashed before my eyes? Well, Riley’s life flashed before my eyes. I saw him as a baby in his little red onesie, as we called him Santa man. I saw him on the Little League baseball field with his Rocket Power cartoon underwear showing through his white baseball pants. I saw him in his Pooh bear costume on Halloween repeating, “I wanna go ‘nother house.” My head was flooded with more thoughts and images of our beautiful son. It was unbelievably painful.

The phone rang, and our hearts skipped a beat. By the way, it still does today. Not sure if that will ever go away. The voice on the other line said, “Riley is stable but in critical condition.” YES!!! The first prayer was answered.

At this point, we still had no idea what had happened. Was it a car accident or a water incident? He told us that he fell from a 4th story balcony. WHAT?? And he’s alive? A security guard heard the thump. He landed on a car in the first-floor parking lot. He was intubated and in the hospital within an hour of the accident and never stopped breathing on his own — more good news.

The spring break tour group helped us arrange to get to Mexico the following day. We didn’t sleep at all that night. We feared there would be another phone call telling us the worst. In the darkness of the night, my mind raced. I had moments of knowing he would be okay in my heart and then moments of despair and fear.

How would I tell people, my mother? How would I go on living without him? Then, I decided I would not allow my mind to go there. I would push out those negative thoughts and only welcome thoughts of him alive, well, laughing, full of life, etc. It wasn’t easy, but I had to. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. The only power I had left was controlling my thoughts.

Thankfully, Joe and I had passports, so making the arrangements and getting into Mexico wasn’t an issue. The plane was full of other spring breakers already in party mode. Thank goodness for noise-canceling headphones.

The tour group met at the airport and took us to the hospital. We were petrified at what we might see. Was Riley going to be recognizable? Was he going to be a vegetable? Was he going to be paralyzed? It was terrifying.

He was in ICU, so only one could go in at a time. Joe agreed to go in first. I couldn’t bear seeing him in that state. When he came out, he said, “It’s okay, it’s Riley.” I was somewhat relieved. It was a horrible sight, but my son was alive. They told us about the brain injury and how his skull was pressing on his brain and optic nerve, which meant airlifting him out of there was no option. He needed to have surgery immediately. The good news was they didn’t see any other injuries that would lead them to believe he would be paralyzed.

They flew in a neurosurgeon, and he had surgery that evening. More prayers and mantra chants got us through the night. Riley survived the surgery, and the surgeon said it went well. He saved our son’s life. We ended up staying in Mexico for five days. They thought he might need more surgery, but thankfully, that was not the case. I clung to the brief moments he responded to my voice and moved his legs — signs of hope.

We spent those days walking back and forth from the hospital to the hotel. We witnessed a lot of drunk, barefoot, incoherent, scantily clad college students on spring break, unaware of their surroundings, looking like zombies from the movie Dawn of the Dead. You wouldn’t believe how many of these kids we watched come into the hospital with some injury. Most were “dehydrated,” but others had the broken glass removed from their feet, broken arms, fistfight injuries, etc.

That week alone, there were two other balcony falls, one resulting in death. It was eye-opening. It’s easy to forget when you’re in paradise that it’s a country with different codes and regulations than the US. They have no height requirement for balcony railings, so most are only about two to three feet tall. I was afraid to go out on our hotel balcony because of it. I’m 5’2″, and the railing barely reached my hip.

After five long grueling days, we were finally airlifted to the San Diego Trauma Center. We spent a week there while Riley recovered. We eventually returned home with our son, which was indeed a miracle. Some people are not so lucky.

Our family narrowly avoided a tragedy, and here is what I have learned from our experience. If you have adult children who are going out of the country, for spring break or for study abroad, here are a few things you should know.

10 things to do before your teen travels for spring break or study abroad

1) Get a passport.

If you already have one, make sure it’s valid. You need to be prepared if you suddenly go out of the country. They need to be valid for at least six months into the future, so check the expiration dates if you have one already.

2) If the trip was booked through a travel company, ask for the following:

A copy of the agreement.
Ask if some of the cost includes insurance coverage.
Ask if f there are any known accidents, incidents, or unsafe conditions at any of the hotels they endorse.

3) Check with your insurance carrier.

They may not cover medical treatment and hospital care outside the United States. Check if they cover medical evacuation back to the US. This can cost anywhere from $25,000-$50,000. You may need to purchase additional coverage.

4) Ensure you have a credit card with a high spending limit.

You may not be able to leave the hospital without leaving a substantial down payment. They wouldn’t let us go until we authorized a $5,000.00 payment.

5) Check out your phone’s international coverage.

Make sure your cell phone coverage includes international cell service or know how to add that to your existing plan.

6) Educate your teen on the perils of international travel.

You can’t necessarily forbid them to go, but you can make some agreements with them.

7) Have other phone numbers.

If your teens are anything like mine, they are notorious for losing their phones, jumping in the pool with them in their pocket, dropping it, etc., so having other phone numbers to call if their phones are broken is essential. Ask for their friend’s cell number or their friends’ parent cell numbers so you can create a support system.

8) Ask for other parents’ cell numbers.

Another idea might be to ask them to assemble a packet with cell phone numbers and pictures of their friends and their parent’s cell numbers. This can be extremely beneficial when you can’t get a hold of your kids.

9) Have faith and pray.

Never underestimate the power of prayer. I call it a divine partnership. Miracles do happen.

10) Practice gratitude.

Each day is a gift filled with small miracles that go unnoticed. Be grateful for every day you have with them.

I know asking for some of these things from your adult children is challenging but think of it this way, you’re paying for the trip in some way, shape, or form anyway, right?

Explain it’s not about checking up on them but rather a safety concern. You want them to have a good time but also love them and want them to come home safe and sound. It doesn’t matter how old my children are; they will always be my babies, and my love for them grows stronger daily.

We all know that some circumstances are out of our control, but being prepared can make certain situations easier to navigate so you can focus on what’s truly important.

Other Great Reads:

The Legal Documents Your Teen Needs When They Turn 18

Students Abroad: US Department of State

About Lynn Finley

Lynn Finley received her BA in Film Studies and Communications Arts and Sciences at Queens College in New York City before moving to Southern California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. She worked at the Walt Disney Company for 23 years, becoming Senior Vice President of Media Distribution and Operations. When breast cancer turned her life upside down, her priorities underwent a major shift and she studied to be a Certified Professional Coach (CPC) finding a new sense of purpose working with other cancer survivors. Lynn contributed as a writer in the book Pebbles in the Pond Wave Three – A Gift in Disguise and currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, twin identical sons, and two mini Australian Shepherds.

Read more posts by Lynn

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