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22 Tips to Help You Prepare for a Medical Emergency

Be ready for a crisis at home, at work or on vacation

En español | A medical emergency can be a frightening, all-too-frequent experience that few people are prepared for. But there are a number of steps you can take in advance to better handle a crisis situation.

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Emergency planning - how to prepare for a medical emergency


Be prepared for medical emergencies.

Home Safe Home

Make sure all your important health information is readily available. Build in some redundancy: Make duplicates and stow the copies in several easy-to-access places.

  • Add your emergency contacts' information — their home, work and cell numbers — into your own cellphone. Identify it as ICE, which stands for In Case of Emergency, instead of listing it under the person's name. If you have a phone that requires a password to get to your contact list, consider putting emergency information on the lock screen itself (see "How to Put ICE on an iPhone Screen"). Still stymied? Take your cellphone to a store that sells your carrier's product and ask the clerk for help.
  • If you're unsteady on your feet but don't want to wear a pendant to alert a commercial medical service that you've fallen, store your cellphone in a fanny pack that you put on when you get dressed in the morning. In spite of its name, you can wear a fanny pack facing either front or back.
  • Know why your doctor prescribed each of your medications. If you're unsure, ask for a written list with the name of the drug, what medical problem it treats and how much and when you're supposed to take it. Leave one copy at home and carry another in your wallet.
  • If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 immediately and chew one regular aspirin or four baby aspirin (they taste better) to prevent a blood clot, advises Alex Rosenau, vice president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
  • Post the national toll-free phone number of the Poison Control Center hotline — 800-222-1222 — by each phone in your home. If you think someone may have been poisoned by a medication or household product, you can reach an expert who will provide immediate advice any time of the day or night.
  • Check with your Department of Transportation to see whether your state has a Yellow Dot Program, which is designed to help older automobile-accident victims. Participants fill out a form that asks for vital health information as well as emergency contacts and then put the form in their glove compartments. A yellow-dot decal attached to the vehicle's rear window lets emergency personnel know to look for the documents in a crisis. Nearly half of the states currently have the program.

Healthy Travels

Here are some smart ways to keep your vacation on track.

  • Prepare a medical folder for every person traveling. Include a photocopy of both the itinerary and each person's health insurance card. If you use a copy of a Medicare card, black out the last four digits of the Social Security number, to protect against identity theft. Include a page that lists current medical conditions, prescription drugs, immunizations and blood type. Make an extra copy of the contents of each folder and leave it with a friend or relative at home.
  • Put together a separate contact sheet of people to notify in case of a medical emergency, along with their addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, to carry in a wallet or day bag.
  • Pack a prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses.
  • Keep all necessary medications in your carry-on luggage when you fly. Store duplicate prescriptions in your wallet in case your medications are lost or stolen during the trip.
  • When your destination is a non-English-speaking country, bring along a phrase book or dictionary to help you communicate with doctors, nurses and emergency personnel whose English may be limited.
  • Make up a small travel health kit for each traveler that includes a few days' supply of prescription medications, extra batteries for hearing aids and a nonprescription painkiller, bandages, antibiotic ointments and antiseptic wipes.
  • "If you have a stent, pacemaker or implantable defibrillator, take along a small card in your wallet with the manufacturer's name and the model number of the device," recommends Donna Arnett, president of the American Heart Association.
  • Check your health insurance plan to see whether it covers medical problems abroad. If not, consider buying travel health insurance for the time you'll be away. Medicare does not pay for hospital or medical costs outside the United States or its territories.
  • Sitting for prolonged periods, whether in a plane, train, bus or car, increases the risk for developing potentially dangerous blood clots in the leg or thigh, a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). To avoid the problem, take a break every few hours to walk around and stretch. If you have risk factors for DVT, consider wearing below-the-knee graduated compression stockings. (We know they're not pretty, but who's looking?) "In addition to walking and stretching, I take one aspirin tablet (325 mg) the day before I leave and another on the day I travel," to reduce the chances of a blood clot, says Rosenau. If you're sensitive to aspirin or take blood-thinning medication, check with your doctor ahead of time.

At Work

For some, the workplace may be a home away from home. Just as you want to short-circuit medical emergencies at home and when you travel, here are some suggestions for avoiding them at work.

  • Prepare a list of emergency contacts for colleagues in your department or section. Include names, addresses, email addresses, cellphone numbers and day and evening phone numbers.

  • If you have a chronic medical condition such as heart disease or
    diabetes, consider telling a trusted colleague and providing
    instructions about what to do in an emergency.
  • Encourage your employer to provide a first aid course and CPR training for all employees.
  • Be sure the office has a readily available AED (automated external defibrillator) to use in the event of sudden cardiac arrest, a condition where the heart abruptly stops beating. AEDs send an electric shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm and greatly increase chances of survival.
  • Keep a fully stocked first aid kit where you can get to it easily. Replace supplies as they're used.
  • Know the location of fire extinguishers and learn how to use them.

Sources: American College of Emergency Physicians, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association, Poison

Nissa Simon is a freelance writer who lives in New Haven, Conn.

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