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How to Deal with Emergencies at Home
Ernest H. Rosenbaum, MD, Herman Uhley, MD, Isadora R. Rosenbaum, MA and Becky Moore, RN

Be Prepared
What if My Physician isn't Around?
Staying Calm

Determining the Problem and Calling for Help
Taking Appropriate Action

One of the fears that both families and patients have when going home is: What will happen in case of an emergency? This section will help you prepare in advance, and feel confident that you can handle an emergency.

Even though your homecoming may be well planned, unexpected situations can of course arise with which your family helper may have difficulty coping. Good prior planning, with the help of your social worker, geriatric care manager, or doctor will do a lot to make your life at home comfortable and safe. But there is always the possibility of the unforeseen sudden need where a little knowledge and prior thought can provide the confidence that will make all the difference.

Be Prepared

First of all, you should be prepared for an emergency by knowing how to get help. Ask your physician how he or she can be reached quickly, if necessary; find out who to call when your doctor is not available. Keep this information on a card near your telephone:

Police   Tel:
Fire Department   Tel:
Physician   Tel:
Pharmacy   Tel:
Ambulance   Tel:
Nearest relative or friend   Tel:

Keep a close neighbor in mind, preferably someone who is physically strong, whom you can call on in case of a fall or other accident. It is reassuring to know that when you are at home, help and support are close at hand. Call your doctor for support and advice if a troublesome situation arises even if you are not sure it is an emergency.

If your doctor is in private medical practice, he or she or another member of his office team will be available twenty-four hours a day. Save routine questions for regular office hours-evening and weekends are for emergencies only.

What if My Physician isn't Around?

If you cannot reach your doctor, there may be others who know you and your medical situation. Do not hesitate to call your hospital ward and speak to one of your nurses. Take their names and the ward phone number with you when you leave the hospital. A nurse is always on duty there. She or he can answer many of your questions, or if necessary, direct you to the appropriate person. By talking with you and reassuring you, she might prevent a minor problem from keeping you and your family awake with worry. Nurses do remember their patients and are an oft-forgotten resource after the patient goes home.

When an emergency arises, you (principally the family members) can deal with it most effectively by following these three principles:
1. Stay calm
2. Determine the exact nature of the problem as best you can and call for help
3. Take appropriate action while waiting for help to arrive

Staying Calm

Staying calm is essential, so that you quickly obtain the right kind of help, and determine what you can do personally for the person in distress. It will help you to stay calm if you are ready at all times with a list of emergency telephone numbers and the self-help card described above. Remember that help is always available and usually will arrive within a few minutes of your emergency phone call.

Determining the Problem and Calling for Help

The specific problems to look for are:
pulse taking on the wrist and on the neck1. Pulse Rate. Is it fast, slow, or irregular?
2. Breathing problems. Is the patient gasping for breath or short of breath?
3. Is there a new or sudden increase in pain? Is the patient complaining of pain in the chest, abdomen, an arm or leg, or the body in general?
4. Is there a change in mental state? Is the patient unconscious or lightheaded? Is there numbness, an inability to walk or talk? Is an arm or leg suddenly weak or immobile?
5. Is there severe nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea?
6. Are there injuries from a fall, burn or other accident?

You must determine if the symptoms and/or injuries require immediate help. If you believe the situation to be an emergency, call 911 at once! The more quickly help is obtained, the better the chances for recovery.

Taking Appropriate Action

The final principle is to take appropriate action while help is on the way. There are several kinds of appropriate action you can take. In certain situations, they may save a life. What you must do depends on the type of emergency you are dealing with.

The most common emergencies are:
Cardio Pulmonary Emergencies
Breathing Problems
Broken Bones or Falls

One of the best ways to train yourself to deal with these and other emergency situations is to take one of the many first aid courses offered by the Red Cross and other organizations in your community.

Remember to keep your emergency telephone numbers handy, and don't delay calling for help if an emergency arises. When in doubt, call 911! It would be better for the doctor or paramedic to find the situation not as serious as you thought, than for you to hesitate calling and possibly risk the life of someone you love.

Graphics courtesy of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health

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