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Wellness & Prevention

Kid-sized emergencies

Rush to the hospital? Or call the doctor? A Chicago pediatric expert weighs in on when you should bring your child into the ER, and why every second counts
Heather Punke
Staff Writer

It was a normal night at home for Emily Odel and her one-year-old daughter Addison — until Addison mysteriously broke out in hives. Addison’s doctor’s office had closed for the day, and Odel needed answers. She rushed Addison to Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Emergency Department (ED).

“I’m one of those people that freaks out until I know what’s wrong,” the Andersonville mom explained. “I needed that peace of mind.”

She got it quickly; the duo was treated and released in less than 45 minutes. The hives turned out to be a reaction to an infection. While her condition had potential to be dangerous, the treatment was easy and Addison recovered quickly.

“It was a very positive experience,” Odel said.

Every year, millions of frightened parents bring their children into EDs throughout the country. Some leave second-guessing their decision to come in, while others — like Odel — are grateful that they did.

Andrea Ryan, Swedish Covenant Hospital’s ED pediatric nurse practitioner, said that Odel was right to bring Addison in that day. She explained that treatment for kids is often a judgment call for parents, but there are certain times when parents should not hesitate to bring their child to the ED.

When to come in

Cases of hives are a good example of when to make the trip to the ED or call 911, as they are often a symptom of an allergic reaction or a larger, more serious condition which needs to be addressed immediately.

Other “no question” cases involve bleeding that will not stop, fevers that do not decrease with medications, head injuries, dehydration and broken bones.

Ryan recommended that parents talk to their pediatrician or family medicine physician during a regular visit to better understand what their doctor can handle in his or her office.

“For example, some physicians may be comfortable with sutures, some might not,” she said.

By talking to the pediatrician, parents could save a trip to the ED, or give themselves peace of mind that they made the right decision to go to the emergency room in the first place.

Ryan also encourages parents to bring in all of the child’s medications, including over-the-counter varieties, any time they head to the ED. If parents do not have time to grab the actual bottles or pill boxes, a list of the medications is another option.

Parents should also grab their child’s immunization record before they dash out the door.

Fast track to health

In some cases, seconds saved in emergency treatment could be the difference between life and death, especially for children.

With this in mind, Swedish Covenant Hospital’s ED recently launched a Pediatric Fast Track program to ensure kids are being treated faster by staff specializing in pediatric care.

Ryan, who is the designated navigator for the Fast Track, notes that dehydration is one of the most common and time-sensitive health issues for children and a perfect example of why the Fast Track is necessary.

“Children can’t bounce back as fast as adults can from dehydration,” Ryan said, explaining that if a child is severely dehydrated they need to receive fluids through an intravenous (IV) tube as soon as possible to avoid further — possibly life-threatening — complications. Once the child is rehydrated, ED staff can quickly determine and address the cause of the dehydration.

With the Fast Track, the waiting time for a dehydrated child to get treatment and be sent home, or admitted into the hospital if necessary, is minimized. This significantly improves the likelihood of a fast recovery.

Minimizing stress can also speed recoveries.

The Fast Track is equipped with a separate, kids-specific waiting room, complete with toys and distractions, to help keep children calm in a typically stressful situation. Further, the Fast Track is designed to allow parents to be by their child’s side throughout their ED visit, which can mitigate stress for the child, the parent and the ED staff, Ryan said.

“Children won’t have to wait alone in a scary place,” Ryan explained.

When to make an appointment

Not all accidents, illness and mishaps are an emergency.

“If you think your child will fare better in the Emergency Department, you are welcome,” Ryan said, encouraging parents to come in when in doubt.

However, the ED is primarily for life-threatening injuries or illnesses, and unnecessary visits could slow down the care of others. There are times when children may be better served by their regular physician or by in-home care. For example, a suspected fever that improves with over-the-counter medicine, problems that have lasted a few days without worsening, scrapes and bruises typically do not merit an ED visit. In these instances, making an appointment with a pediatrician, or giving good old-fashioned home care, is likely most appropriate.

For more information about the emergency services and the Pediatric Fast Track offered at Swedish Covenant Hospital, click here.

In an emergency, call 911. For a comprehensive list of what Swedish Covenant Hospital ED experts find typically is, and is not, an emergency, click here.