What to do if your College Student has a Medical Emergency


It's a parent's worst nightmare. A call from your child (or worse, a call from someone else) explaining symptoms or injury requiring immediate medical attention. Preparing ahead of time and having a few things at your fingertips will help you stay calm if your College Student has a Medical Emergency.

We recently received this kind of phone call from our son. It was 3:30 in the morning and he had awakened with shaking chills, fever, and terrible lower abdominal pain. Less than an hour later he had been diagnosed with an appendicitis and my husband was on the road for the six hour drive to be with him.

What to Do if Your College Student has a Medical Emergency


Here are some steps to preparing for and handling, in the moment, a medical emergency involving your child who does not live near you:


Before your College Student has a Medical Emergency:


  • Make sure they have their health insurance card in an easily accessible place.
  • Either call your health insurer or carefully read the materials from your health insurer concerning seeking care in another city/state. Find out if there are “in-network” health care providers and facilities in the new college town. Our son is in another state, so fortunately, our health insurer allows us to seek emergency care anywhere and it will be classified as “in network” for the deductible and out-of-pocket portions of the bill. If there are “in-network” facilities where your child lives and your student goes somewhere else, you could be in for a large bill.
  • Consider executing a HIPPA release with your child. Once your child is 18, you will need YOUR CHILD'S PERMISSION to access their medical information.  Hospitals and doctors are not allowed to discuss your child's medical care with you without signed consent. I recently interviewed a physician about HIPPA forms and here is his take:

Every institution will prefer their own forms for HIPPA purposes, but it is a good idea for the person who will be making the decisions and/or paying the bill to have an executed HIPPA form on file to fax or e-mail if the medical provider/institution will not give you adequate information, especially over the phone. If the patient is unconscious, the provider will talk to the next of kin, but that can sometimes be difficult to determine. Divorces and other family situations can complicate “the next of kin” issue.

*** Tell your child to put you as the emergency contact and as a person with whom health care providers may share medical information when filling out ANY AND ALL medical forms.

  • Have your child fill our whatever forms they need to with the insurer before they go to college, so that you can discuss their bills with the insurer. Even though you are the “insured” and are paying the bills, an insurer is also not allowed to discuss their bills with you without their consent. This was a bit of an issue with us because our son needed to give notice within 24 hours of his emergency to get in network benefits. We ultimately got it straightened out and were given the correct benefits, but did have to argue a bit that we tried several times to call them. They were arguing that the notice had to be from our son! 
  • Discuss with your child, what campus clinics, urgent cares, free-standing ERs, and hospitals are available. Do you have an opinion about where they seek care?
  • If possible, select a local friend or family member, who can act as the emergency contact until you arrive.


What to do when you receive “the call”:


  • Determine what action your child should take when they call with “symptoms.” After 18 years, you are probably pretty good at interpreting your child's voice and level of drama. Some kids will call hysterical because they have a splinter. Others will call and say, “I decided to jump off my raised bed and I fell on my arm. My arm is now a weird shape. Do you think I should show it to the pre-med student down the hall or do you think it is nothing?” (If it is just a splinter, send them to the first aid kit from The Best First Aid Kit for College.)
  • If you decide they should seek medical attention, remind them to take their insurance card with them and to PUT YOU AS THE EMERGENCY CONTACT and person to whom the doctor may give medical information.
  • Boys do not like to ask for help even if they are in incredible pain. But, depending on the situation, encourage your child to have a friend drive them. Our son drove himself to a free standing ER. The free standing ER made him call a friend to take him to the hospital. We are extremely grateful for the young man who came to his side at 4:00am.
  • The next step is the toughest: wait by the phone for your child or a doctor to call with news of what is wrong and what the next steps will be.
  • Find your HIPPA form in case you need it.
  • If you have a local friend or family member who can stay with your child until you get there, call them.
  • Plane, train, or automobile it to your child's side.


In our case, my parents were an hour and a half from our son and were able to be there with him as he waited for surgery. Because the surgery was delayed by another emergency in the OR, my husband arrived just as they took him back. My husband and I switched places two days later and I stayed a few days to help our son get back on his feet (and enjoyed babying my 21 year old)!

All is well. He recovered and completed his semester-end projects, took finals, and sat for the MCAT all within two weeks time of the surgery. It was a crazy ordeal, made more chaotic because at the time our son called, we were entertaining a houseful of kids who had been to the prom. These things never happen at a “convenient” time. I was grateful for the preparations we had made and for my husband's instructions to our son to make sure he put us as emergency contacts on the forms he filled out in the ER.

Knowing What to do if your College Student has a Medical Emergency is a necessary part of the college preparation process. Neither you nor your student wants to be in this situation, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Take the necessary steps to be prepared.


[Photo credit: The picture used in this post was taken by my son, the patient, who put it on Instagram with the caption, “This is not how I planned on spending tonight.” As a mom I wonder, “Why are you wearing your shoes in bed?” As a blogger I am thinking, “Good job, son, getting such a great shot for the post you know is coming about this experience.”]




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