When Your College Student Gets Sick

You’re dealing with a young adult now, and that changes things.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

The first time either of my kids called home to say they were sick freshman year left me feeling helpless. My daughter had a cold, my son a stomach bug. Though I told them what to take to feel better, I couldn’t bring them cold medicine and more vitamins or ginger ale and crackers. I hated not being there to comfort each of them in person. In many ways, learning to take care of yourself when you’re at college is a right of passage, one of the many steps into adulthood.

Medical3Except, sometimes your college student comes down with something more serious and you may not hear about it if yours is over 18, legally an adult. As a parent of this young adult, you don’t have the right to be informed of your student’s visits to the campus health center or closest hospital.

The doctor or nurse won’t contact you without your student’s permission The hospital will likely suggest your student calls someone, hopefully your kid chooses you. Of course, in a life or death situation, the hospital will try to contact you if no one else is with your student, because you are the parent. Make sure you’re listed as ICE Mom or ICE Dad in your student’s cell phone (ICE stands for “in case of emergency”).

This is what can happen: Example 1 A friend went through one of these scary scenarios when her freshman son came down with appendicitis. After visiting the campus health center, he was referred to the community hospital. No one from the college contacted the parents because legally they couldn’t. Her son shared his parents’ phone number with the hospital nurse who called several hours later to tell them he was likely undergoing surgery in the morning.

With no flights available, they drove for what she described as “the longest 12 hours of my life.” They arrived 15 minutes before he went into surgery, received an update on his condition from the nurse, then were able to walk along side his gurney until he reached the operating room.

medical 1This is what can happen: Example 2 Another friend’s sophomore son was hospitalized with a potential case of MRSA. The nurse suggested he contact someone even though he was an adult. He phoned his parents. His mother, in talking with hospital staff, asserted that his parents needed to act as his advocates because, as she pointed out, who knows a child’s medical history better than his parents? The medical team agreed, with her son’s permission. Luckily, it wasn’t MRSA, but an aggressive staph infection which he received treatment for as an outpatient.

What to do first Once you’ve been contacted by your student or someone from the hospital, get the attending nurse’s name, plus the direct phone number of the nurse’s station so you can check in from home or while you’re in transit.

Ensure your receive the instructions for follow-up care and treatment, if there are any, even though you’re at home. More than likely, you’ll be the one checking in that your student is taking prescribed medications and keeping the next appointment.

What to do after Help your student obtain a note from the doctor who treated her to share with her professors. Most colleges have policies that allow students to make up missing work as long as they have a letter from a physician.

Remind your student to contact her professors, as well as her academic adviser, about her medical situation as soon as she’s able. The academic adviser can work as her advocate with any problems that arise.

Depending upon why your student was hospitalized, she might face some emotional effects from the experience. Encourage her to make an appointment with the counseling center to help work through her issues.

medical2Preventative measures Talk with your teen before he heads off to college about about how things work if he becomes ill or hospitalized. Don’t scare your kid, but simply explain that you want to be informed if anything happens to be sure he receives the best care possible. This is one of those times to remind your teen that he should never be afraid to call you, no matter how badly he thinks he messed up.

Have a health care proxy drawn up for your student designating you as his agent who can receive medical information and make medical decisions when he can’t. Not all states have “fall-back” laws allowing parents to act on their adult child’s behalf. A hospital staff is more likely to share information if they know you’re the legal agent. See your lawyer to draw up the form or find one online (search “health care proxy form” to find an applicable one for your state).

In addition to ICE contacts on his phone, your student should have an “in case of emergency card” in his wallet that includes parent contact info, as well as the name of his physician, medications, medical conditions and any known allergies (this information can also be added to his Medical ID info on his phone that can be accessed without a password in case of an emergency). He should also carry his medical insurance card at all times, too.

Make sure his roommate has all your phone numbers and knows to contact you when your student can’t. You should do this for his family, too.

Hopefully your student will never have a medical emergency at college, but just in case, be prepared.

If you’ve ever been through a medical issue with your college student, please share your advice in the comments section below. 

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One Response to When Your College Student Gets Sick

  1. Pingback: College Freshman Checklist | Parents' Guide to the College Puzzle

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