If your college kid gets sick at school will he or she know what to do or will they just call you?
When my son texted me from school his freshman year to tell me he was sick I asked the requisite questions—fever? chills? sore throat?—and responded with a plan of action.
Sounds like the flu, I told him; take some Tylenol and rest. What I should have said was, “What do you think you need to do?” but it was an automatic mom response.
When a few days passed and I didn’t hear from him I thought all was well and he was managing.
Then he called.
I could barely hear him, his voice was so raspy and every word was punctuated with a deep, rattling cough.
“You have pneumonia,” I said. “You have to go to health services.” This led to a lengthy debate about how I don’t know anything (and yet, he was calling me to get some advice, so go figure).
“I don’t need to see a doctor,” he insisted. “I just need to know what I can take to stop the cough and bring down the fever. But,” he added. “I didn’t pack any meds.”
Seriously? I thought. What about that first aid kit full of medicine that I lovingly assembled that is probably shoved somewhere under your bed?
But I digress.
Instead I calmly explained over and over and over again that nothing was going to stop the cough because he clearly had pneumonia and he had to go to health services. When that didn’t work I threatened him with the only thing I had left – embarrassment: “Go to health services or I am coming there and taking you myself!”
He knows that I’m just crazy enough to drive there and drag him by his ear to the campus doctor so…
Four hours later he had a prescription for an antibiotic, multiple meds for his cough and an inhaler because, you guessed it, he had pneumonia.
My point in relaying this story is not to demonstrate my uncanny ability to diagnose major illnesses from a phone call but rather, that our kids probably have no idea how to take care of themselves when they first leave home. What if I had a kid who doesn’t call me? How sick would he have gotten before his roommate decided that he heard enough hacking all night? And more importantly, even if it was just the flu, a cold or some other minor illness shouldn’t my kid know what meds to take to ease his fever, congestion, pain without calling me?
And what if it’s something that needs immediate medical attention like an abscess in the throat, a mild stroke or an infected cut from getting battered against rocks while swimming in the Mediterranean? (All, by the way, actual injuries/illnesses that have occurred to my kid or a friend’s child in the past month while he or she was away at school.)
The problem is that when our kids are home and under our watchful eye they turn to “Dr. Mom (or Dad)” for guidance. We know they are sick so we dole out medications, offer TLC or take them to the doctor.
I never thought to involve my kids in the discussion and now I don’t know if they have really learned to navigate illness or injury when I’m not around.
This goes beyond knowing when to see a doctor. It’s about knowing when and what medications to take safely, having the medications on hand before you need them and knowing when to seek emergency help.
I want them to ask What Would Mom Do?
Here are just a few lessons that I’ve picked up over the past three years that I wish I taught my kid before he left for college:
- Have a first aid/medicine kit and make sure they know what is in it, what the medications are for, and how to use them (and, in my son’s case, where it is in his room). It’s far better to have meds available when they are needed instead of relying on whatever medications some guy on their floor might have to ease their symptoms.
- Teach them to call the local pharmacy – instead of you – to find out what medications can be combined and what can’t. Remind them that Dr. Google doesn’t always know.
- Speaking of Dr. Google – I am so, so guilty of using the Internet whenever I have a medical question but I also know that you can find anything to back up your theory if you want to. I can’t tell you how many times my flu/cold/virus has been diagnosed as The Plague – all evidence to the contrary. Remind them that a real doctor is usually better than a virtual one.
- Amazon and Instacart are your child’s friend for ordering last minute medications/tea/honey, etc. Again, it is way better to have them order what they are familiar with and they know they need than to rely on the “herbal remedy” their roommate wants them to try.
- Remind them that if they are not getting better with whatever treatment they started, they should tell someone. If something seems wrong, they should tell someone. Teach them to be their own advocate (so they don’t have to call you!).
- FINISH MEDICATIONS. The minute my son started feeling better after his bout with pneumonia he started to “forget” to take his antibiotics. Everyone does it. Just remind your kid that not finishing the antibiotics may result in a relapse or can lead to antibiotic resistance.
- Make sure they know where the university health service offices are and how to schedule an appointment. My son pulled the “But I don’t know how to make an appointment,” whine with me. Yes, he could look it up once he gets sick but that’s so much effort(!).
- Know where the counseling center is and how to get help for mental health issues. If they can’t or won’t seek help now is the time when it’s ok to call mom and dad or another trusted person.
- When a major illness or accident strikes it would be nice to think that the school or hospital will call you, the parent, to alert you. They won’t. Legally they cannot give out information about anyone over the age of 18. Make sure you have these documents prepared and signed once your child turns 18 and well before your kid leaves for school. Don’t wait.
Just remember that most adults don’t seek the medical attention they need or know what medications to take when they are sick. We parents can only do so much – but we try.
Anything you would add? Let us know!