If Your Child Gets Sick at College – Do You Have a Plan?

Judi Knott

The phone rang at 8am.  It was the week before Christmas and my list of to-dos looked as long as a 5-year old’s Dear Santa list. What I heard on the other end of the line stopped me cold and put all thoughts of the holiday on hold. “Mom, I’m sick.  I suddenly lost my vision and had to crawl my way out of the bathroom stall.  I can see now, but I don’t know what to do.”

It was my 19-year old son, a freshman at a big university in the Midwest . . . we live in New Jersey.  Six-hundred miles and a 10-hour car ride away—I knew I needed to remain calm for my son and talk him through his next steps.  “Find your RA, wake him and tell him to call for medical assistance—but don’t hang up (he was on his cell),” I advised him.  He walked down the hall, knocked on the RA’s door, and took the first step in what would become a long day of coordinating medical care from a distance. 

Putting a Plan in Place – Get Contact Numbers and Find Out Next Steps

I had my son put his RA on the phone with me, I asked him who would be called (Campus Public Safety and EMTs), and requested his phone number for possible follow-up.  He was also able to confirm that my son appeared stable which provided some temporary relief.  I hung up the phone.  Being originally from the area where my son was attending college, both his Godmother and his sister’s Godmother still lived in the area—in fact his Godmother is a nurse at the University hospital where I knew he was being transported.  I tried reaching both—and thankfully his sister’s Godmother picked up the phone and said she could be at the hospital within an hour.  Not every family will have the benefit of local friends or relatives who can be by their student’s side in a crisis—so what this incident taught me is that EVERY family needs to have a plan.

What You Need to Know – HIPPA, Patient Privacy, and Your Young Adult

My friend was on the way to the hospital so I knew my son would be in good hands—both medically and emotionally.  More importantly, I knew he would have an advocate—someone who could speak up on his behalf, help manage any medical decisions that needed to be made and keep me informed, and, most importantly since he was headed into the ER, make sure that he was getting both the medical attention and tests he needed to make an accurate diagnosis—in a timely manner.  And that is just what she did—but before any of that could take place, including having access to the patient (my son) in the treatment room—we needed to have a signed form of HIPPA consent form.


HIPPA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—it essentially covers patient privacy and confidentiality of medical records.  Most readers are probably familiar with at least some aspects of HIPPA—the forms you sign at your doctor’s office delineating who can have access to your patient records—be it a spouse, adult children, partners, etc. If you have a child over age 18, you have probably already encountered HIPPA regulations in terms of having access to your child’s medical records—you don’t—unless your over age 18 child has signed a consent form.  In our case, we had a signed consent form—with our son’s pediatrician—but we did not have any type of consent form on file (or, more importantly, in our files) that would cover access to our son’s medical records or treatment beyond our pediatrician’s office.  Essentially what every parent should have is a HIPPA consent form signed by their over age 18 child that will grant them access to their child’s health care records in the event of an emergency.  Keep this signed form in an easily accessible location, and keep a scanned copy on file in your personal computer and/or phone.

Medical Consent Forms and Power of Attorney – What You Need Before you NEED it

Because my son was conscious and able to give consent, there was no problem having the family friend have access to my son in the ER to help manage his medical care and essentially be his advocate.  But had he not been conscious and able to give consent, what we needed to have in place at minimum, was a Durable Power of Attorney—which includes a statement related to “. . .full power and authority to act on my behalf on all matters. . . (including) medical.  The Durable Power of Attorney form covers (or can cover, depending on what your young adult agrees to include, the ability for you to sign tax forms, access to educational records, and more).  Most importantly, a Durable Power of Attorney (vs. a Power of Attorney) allows you, or anyone you add to the document, the ability to make decisions in case the person is incapacitated.  Durable Power of Attorney forms need to be notarized.  Depending on your State, and to protect your student in case of medical emergencies where you are not easily accessible, families should consider a Medical Power of Attorney form (sometimes referred to as Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care) in which you can designate a Patient Advocate(s), which allows a person/s to make care, custody, and medical decisions for your student.  Where distance is concerned (as in our case), and when family or friends may live in close/r proximity to your student, having such a document in place is advisable.  Because this form may need to be notarized, it’s best to get this in place before you drop your student off at college—that means asking your patient advocate(s) in advance if they will agree (don’t just assume), and making sure you secure required signatures from all parties involved, including your student. An example (from University of Michigan Health Systems) of the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care which covers designating a health advocate(s) in the event you are not available here. Check with your student’s local college hospital or a family attorney to make sure you have the right forms in place. 

A Final Word on Being Prepared – Keep Copies of All Documents

Make sure your student has physical copies of all documents, and keep scanned copies of the documents easily accessible.  If you have a designated patient advocate(s) make sure they have copies of their signed forms as well, and suggest they also keep scanned as well as printed copies.  In an emergency, the last thing you want to worry about is looking for these signed forms.  Finally, and most importantly, remember, with or without medical consent forms, etc., if there is a health emergency, medical professionals who are treating your student are going to make medical decisions based on their own professional judgment—not having these forms will not delay critical care or treatment.  What they will do is provide you (and others you may designate as patient advocates) with quick and easy access to your child in the hospital.  In all likelihood, you may never need to exercise the need to use any of these documents—however the peace of mind that being prepared will bring—and the time you will save if an emergency occurs, is priceless.


Free or low cost HIPPA, Medical Consent, and Durable Power of Attorney forms are available through a number of online services, such as rocketlawyer.com. You can also check with your doctor’s office and an attorney to get these forms and/or verify that you have the proper forms in case of emergency.

For additional information regarding how to be prepared if your college-age child has a medical emergency, read this excellent article from Consumer Reports.

photo credit: staffstories.umich.edu

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