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April 06, 2016

Who will care for the child: The case for emergency contact cards

“Mama, what is this card for?” my 4-year-old son asks.

I look at the bright yellow colors. “That’s our library card,” I answer. “We use it to check out the books we love.”

“This one has a picture of you. What is it for?” he continues.

“Oh, that’s my driver’s license,” I reply. “It tells people that I know how to safely drive a car.”

I watch my son go through the various cards in my small, red-beaded wallet. With my permission he investigates its contents. He is focused and interested.

“And this one? It has lots of words.” He holds up the wallet-sized, laminated card that I had made over two years ago.

“That’s an important card.” I look at my son and pause. “If we ever have a car accident and I can’t talk because I am hurt, that card tells the rescue crew who you are. It tells them who to call so that Daddy or Ms. Melinda can come and be with you.”

We look at each other and I gently take his hand: “I never want to have an accident and I work hard to keep us both safe and healthy. But this is our ‘just in case’ card. Just in case there is a big problem, this card will be really helpful.”

“Got it,” my son says with a nod. “Just in case.”

I won’t let them take him

As a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen my share of individuals come into the emergency room rendered unconscious due to a motor vehicle or traumatic and sudden accident.

In these difficult situations, the first task of the medical personnel is to stabilize the patient. Only after this vital work is done will a staff member sort through the contents of purses, wallets and cell phones in an effort to identify the individual. Sometimes this task takes time. Occasionally, there is no ID to be found.

It’s a delicate endeavor to go through a stranger’s belongings. I’ve watched hospital employees respectfully search through cards in a wallet or check if a cell phone is accessible sans password in an effort to let loved ones know of a terrible accident.

Take a moment and imagine how a tragic car accident or health crisis is experienced through the eyes of a young child. Imagine your parent unresponsive and hurt. Imagine being surrounded by sirens and rescue personnel. Imagine your fear.

More often than not, a driver’s license is located and a police officer is sent out to the patient’s residence to inform family or friends of the emergency. As a chaplain, I stay present for their arrival. I stay present to hold space for loved ones when they walk through the hospital doors, shocked and scared. I stay present for their pain.

Yet, the pain of these difficult events is compounded should a young child of the injured patient be present and witness.

Who cares for the little one while rescue workers scurry to stabilize the parent? What if the child is very young and can’t speak? Even a 4-year-old like my son, who normally can provide helpful identifying information such as names, phone numbers, address etc., can be so shaken that the task of memory retrieval proves impossible.

And what if no one is home once the officer arrives? For single parents, or those with partners/spouses who travel for work, this is of particular concern. Who will care for the child if it is impossible to contact family or friends?

I remember watching a single father from Pakistan sign, with shaking hands, hospital release forms “against medical advice” so he could go home with his young son. The doctors had recommended that he stay in the hospital for a few days so they could monitor his progress, yet no one was available to care for the boy. The child’s mother lived in another state and the father had no close friends. A nurse called child protective services because the hospital couldn’t accommodate or supervise care of the child. Yet, the father had no intention of sending his son off to stay with a foster family he had never met under the auspices of a state system sadly known for being underfunded and incompetent.

“We are taking the child with us,” the child protective service supervisor told me in the hallway.

“Look, give me some time,” I requested. “I have the patient’s permission to contact his imam and find a family in his mosque community who can step in and care for the boy.”

“You have 30 minutes to find someone,” she replied. Her tone and demeanor were anything but pleasant. “Thirty minutes. Then he’s coming with us.”

I left as many phone messages as I could during that time and I kept the patient abreast of the situation at hand.

“I won’t let them take him,” the father told me.

A nearby male nurse looked up and nodded. “I understand, man. If I were in your situation, I’d sign release forms, too.”

After carefully removing IV lines and providing the patient with important medical information, the nurse helped the man call a taxicab. Ten minutes later, I walked the father and son to the street where the cab awaited. Gratefully he was cognizant enough, and his vital signs were stable enough, that he could leave the hospital grounds with his son safely in tow.

After sending them off with a great deal of good will, I turned to find the child protective services supervisor waiting for me in the hallway.

“We’ll be following him,” she told me. “We have his address and we are going to his house. The fact that he signed forms against medical advice shows he is an incompetent parent. We need to investigate.”

“You realize that he did what many parents, including myself, would do given the situation?” I replied.

She looked at me scornfully, turned, and walked away.

Just in case

Take a moment and imagine how a tragic car accident or health crisis is experienced through the eyes of a young child. Imagine your parent unresponsive and hurt. Imagine being surrounded by sirens and rescue personnel. Imagine your fear.

Who will take care of you?

A few minutes after my final encounter with the child protective services supervisor, I reached out once more to call the father’s imam. Gratefully, he answered the phone and was able to find the recently hospitalized man’s name in the mosque database.

“I’ve got his address,” the imam told me. “Don't worry, Sister Amy, we’ll send members over to his home to offer support right away.” The next day, I contacted the state’s child protective services and filed a formal complaint.

It is well known that individuals who have life threatening allergies to specific medications carry cards in their wallets or wear necklace IDs should they be rendered unconscious. This is a wise, lifesaving practice. In a similar spirit, parents of young children would be wise to carry emergency contact cards wherein the contact information of trusted caregivers is clearly presented. This simple measure will help medical personnel quickly reach out to those who can offer loving, familiar and personalized support to children in crises.

Given my experiences as a chaplain and given the fact that I am often driving alone in the car with my son, carrying our “just in case” card makes so much sense.

“This is a really good idea,” the attendant at the photocopy store tells me as she places two laminated cards in my hand – one for myself and one for my husband.

I look at my son and I remember all that I have seen as a chaplain.

“Yes, it’s a really good idea.”

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