Plan ahead for long-distance emergencies

  • A pulse oximeter is an especially important tool for anyone with a history of respiratory disease or for someone who tests positive for coronavirus.

    A pulse oximeter is an especially important tool for anyone with a history of respiratory disease or for someone who tests positive for coronavirus. Stock Photo

By Teri Dreher
Posted10/31/2020 5:00 AM

As coronavirus cases surge in many states, it's a good reminder to get emergency plans in order -- especially for family members who live far away.

While you would hope a relative's first call if they're facing a health emergency would be to 911, that's not always the case. There are many reasons for this. A relative may not realize how bad their symptoms are, they may worry about the cost of an ambulance or they may be suffering symptoms (such as low oxygen levels) that affect their ability to think clearly. But if someone is experiencing a medical crisis, every second counts. That's why it's so important to have an emergency plan in place.


Find the local police number

Most 911 calls cannot be transferred to a different city, town or state. So if you live hundreds of miles from a parent or relative -- or even just a half-hour drive away -- it's a good idea to locate the number for the local police department in the loved one's hometown. That way if there's ever an emergency or you need to ask for a well-being check, you will know who to call.

Prepare a health summary

Prepare a medical summary for your loved one in advance, covering health conditions, allergies, physicians and a current list of medications and dosages. Keep the list in a place where you can quickly access it, even when you're not at home, such as in a cellphone or in a purse or wallet. Have your relative keep the list also in a similar location. Having that information handy is the quickest way to get health professionals up to speed. Make sure you have a list with your own health information, too.

Ensure they have tools they need

Your loved one may have a thermometer and ibuprofen or acetaminophen on hand, but what about a pulse oximeter? This is an especially important tool for anyone with a history of respiratory disease or for someone who tests positive for coronavirus. Have them test the device out so they know how to use it. People often get false readings because they do not place it on their finger correctly or because their hands are very cold. When positioned properly on a finger, they should see a little light pulse with every beat of the heart for a correct reading.

People may understand that if they have trouble breathing, they should seek immediate medical assistance. But with coronavirus, some people don't experience severe difficulty breathing until their oxygen levels dip seriously low. With a pulse oximeter on hand, a person who tests positive for coronavirus can monitor their oxygen levels twice a day or whenever they feel symptoms worsening. Instruct them to call 911 immediately if their oxygen level dips below 90% and they are having shortness of breath.

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What constitutes an emergency?

When the pandemic first hit the U.S., emergency rooms noticed a drop in visits for heart attacks and strokes. That's not because people were experiencing these health crises less, it's because many of them were putting off visiting emergency rooms for fear of contracting COVID-19. With safety protocols and adequate PPE now in place, doctors assure us that it is safe for patients to seek care at hospitals, and they encourage people to do so if they are experiencing symptoms of heart attack or stroke, shortness of breath or another serious medical emergency.

Make use of technology

Swap numbers with a trusted friend or neighbor of your loved one who can be your eyes and ears in an emergency. Consider a medical alert device for a parent or grandparent susceptible to falls or with a serious medical condition. If your loved one has a cellphone, make sure your emergency contact information is accessible from their lock screen. (You can find instructions and videos online to help you do that.) The "in case of emergency" or ICE contact isn't just for older family members. It's a good idea for anyone with a cellphone to have their emergency contacts and important medical information, such as allergies to medications or chronic health conditions, easily accessible.

Living apart during a crisis can be trying, but it's much more manageable if you plan ahead. The more time you spend now planning for an emergency, the more time you'll save when someone needs immediate medical attention. Sometimes mere seconds can save a life.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, she recently founded Seniors Alone Guardianship & Advocacy Services (, a not-for-profit organization that serves the area's senior orphans. She also is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates,

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