Medical Emergency Abroad with Kids

We recently took the kids to Japan to visit their uncle and aunt who were stationed over there with the Navy.  In addition to many other souvenirs and memories, we also came home with our first international hospital experience and a brand new scar for our 13 month old.

Ultimately, our son was treated successfully, and we still had an awesome vacation.  Throughout this experience, however, there was a strong case to be made for us doing everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, wrong.  Whether you learn from our mistakes or merely laugh at them, I hope this list of our failures and new knowledge will be put to good use!

If you are in the process of dealing with something similar and have stumbled upon this post, I’ve bolded our best suggestions below:

Assessing the damage

DO NOT try to dress your openly bleeding child regardless of the weather outside.  The flailing and bleeding and screaming is simply not worth the slight added benefit of extra warmth.

DO swaddle your openly bleeding child in a blanket/towel/restraining material and pack additional layers for when the bleeding problem has been fixed.  If they are small enough, just carry them.  It will be comforting to them and allow you to apply pressure to the injury (if applicable) and keep their hands/bodies from making their condition worse.

Getting to the hospital

DO NOT wander around the streets of a new city looking for the medical cross you think you saw the night before after splitting a bottle of sake with your spouse.

DO NOT try to hail any old cab in the hopes that you and driver can find a mutually understood language.  This attempt at communication is especially difficult when wielding a screaming and bleeding baby.

DO go to the nearest recognizable chain hotel and ask their concierge or main office for assistance.  Chances are someone at a major chain hotel speaks English and has a good working knowledge of the local health care system.

DO NOT merely stumble into the first door of the hospital of a country where you cannot read the language let alone speak it.  Turns out, the characters on street signs that baffled you yesterday while trying to navigate your way to a local shrine are no easier to decipher in a hospital with a screaming and bleeding baby.

DO approach the first person in a uniform and show them your malady (if it’s apparent): this is especially easy if it’s an open head wound like ours was.  If it’s not as obvious, grab some paper (hospitals are FULL of paperwork) and draw a stick figure with your malady.  Then, present your artwork to the first person in a uniform.

Communicating with doctors, nurses, and staff

DO NOT try to crack jokes or make unnecessary comments about the weather, your day, or what you’re thinking.  You’ll spend too long trying to explain what you meant, and it’s not worth the energy or time.

DO answer questions as directly as possible.  Feel free to gesticulate wildly where words aren’t working.  For instance, we could tell that our doctors were trying to ascertain whether our son had sustained a concussion (this wasn’t our first rodeo with head injuries in the family) or other similar brain trauma when he fell.  Knowing this, we were able to pantomime crying and ability to function post-injury to get the point across that John Jr. wasn’t at a heightened risk of serious internal damage.

DO NOT blindly give your child whatever medication they are prescribed before fully understanding what is in that medicine.  Since our children do not have any known medical allergies, we didn’t question too much when the doctors gave us some powdered medicine and indicated that it was “for pain.”  It wasn’t until we gave our son his first dose, and he very quickly fell into a deep sleep, that we bothered to ask someone what was in it (we were long gone from the hospital, so we turned to a local pharmacy that advertised an ability to speak English).  Turns out, many countries routinely give much more comprehensive pain medication than your typical ibuprofen.  While we were assured that “he would be fine,” we only used the powdered medicine at night when John Jr. was obviously distressed and predominately stuck to our handy-dandy ibuprofen.

DO try to get all of the necessary documentation to submit to insurance or to present to your doctor at home in case of follow-up care.  DO NOT assume that this documentation will be in English or the Latin alphabet (Hint: you can probably find someone on Craigslist to translate your documents for a nominal fee).



DO submit your medical documents for reimbursement with your insurance carrier.  We were a little hesitant to submit our paperwork since it was not in English and definitely not in the preferred “form.”  However, we were shocked when our insurance covered 100% of the expenses (we think they may have taken one look at all of the Kanji (Japanese characters) and thought it would be less work to just give us the money, but for whatever reason, it was unexpected and awesome!).

This might have been the one thing we did right, and many people may disagree, but it worked for us:

DO proceed to enjoy your vacation as if nothing happened.  Unless your child was not cleared by your healthcare team for some reason, go ahead and continue doing what you were doing before your trip to the hospital.  Our son was infinitely more happy being outside seeing people and experiencing life than he would have been cooped up in our hotel merely because he had a bandage on his face and an ever-so-slightly more eventful morning than usual.  He was distracted from his discomfort, and we all ended up having a great day visiting castles, riding “choo-choo’s,” and otherwise enjoying our vacation.


While we certainly did not do everything right, and we were definitely not planning on dealing with a medical emergency in a foreign country, our son was treated with all of the care and kindness that a parent hopes for in this situation.  It’s just more evidence for not being overly worried about traveling with young kids…after all, there are accident-prone 13-month old babies everywhere, right?!

If you’re looking for tips and tricks for traveling with young kids, check out some other ideas and anecdotes here!






3 responses to “Medical Emergency Abroad with Kids”

  1. Linda leigh Avatar
    Linda leigh

    That was quite an adventure. You were thinking on your feet- but hopefully those that read this blog will have a leg up if they need medical attention!

  2. […] be prepared with phone numbers of emergency medical facilities (in a pinch, check out this post on medical emergencies abroad) or even ask your hotel/host if they know of a recommended pediatrician in the area in case of an […]

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