I guess after years of family travel, we were bound to have a medical emergency. We've had minor brushes with illness and injury before—eye and ear infections, strep throat on a cruise, a memorable face-plant by my son at Ostia Antica—you get the idea.
But a few weeks ago, when we were on the beach in South Carolina, we had the real deal. When my husband and daughter were swimming, an undertow pulled them into a rock jetty. They went to the ER, and my daughter came home with a lot of stitches, a plaster ankle immobilizer, and crutches. They're both fine now, but we had quite a scare.
And it was a learning experience for me. I think I'm a pretty savvy traveler, but I've never dealt with anything like this. Some things were surprisingly easy (under the circumstances) and some were more difficult than I'd expected. I hope you don't have occasion to put my advice into practice, but here's what I learned.
Know the local emergency phone number. Someone called 911 right away, and help arrived very quickly. If this had happened in, say, Belize, though, I'm not sure anyone in our group would have what to dial off the top of their head. I won't be leaving the country anytime soon without that.
Digitize your insurance information. In the confusion at the beach, we didn't grab all our stuff—so we arrived at the hospital sans insurance cards. However, I did have my cell phone, and a few months ago, my husband and I went on a "let's digitize everything" spree. We scanned everything we could and saved it in an app called Evernote. I pulled that up on my phone, searched for "insurance," and had all the info. It's worth the time to do this before your next trip.
Ask your hotel for help, even if you think it's farfetched. My daughter was having trouble using her crutches but was sick of watching movies in our room. So I called the front desk and asked if the hotel had a wheelchair. They did. It made a huge difference.
Get out of the hotel if you can. Escaping the hotel—for small chunks of time—was psychologically important for everybody. We didn't push my daughter to do anything she couldn't handle, but we did a short trip to the aquarium, went for gelato, etc. Even though it was nowhere near the itinerary we'd planned, it helped her (and her 4-year-old brother) feel like we were still on vacation.
A rental car can be a beautiful thing. I was able to make an 11:30 p.m. drugstore run without having to find a cab. And wherever you go, BYO GPS. I definitely needed one, and I was glad it wasn't one of those completely unusable rental-car systems.
Think creatively. My daughter was on antibiotics that required refrigeration. We had a fridge in our hotel room, and I made a mental note to buy an insulated lunch bag on the way to the airport. However, as I was walking around the store holding said lunch bag, I realized I didn't have an ice pack for it… and no one sells pre-frozen ice packs. So I bought frozen mac and cheese. I figured it would keep everything cold until we got to security, and if TSA made me pitch it, I would find a way to get a bag of ice inside the airport. The TSA agents let us through, though, without a problem.
Get to the airport early -- for real. We had to return a rental car, arrange wheelchair/cart transport, check bags, do a more complicated TSA check than usual… the fact that we were at a small-ish airport helped, but if we'd been in, say, Miami, I can't even imagine how long this might have taken.
Keep in mind those carts that drive you through the airport are super-convenient (particularly in Charlotte, where we had to change terminals) but they move fast. Hang on, and make sure your kids hang on, too.
Finally: I've raised the bar on my definition of "travel horror story," and I think that's a good thing. Seriously, so many of us treat missing luggage or a botched hotel reservation as a total disaster, but those things aren't disasters—they're annoyances. I'm sure I won't be all unicorns and rainbows the next time I get stuck overnight at an airport, but I'll take that any day over someone in my family going to the ER in an ambulance.