Medical Emergency Preparedness 101

During the past few years, we’ve seen how circumstances beyond anyone’s control can change everything in the blink of an eye. Just ask residents of New York or New Jersey, for example, many of whom are still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Sandy. Whether it’s a cataclysmic weather event affecting millions or an isolated incident, such as a neighborhood power outage, I can assure you that people who are prepared for the worst do best. That’s why I encourage you to take a little time this week to prepare home medical and/or evacuation kits.

Living in Southern California’s earthquake country for years has taught me the value of preparation. We all take for granted working telephones, computer access, and hospital availability. But when communication lines go down, leaving phones and computers useless, or when roads are flooded or impassable, making a trip to the emergency room impossible, what do you do?

With a home medical kit, you’ll be able to take care of minor problems. And, even if disaster never strikes where you live (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t), it never hurts to have the supplies you need on hand to treat cuts and bruises and deal with other small emergencies.

In addition, I highly recommend taking a little time to make up an evacuation kit in the event you are ever forced to leave your home.

Why Being Prepared Is So Important

Like most of us, you probably have bandages, pain relievers, ointments, and similar products in your home already. The point of having a home medical kit is twofold. One, it keeps all these things in one place, so you can find them in an instant when they’re needed. You don’t want to have to search your cabinets for hydrogen peroxide or a gauze bandage when a medical emergency strikes.

The second point of having a medical kit is to help you see which products are expired, so they can be replaced in a timely fashion. In particular, I strongly urge you to take the expiration dates on medication seriously. Consuming expired medication is very risky. So, while putting your kit together, make a list of expiration dates from products that have them, including batteries. Note the dates on your calendar, and tape the list to your kit. Every few months, it’s especially important to rotate extra medication kept in your home medical kit with medication you keep elsewhere in your home.

What to Include in a Home Medical Kit

Based on my own experiences and those of several patients, here’s a starter list of what to include in your medical kit:

Basic Medical Kit

  • Adhesive tape
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Bandages (several different sizes and shapes)
  • Burn gel
  • Calamine lotion
  • Cold packs (disposables are fine)
  • Cotton balls and cotton-tipped swabs
  • Elastic bandages
  • Eye pads
  • Eye wash
  • Face masks (N-95 rated NIOSH)
  • First-aid manual
  • Flashlight and spare batteries
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Medications and nutritional supplements (4-week supply)
  • 1% hydrocortisone cream
  • Pain relievers
  • Phone numbers and contact names (for emergency)
  • Plastic or latex gloves (several inexpensive pairs)
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Safety pins
  • Scissors (small pair)
  • Soap (nothing fancy, just a plain bar of soap)
  • Sterile gauze
  • Thermometer
  • Triple-antibiotic ointment
  • Tweezers

Please feel free to add or subtract to suit your personal needs. As my patient Lou discovered, the last thing you want to be doing in a crisis is searching for things you can’t leave behind.

Remember, this is a basic, impersonal list. Your own needs may vary. Some medications, for example, need to be refrigerated, in which case you’ll want to have extra cold packs and a small cooler on hand to keep them fresh if the power goes out or if you have to evacuate. One good way to identify all the elements for your medical kit is to make notes throughout the day about what you use regularly, and add each item to your list.

If you have a pet, don’t forget about its medication and first-aid needs. Each situation is different, so I suggest talking with your veterinarian about what to include beyond the obvious, such as medicine. Your dog, for example, may require a muzzle if it’s injured and you’re attempting to help it.

When It’s Time to Evacuate

In addition to a medical kit, I also recommend having an evacuation box ready to go. The contents really depend on your own needs, but you may want to include practical items, such as the following:

Basic Evacuation Kit

  • Assorted toiletries
  • Books
  • Bottled water (as much as you feel you can carry)
  • Changes of clothing, including a spare pair of comfortable shoes
  • Comb and/or hairbrush
  • Deck of cards
  • Lightweight blanket
  • Paper towels
  • Pillow
  • Short-wave radio (with extra batteries)
  • Toilet paper
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss
  • Towel
  • Water purifier tablets or travel water purifier
  • Your favorite energy or meal-replacement bars

It may be easiest to pack the medical kit and the evacuation items in an old suitcase or backpack. That way, you’ll need to grab only one item before leaving.

One more thing: We all have something we can’t do without, whether it’s medication, a cherished scrapbook, or important documents. I strongly urge you to take a long, hard look at your surroundings and consider what you could and could not leave behind in case of an evacuation. I think we’ve all seen the faces of heartbroken people who’ve survived disasters but lost everything in the process. A safety deposit box at your bank is one solution. Or you could purchase a portable, fireproof safe. The method you choose to preserve your memorabilia and documents is a personal decision. The important thing is to do something now to prevent tragedy later.

Last, but not least, pet owners need to do a bit more work. Have carrying cases or kennels, spare leashes, a blanket or two, food and water (unless you want to share yours) as well as bowls, treats, and toys, or other comforting reminders of home, ready to go. Keeping the pet’s first aid kit inside a carrying case or kennel will spare you from having to search for it during a time when every minute may count. Just be sure to rotate food and medicine regularly to avoid ending up with stale or expired products.

It may seem like a chore, but making up a home medical kit is one of those things many people don’t appreciate until they discover — too late — that they could have really used one. In fact, when you put yours together, consider making a duplicate version for your car. Being stranded in an automobile can be just as devastating as being forced to leave your home on short notice.

We sometimes think these tragedies happen only to others. But the truth is, there are no guarantees. As my patient Connie said, “It’s better to be prepared for disaster than to become one.” And I completely agree.