In the four years total that I lived on a college campus, I can honestly say that I dealt with more medical stuff in dorms than most other students at my college. Sometimes, I was the person who needed medical attention, though there were plenty of other times that I was the one calling 911 or university dispatch on someone, or I was helping someone figure out how to get to the nearest emergency room or urgent care. I’ve become a pro at being able to handle medical emergencies in a dorm or in other places on campus, and have learned a lot from personal experiences and the experiences of friends about what to do if you get sick in college or how to get help after an injury in a dorm. Here are my tips for how to handle medical emergencies in a dorm- tips that I regularly share with my friends and other students who live with chronic illness.
All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider. If you believe you are having a medical emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Things to do before a medical emergency
Have a list of phone numbers to call
One of the things that helps me when I have to deal with a medical emergency is already having a list of contact numbers that can help me in case of an emergency. While it’s easy to remember the phone number for 911, some of the other phone numbers can be challenging to look up in the midst of a crisis, so I added them as phone contacts. Some examples of contacts that I have include:
- University dispatch/campus police
- Poison control
- Student Health
- The general phone number for the nearest hospital
- Police phone number for satellite campus (if student travels to the other campus)
- Resident advisor for my hall/on call phone for RA
- Residential director/neighborhood desk
Depending on the college or individual student needs, the following numbers can also be helpful to have:
- Non-emergency police for the area
- Nurse line for nearest hospital/health insurance provider
- Primary care physician office
- Specialist phone number, i.e neurologist/line for neurologist on call
Of course, it’s also important to have phone numbers for emergency contacts such as family members or roommates that are easy to search for. My parents are labeled as Mom Lewis and Dad Lewis in my phone so that someone would be able to find them quickly, and I attached a note to my brother’s contact that indicated that he lived close to my dorm.
Add emergency medical information to phone
Most smartphones have this feature, but I enabled an emergency medical card on my Android phone that can be activated with three taps and shows a list of my allergies, a brief medical history, and information for emergency contacts. I go into more detail about how I did this in my post on adding medical information to Android that is linked below.
Configure voice assistant to call campus dispatch
While most voice assistants do not support calling 911, I can use my Amazon Echo Dot to call the campus dispatch phone number, which is helpful if I fall down in my dorm and can’t reach my phone. I tested this by shouting for the Amazon Alexa service to call my friend as I stood in various places in my dorm, and was happy to discover that the device recognized my voice correctly whether I was lying on the floor next to my desk or sitting in the bathroom. This was especially helpful the day I fell in the shower.
Take note of campus address
On my emergency medical card and in the notes app on my phone, I indicated my dorm street address, building name, and room number so that I could easily read this information if there was a problem. When I lived on a higher floor, I also indicated whether my room was to the left or right of the elevator, so that paramedics could locate it more quickly. For my friends that have a history of severe medical issues, I would also include this information in the notes app or in their contact on my phone, which was helpful when my friend started feeling disoriented and almost passed out during a phone conversation.
Have medical documentation in an easy-to-locate area
One of my friends that has several chronic illnesses taped a folder with medical information to the side of their dresser so that paramedics can locate it quickly or they can grab it on their way to the emergency room. While I didn’t keep a folder with information, I did make sure that my insurance card was in an easy-to-find location by the door so that I could grab it quickly, along with my dorm key and a spare phone charger. The phone charger may not seem overly important, but it’s super helpful for ensuring that I can communicate with others about what is happening, and I’ve also had to call friends from the ER in the past to ask them to bring me a phone charger.
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What to do if you have a medical emergency in the dorm
Take note of your symptoms
Is your foot extremely swollen after you dropped a clarinet case on it? Do you have pain on the left side of your abdomen? Did your diabetic suitemate pass out in the shower? It’s important to be able to summarize what is going on in 2-3 sentences for dispatch, paramedics, and hospital staff so that they can figure out the best treatment options for the person. It’s also important to note if the person has taken any drugs or has had alcohol, as this can impact medication options or help the staff better diagnose what is going on- they will not take legal action.
Contact the RA or building staff member
Since I lived right next door to the resident advisor (RA), I didn’t have to worry about calling them before calling campus dispatch or 911 since I could get their attention quickly by sending a text or yelling through the door. However, it’s important to alert the RA, hall assistant, resident director, or other building staff that there is an emergency, and that campus dispatch/911 has been called or needs to be called. They can place the call if needed and let emergency services into the building.
When I had debilitating abdominal pain that caused me to have trouble speaking (which later turned out to be a burst cyst), I sent a text to the RA and they called campus dispatch on my behalf, and had another RA meet the ambulance outside so that they could let them into the building. In a different incident where I helped someone else who needed medical attention, I called campus dispatch and borrowed another phone to call the RA to let them know what was happening, as I needed to stay on the phone with campus dispatch until the ambulance showed up.
Call campus dispatch
My college’s campus dispatch is part of the local police department, so I typically call them first to request a medical assist, stating my building name and room number, followed by my name and a brief description of the situation. They are able to dispatch an ambulance and other relevant personnel to my dorm so that I don’t have to call 911 directly. However, this isn’t the case for all colleges/universities, so when in doubt, call 911 and instead give the campus address/room number and other information.
How to talk to 911
Calling 911 can be very scary or anxiety-inducing for people, and one of the things that have helped me is having a mental script for what to say to 911. Here’s an example of a script that I would use when starting a call:
“Hello, I need an ambulance to BUILDING ADDRESS, ROOM NUMBER, on the COLLEGE NAME, CAMPUS NAME. I am experiencing/with someone right now who DESCRIBE THE MEDICAL EMERGENCY.”
After that information is out of the way, listen for further instructions from the 911 dispatch operator. I also typically mention that I have low vision/vision loss and use a blindness cane.
What if I don’t need an ambulance?
- For medical issues that don’t warrant a trip to the emergency room by ambulance, such as a bad ear infection or minor injury, I typically use a ridesharing service like Uber to get to the nearest urgent care/emergency room and let someone know what is going on, as well as where I am going.
- For students who need to get to the emergency room but are in stable enough condition that they don’t need an ambulance, campus police will sometimes escort students to the closest emergency room- this was the case for one of my friends
- If a student is unsure what they should do, many colleges have a 24-hour nurse line that students can call to discuss their symptoms with a registered nurse, free of charge. I used this when a friend badly burned themselves to determine if we needed to go to urgent care or not.
What to do once you’re in the hospital/urgent care
Contact parents or other emergency contacts
My parents like to know if I am in the emergency room, and I typically call them once I am actually at the hospital, since it can be chaotic trying to talk to so many people at once. My college does not typically contact emergency contacts or parents if a student is taken to the hospital, it is the student’s responsibility to contact people to let them know what is going on, though there are notable exceptions such as if a student is unconscious.
Find the pharmacy closest to campus
There can be a lot of reasons that someone goes to the ER or urgent care, but it’s common for people to get a prescription for something while they are there. Since my college was far from my home, I typically would have prescriptions filled at the pharmacy closest to campus that took my insurance, which the hospital/urgent care was happy to confirm for me so that I would be able to get prescriptions filled in a timely manner. Some pharmacies also offer free delivery for prescriptions, but oftentimes this option is not available for people in a dorm since they can’t drop off prescriptions outside a door.
What if I don’t have my dorm key?
Remember how I mentioned keeping my dorm key in an easy-to-grab location? I’ve thankfully never been locked out of my dorm after coming back from urgent care or the ER because I can quickly grab the key, but sometimes people are unable to do this before they leave. In most cases, students can contact their resident director/building manager to let them in if they explain they are returning from urgent care or the hospital, or they can have someone from the neighborhood desk meet them outside after they get back.
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Summary of how to handle medical emergencies in a dorm
- Have a list of phone numbers for campus emergency services, poison control, student health, and dorm staff
- Add emergency medical information to phone settings
- Find out if emergency services can be called from a voice assistant like Amazon Alexa
- Memorize the campus address
- Have medical documentation in an easy-to-locate area
- Take note of medical symptoms and be able to describe them in 2-3 sentences
- Contact dorm staff so they can meet the ambulance outside
- Call campus dispatch or 911 and listen to instructions
- For less urgent issues, contact student health or use a ridesharing service to get to urgent care
- Call emergency contacts once at the hospital/urgent care- the college will not typically do this for you
- Find the pharmacy that is closest to campus
- If you get locked out, call building staff to let you in