Thursday, December 22, 2011

Travel With Special Needs Kiddos

Traveling with children can be messy. Traveling with a child with special needs can be a terrifying thought, but with a little bit of preparation, your trip can be enjoyable and safe for everyone.
A system is important for organizing all of the details that need to be considered when traveling. In our family, with three boys with epilepsy and a bleeding disorder, our biggest obstacle is packing all of the medications and medical supplies we need. With such serious conditions, we have a portable emergency room with us at all times, which is a good thing for our children’s health, but a nightmare to figure out logistically. Having all medications on hand and within reach at a moment’s notice is vital.
My system for medication organization involves two large lunch sack type coolers. They are nice and portable, light in weight and the shoulder strap means even the kids can help carry them. Into the first one goes all daily medications for all three boys. This one can generally stay in the car or at the hotel, it doesn’t have to be toted around unless you will be away during medication times. (We do meds in the morning and before bed, so we rarely need to bring this bag with us on day trips.)

What I put in my first aid bag

The second bag comes with us everywhere. This is our first aid bag. In this bag are all emergency medications that we need to deal with specific emergencies that relate to our children’s conditions. We can stop bleeding and we can stop seizures. Without this bag… well, the opposite of stopping bleeding and seizures is not an option for us. So, emergency medications and supplies go into this bag. For us, this looks like this: gauze, ace wraps, tourniquets, syringes and needles for infusions, sterile fields, ice packs, alcohol wipes and a small sharps container. This bag should also contain first aid basics for everyone—band-aids, hand sanitizer, tweezers, first aid tape, Benedryl, headache medication, scissors, and we include some hydrocortisone cream and Benedryl ointment because we’re kind of itchy folks. It sounds like a lot, but it is just the basics of a small first aid kit. I put the basic first aid items into a gallon zip-top bag and squeeze the air out of it and it fits nicely into the cooler. Just this one step, knowing that we have all medications on hand, goes a long way in our feeling of safety and security while traveling with our boys. Knowing we’re prepared for an emergency allows me to remain calm if a situation arises, I know where supplies are and am able to get through the crisis.

Planning a trip

The next important step in planning a trip is knowing where you’ll be at all times. We avoid extremely rural areas like the plague. We live in a rural area, but we are 15 minutes from the nearest hospital and 30 minutes from a trauma center. We know our area and know where to go if there is an emergency we can’t handle. When planning a road trip, these days, it is easy enough to search for “Hospital” on your GPS and get instant directions to the nearest hospital. Back in the “MapQuest days”, I’d print out a map and locate hospitals along our route. I was sure to include children’s hospitals in bigger cities and I wrote (right on the map) the hospital information: address, telephone number and directions to the hospital from the interstate. If you’re using a regular map, as opposed to GPS, it is a good idea to have these mapped out. Be certain to keep your children’s physician information available in case unfamiliar doctors might need to call them. Our boys have Medic Alert bracelets that they wear at all times: doctor information, medications they’re taking and their medical condition information can all be accessed 24 hours a day by emergency medical personnel.
If you’re taking a road trip, frequent stops will be your best friend. We stop for a number of reasons—bathroom breaks, stretching our legs, some play time and my boys' favorite—stopping to eat! If it were up to my husband, our trips would be dotted with fast food and candy carefully chosen at our last stop for gas. Mama knows this is a recipe for disaster and so taking time to plan out some snacks and light meals for the road is a crucial step for smooth travel. There are plenty of healthful snacks that can be packed in a small cooler and will be ready when the little ones are ready to eat. Fruits and cut up veggies are the backbone of our travel staples. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole grain bread travel well. Cheese cubes, individual containers of applesauce, yogurt and cottage cheese are also among our boys' favorites. In cooler weather, a thermos full of chili or any warm entree is a welcome treat (pack disposable cups and spoons to serve thermos foods). Also pack bottles of water or tea to avoid grabbing a soda when you’re thirsty.

Where to stay

Where you choose to stay is also an important part of planning your trip. We’ve had a lot of luck with Comfort Suites (although there was one in Maryland that left much to be desired, but I digress). Every room in this hotel chain has a sofa sleeper, separated by a partial wall from the rest of the room. This has proven to be a useful amenity for our family. We’ve often had the boys stretch out, set up a sterile field and done an infusion while they rest. It is separated just enough that they’re not distracted by the game on the television or by the brother jumping around in the main part of the room. This chain also has a free breakfast in the morning, which is a good family friendly amenity for anyone, but when you’ve had a rough night with seizures (or sickness or whatever), it is nice to be able to run down and pick up a relatively healthful breakfast for everyone without having to drag everyone downstairs.
Another thing to request when making your reservation (at whatever hotel you use) is an accessible room. These rooms are larger to accommodate wheelchairs, so they provide some extra space. Especially if your child needs help in the restroom, the extra room will come in handy. The extra space in the main room is helpful for not only spreading out a bit, but is a blessing when you need to do physical therapy or stretching with your child or for other medical procedures. With children with seizures, this extra space is good—I need to get them off of the bed so they don’t fall off. The extra room is also nice for the end of the day, when your autistic child is just simply overwhelmed and they just need to spin a bit (in case you didn’t know it, a spinning kid is a happy kid.)
Last but not least, one of my boys has a service dog. Lyla is a Golden Retriever and travels with us everywhere. This means another layer of planning, it isn’t complicated, just as with all of our other preparations, but a little planning goes a long way in helping the trip go smoothly. I’ve found plastic ice cream pails to be an indispensable tool in packing for Lyla. Before leaving home, I measure out food for the entire trip (adding extra just in case) and seal those up. They go into the trunk. Just one of these food pails goes with us into the hotel, the others stay in the back of the van until the one inside is empty. An extra pail goes with us to be used as a food and water bowl. I always bring an old towel with to put under her feeding area. Into a gallon zip-top bag, I pack any medications she might need for the trip (ear drops, flea/heartworm), her brush, a small bottle of shampoo, a Kong toy (and peanut butter or squirty cheese to fill it with) and lots of treats. Her harness stays in the back of the van and we only put that on her when we’ll be walking for a while.

Final thoughts

Family travel when you have one or more children with special medical needs can be daunting, but it is rewarding and enjoyable when you know you’re prepared for any emergency that might pop up. There are a lot of things to remember and detailed planning to endure, but the time spent with your family is well worth the extra steps it takes. Creating memories might be a little bit more complicated, but we’ve found it is not impossible and after several trips, it is second nature to pack and prepare for a family road trip even with lots of extra equipment and supplies. Enjoy your trip!

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