First Aid First

A simple, homemade medical kit can save summer from disaster

By Dr Mitch Shulman

The Hormier* family cut short their camping trip and came directly to the emergency room. Violet, the mom, was running a fever and experiencing chills. She cut her forearm a few days earlier while setting up camp.

By the time Violet entered Emergency her cut was obviously infected. The wound itself wasn’t more than a half centimetre in size but the area around it was hot to the touch, the cut was still open and pus was draining. Even more ominous, there were red streaks running up and reaching halfway up her arm toward the shoulder.

She fit the picture of someone with septicaemia. The bacteria in the cut were overwhelming her body and now spreading within her bloodstream. This is what killed Norman Bethune, the famous Canadian physician who developed mobile bloodtransfusion services in the 1930s. Despite antibiotics and other advances in medical care since then, septicaemia kills a significant number of people each year.

Patients often have a weakened immune system due to diabetes or another medical problem. However, it can also occur in someone who, like Violet, is otherwise healthy. This is why it is so important to take proper care of cuts and scrapes. Whenever you and your family travel this summer or during any other season, camping season or not, be sure to pack a simple yet life-saving medical kit.

All medical kits should contain something to wash and clean a wound. Use individually packaged wipes moistened with an antibacterial soap. Add an assortment of plastic strips of various sizes to cover a wound or protect a blister. You’ll need tape, scissors, and gauze, too. Pack tweezers to remove splinters and an antibiotic ointment to spread over scrapes and other minor abrasions.

If you’re travelling somewhere warm, bring insect repellent and an anti-itch cream. Over-the-counter anti-histamine is a wise addition for dealing with allergies or rash. Acetaminophen and an anti-inflammatory medicine are a must, and anti-diarrheal medication is huge. Nothing puts a damper on vacation like continuous sprints to the bathroom.

For plane travel, bring your prescription medicine on board. Keep the original containers. This way you won’t lose essential meds if luggage is lost and, if you need a replacement, the new doctor will know what you’re taking. The original container lists the actual name of the medication, which is constant regardless of geography.

In Violet’s case we immediately started her on antibiotics intravenously. She was admitted to the hospital and, within 24 hours, we saw a marked improvement. She no longer felt sick, her temperature was down and her heart, which had been racing under the stress, slowed to normal. We replaced the IV antibiotic with an oral formulation she continued taking for another 10 days posthospital.

Violet was actually lucky. She got to us soon enough for treatment to beat the infection. Having said that, had she had a basic medical kit and used it, she probably would have never had to see us in the first place — an important lesson for all of us.

* Fictitious names used


Dr. Mitch Shulman is attending physician in the emergency department of the MUHC, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at McGill Medical School and a regular medical contributor to Global TV Montreal’s Morning News.

Summer 2015, Vol 7 N°3

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