Crisis Hits Home: When Family is Sick in a Foreign Country

It’s one thing to talk about crisis management as it affects other people’s organizations. It’s something else when it involves your college-age son and he’s seriously ill in a country 6,000 miles away. Read for more on how this family crisis reenforced my crisis management training and experience.

When Crisis Hits Home

I provide crisis management advice to organizations for a living. To learn some of my views on the subject, check out Crisis Management: A Handbook for BCM Professionals, the ebook I wrote with MHA Senior Advisory Consultant Richard Long (free to download). 

Recently, I had an experience where crisis hit home.  

This experience taught me two things: That crisis management skills work, and that life can give you a rocky ride no matter how well trained you are. 

6,000 Miles from Home

This whole story started when my son, Matthew, was a junior in high school. He went to Japan on a cultural exchange and fell in love with the country and people. He then decided he wanted to go to college there. Eventually, he was accepted at Temple University Japan, where he’s studying International Business.  

How did I feel about this? I thought it was great. I’ve always believed that immersing yourself in other countries and cultures is worth as much or more than a formal education.   

However, being a contingency planner, I was aware that his being 6,000 miles away in a foreign country posed risks that would not have been there had he been down the road at ASU. 

A Phone Call from Tokyo

Since I practice what I preach, I made a family crisis plan anticipating and preparing for different things that might go wrong while he was over there. 

Fast forward to two weeks ago.  

My son called me from Tokyo and said he wasn’t feeling well. He went to the emergency room and was sent home. He called me again and said he was feeling worse. He went to the emergency room a second time, was sent home again. By now he’s sounding incoherent and I’m getting seriously alarmed. Then he went to the hospital again, and they proposed to send him home a third time.  

By this time the crisis was officially under way, as far as I was concerned. 

Assess-Plan-Implement-Evaluate

The mantra I always tell people to go by in a crisis is APIE: assess, plan, implement, and evaluate.  

I knew I’d better follow that myself in this situation if I wanted to have a positive impact. The first thing was to assess the situation, and my assessment was that my son absolutely needed to be in that hospital as an in-patient and no more back and forth like a ping-pong ball. 

Well, we got them to admit him, fortunately. 

Next issue: should I fly out there? Assess the situation: He’s just had a CT scan. How sick is he? Also, could I even make the flight, during the tail end of a global pandemic. It turned out, if I showed up in Japan I’d have to sit out a 14-day quarantine before I could leave my hotel room. That won’t do any good. Scratch that idea. 

OK, what can I do? 

Working My Family Crisis Plan

The next several days, it became a matter of trying to communicate with Matthew, trying to get information from his doctors about his condition and treatment, and trying to get things to him to help him stay comfortable. 

None of this was easy.  

I focused on keeping my cool, working the plan I had made, and adapting on the fly to things that were outside the plan. 

Here are some of the issues I faced: 

The language barrier. In the beginning, I called the hospital twice and tried my best to get put through to the people looking after Matthew, using the little Japanese I know. I got hung up on both times. The receptionist couldn’t understand me. 

Then Matthew’s main doctor, though he apparently could write in perfect English (based on the written updates I eventually received from him), refused to speak it with me on the phone. It was only after I got a Japanese-English translator and an American doctor to join us on the line (for providing this service, American Express Platinum Card will have my undying loyalty) that I started to make some headway. 

Another issue is, would they even share Matthew’s medical information with me? I had had him sign a  HIPAA and FERPA agreement before he went over there, but those only cover doctors in the U.S. Fortunately, as I said, the doctor did eventually put me in the loop, allowing me to advocate for him (since he was in no shape to do it for himself). 

Due to the 16-hour time difference, all of this is taking place in the middle of the night in Arizona. 

Thanks to my planning, I had the information for a lot of important contacts over there (along with copies of Matthew’s passport and insurance information). Unfortunately, neither the university nor the U.S. embassy were very helpful in the crunch. 

I also ran into some cultural differences I wasn’t prepared for. To take the starkest example, in America, you and your doctor are partners in promoting your good health. In Japan, the relationship is just a bit different: he talks, you listen, and that’s it.  

And the last thing is, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a care package to your kid when he’s lying sick in a Tokyo hospital. I eventually sent out an SOS on Linked In and got some wonderful help from friends of friends. A man I’ve never met, an American teaching English in Japan, ended up taking some food and toiletries to Matthew, a kindness I’ll never forget. 

A Family Crisis Teaches Universal Lessons 

Relatively few people have a kid attending college overseas. But I think this event points up some lessons that could be relevant to everyone’s life, when and if they face a personal crisis. I’ll divide these takeaways into two groups: 

For parents with college-age children living away from home: 

  • Make a crisis plan and talk about it with your child ahead of time. 
  • Things you should have and know: the names and contact information of your kid’s friends, contact numbers for their dorm, emergency numbers for the school, copies of their student ID, health insurance cards, signed HIPAA and FERPA agreements. 
  • Ask your kid to turn on Location Services on their phone so you know where they are in case of emergency (this was a godsend for me in this case). 
  • Make sure you can communicate with your child in the apps he or she regularly uses, such as WhatsApp. 
  • If your child is in a foreign country, make sure you have a copy of their passport and student visa and access to translator services; make sure your phone plan allows you to make unlimited calls to the country; be sure to have access to ready cash; make sure your child has access to sufficient cash in the local currency; understand the healthcare environment in the country; don’t assume the other country handles things the same way we do; arrange ahead of time for a trusted doctor in the U.S. who can review medical charts, etc. for you, if needed. 

For everyone: 

  • The APIE method works: Assess, plan, implement, and evaluate. 
  • Staying calm and focused is the hardest thing and also the most important thing. 
  • Make a plan but be prepared for the unexpected. 
  • Often, the people who are paid to help you don’t do anything, and people you’ve never met will walk through fire for you. Thank those angels from the bottom of your heart. 
  • After an event, look for the gaps and close them to be better prepared in case there’s a next time. 

A Full Recovery

How did this rollercoaster end? Fortunately, after a one-week hospital stay, Matthew recovered fully and was discharged. A lot of the credit for that belongs to the nurses who looked after him; they were great. His doctor, despite our initial communication issues, was also excellent.  

Thankfully, I am back to sleeping through the night again. I’ve also been busy patching the gaps in the family crisis management plan, so I’ll be better prepared next time, if and when I get another call saying a loved one is in trouble. 

Further Reading

For more information on family crisis, crisis management, and other hot topics in BCM and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting: 

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