How to Handle Common Medical Issues

Doctor crossing his arms

What to do if you find yourself with one of these common health conditions—and how to best advocate for yourself or your family. 

Whether your child was injured in her soccer game, you’re fighting off a summer cold or you’re facing something more serious, like surgery, it can be overwhelming to deal with a health condition—and the stress can make it hard to be your own best advocate. To help, we asked experts what to expect and how to most effectively speak up for yourself in some common situations. Here’s what to do if…

You need stitches 

If you think you need stitches and there’s persistent bleeding or other injuries, head to the ER, advises Dr. Oren Tepper, director of craniofacial surgery at Montefiore Health System and associate professor of surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. If there is no persistent bleeding, you have about 24 hours to get the wound closed up without “changing the outcome or increasing the risk of infection,” he says. One important way to advocate for yourself: find out why the physician recommends stitches. There may be other alternatives that can help avoid them altogether, he says. If not, some stitches dissolve, while most others are usually removed within a week or two. Facial stitches, which tend to be finer, are usually taken out within five to seven days, says Dr. Tepper.

You suspect you have a broken bone  

Protect the injury—so stop and immobilize it, if possible, says Dr. Andrew Grose, director of orthopaedic trauma for HSS Orthopedics at Stamford Health. If you can’t walk or move the injured area, head to the ER; if you can, visit your doctor’s office or urgent care, he says. (Call the office first; through routine questioning they might send you to the ER.) Make sure you understand the nature of the injury and the course of action your physician is taking (example: surgery or not.) “Contrary to popular belief, we generally like being asked about second opinions,” says Dr. Grose. “None of us wants a patient to be uncomfortable with their care and sometimes it takes hearing something from two or even three voices before it can be understood and/or accepted.” 

You believe you have a virus 

Woman blowing her nose

Here’s the upside to those summer sniffles: “Most patients who are otherwise healthy will overcome the common viral illnesses, such as the common cold, without any need to see a doctor,” says Dr. Roger S. Madris, attending physician at White Plains Hospital. But keep an eye out for signs like high fever, trouble breathing, an altered mental state, extreme weakness or fatigue, he says—and call your doctor for the best course of action. (In an emergency, call 911, he advises.) Being a good advocate can mean having someone with you—or simply being there for someone else, particularly if they are elderly or need a translator. “In both of these situations, the presence of that other person will improve patient compliance with the doctor’s recommendations,” says Dr. Madris. 

You think you have Lyme disease

If you suspect a tick bite, watch for “an expanding red rash at least two inches in diameter,” says Dr. Gary Wormser, chief of infectious diseases at Westchester Medical Center. While that’s the most common physical sign, other symptoms may arise, like facial paralysis, fever and more. Seeing a doctor quickly (and bringing the tick for identification) is key and getting help—if you have Lyme, you’ll get antibiotics—is the best way to advocate for yourself, he says. Prevention strategies include covering up, using repellents, putting clothes in a high-heat dryer (for at least six minutes), and doing a total skin scan and bathing within two hours of exposure. “Remove any ticks found, because to get Lyme disease, the tick needs to be attached for at least 36 hours,” he says. 

You think you’re pregnant 

Take prenatal vitamins, cut the smoking and drinking—and call your obstetrician to make an appointment, advises Dr. Patricia Calayag, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Greenwich Hospital. You’ll likely be seen about 7 to 10 weeks from your last period, though it might be earlier, depending on your medical history, she says. If there’s ever a problem, Dr. Calayag recommends calling your OB’s office ASAP—they’ll often see you that same day. Throughout your pregnancy, you should feel comfortable asking questions and raising concerns—and meet all the physicians in the practice. Also important: “Be sure you are aware of the best way to reach your obstetrician, whether it’s by telephone, email, texting or some other form of messaging,” she recommends. 

Your baby has a fever 

When it comes to managing a fever, a 10-day-old is treated differently than a 10-month-old—even with the same temperature, says Dr. Shahrzad Mohammadi,  director of Pediatric Hospitalists at Stamford Hospital. A fever in babies younger than three months old is the most worrisome, she explains. She recommends using a digital thermometer—and going with a rectal reading. (The second choice would be in the armpit, she says.) Dr. Mohammadi advises calling your pediatrician’s office first—in some cases, like if the baby is less than a month old or has other health concerns, the chance of hospitalization is high and your pediatrician might send you straight there for an evaluation. If so, Dr. Mohammadi recommends parents have a support person and ask all their questions—and have them answered. 

Your child has a sports injury

Stay calm and reassure your child he or she will be taken care of, says Dr. Demetris Delos, an orthopaedic surgeon at Orthopaedic and Neurosurgery Specialists (ONS). Evaluate the injury: Check for swelling, deformity, bruising and whether your child can move or, if the injury is to a lower extremity, bear weight on it, he advises. “If there is obvious deformity, or excessive swelling or bruising, [parents] should do their best to immobilize the affected limb or joint, apply ice, elevate the injured body part if possible, and seek medical attention.” If the injury isn’t severe, try ice and an over-the-counter pain reliever; if it does seem severe (or  ice and medicine isn’t helping), he recommends heading to a walk-in urgent orthopaedic care center or an ER. To advocate, watch your child’s behavior: “Parents of younger children who may not be able to communicate should be prepared to relay to the physician any unusual behaviors they’ve noticed, such as favoring an arm or a leg, or showing a particular reaction when mild pressure is applied,” says Dr. Delos. For older kids, let them talk—and then fill in any blanks, he advises.

You’ve been told you need surgery

Advocating for yourself starts before you get to the operating room: “Ask if there are variations of the procedure depending on the findings during surgery. Make sure you understand the options,” says Dr. Ginger Gardner, a gynecologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. This conversation, she says, is usually best held in the physician’s office a week prior to surgery. In preparing for surgery, it’s also important to have a surgeon you trust, she advises—and when it comes to getting a second opinion, she says, “If you have unanswered questions or you don’t have a sense of trust in your surgeon, then a second opinion is very reasonable.”