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Kelly McKee Zajfen
Illness & Loss

A Medical Emergency Abroad—What Every Parent Should Know

Written by Kelly McKee Zajfen

Photography by Kelly McKee Zajfen

Having your child fall deathly ill while you’re thousands of miles from home has to be one of the worst things a parent can imagine. But it’s exactly what happened to Little Minis co-founder Kelly McKee Zajfen just a few weeks ago, when her son George was bitten by a poisonous snake while traveling in Italy. Here, Zajfen shares her story and offers some must-read advice for any family preparing to travel, especially abroad.

Every year our family picks a two-week adventure somewhere magical. This year we picked Tuscany. We rented a beautiful house at the tippy top of a winding gravel road that rested on a vineyard overlooking the countryside.

On the eighth day of our magical vacation, our 4-year-old twins—George and Lily—were playing outside in the garden. George came running in the house crying about a snake biting him and showed us the bite. Two little marks on his tiny finger where he said it happened. At first we were hoping it was just a non-venomous bite and, to be honest, had never imagined anything else. But within two minutes he started complaining about his stomach hurting and his eyes and mouth started turning white.

We didn’t have much time to think as we grabbed him and rushed him into the car. The car ride from the top of the property to the bottom of the hill takes on average 7-10 minutes and reception is scarce until the bottom. As we started driving down the hill, George became sicker and sicker, puking uncontrollably and becoming drowsy with dull eyes. Our panic set in. I’m crying in fear for my son, of not knowing where to go, of being in a foreign country, of not being able to speak the language. I think we made it down to the bottom of the hill in 5 minutes with the speed my husband was going.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a car sitting on the side with a couple in it. I rolled our windows, down screaming “Hospital” in every language I could. They responded with “Florence.” FLORENCE!!! That is an hour away! I didn’t know if we even had an hour. George wasn’t well. As we started to drive into the small town of Greve, we saw flashing lights behind us. The couple we had stopped before was signaling to us. They came in front of us and led us to a small urgent care where we pulled George out and handed him over to the Italian medical team. We sat there in tears, watching as he laid there. Under the stark lights we asked them a million questions in broken Italian and them to us in broken English. Soon after, George and I were put into an ambulance. We needed help and we needed anti-venom. It was the longest 40 minutes of my life, but we arrived to a children’s hospital in Florence.

At the hospital only one person spoke English. George was pretty close to catatonic. His eyes were half open, half closed and they weren’t responding to light or movement. He was still vomiting and non-responsive. Nobody there was a poison expert, so we waited an hour for them to get the poison expert to approve the anti-venom, waiting for anyone to tell us he is going to be okay.

Then, after they started medicating him and pumping his stomach he came back, crying from the pain and calling for me. This was the moment my husband and I took our first real breathe of relief. That sound of his crying voice was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

We were placed in the intensive care unit for 5 days and spent the remainder of our stay in the pediatric ward. The first 3 days were the worst of it. His eyes were not coming back, thanks to the “neurological venom” that the viper snake produced. However, his blood work all came back perfect. His internal organs were all going to be okay, but the finger where he was bit became very swollen. His whole hand and arm became even more swollen with the days passing. Doctors and surgeons would come in every afternoon saying, “no surgery today,” and walk out. We just had to wait.

We used Google Translate and a little travel book to communicate our way through. We spoke to our own doctors and specialist back at home (all giving us different opinions then what we were getting) to ask a million questions because the communication with the Italian doctors was difficult. However, by day 5 we turned a corner. The swelling became manageable and less and less and his eyesight and eyes were almost perfect. Time was the great healer in our story. And as awful as it was to sit with the unknown everyday, we just had to wait, because time was making him better.

On the Friday night before our morning flight on Saturday, they released us. Tears just welled up and fell from my face walking out of the doors of the hospital, holding his hand. I was so desperate to bring him home. To tell him how proud I was of him. To honor my promise that everything was going to be okay—something I whispered in his ear every single night we fell asleep next to each other in the hospital bed.

The flight home was the best flight of my life. I sat there replaying the whole trip over in my head. I remembered the feeling of helplessness and vowed to be more informed and better prepared the next time I left the country. I thought about how I could help other people—somehow, someway—from this experience. I hope that no one ever has to go through what I did, ever. Some of the things I wish I would have known and prepared for—even very simple to-dos—I am listing below.

1. Know all your insurance travel information. Make sure you have numbers and your cards handy. Make sure you understand what is covered when traveling abroad before you go. Different credit cards also offer insurance, so be sure to look into all avenues.

2. Research your local urgent care centers and local hospitals, and know how far they are from you. Also, see if there is a specific hospital for children in your area. We were very, very lucky to be so close to one of the best children’s hospitals. It was the longest 40-minute ambulance ride of my life, but I am thankful for the children’s specialist we found.

3. If you’re staying at a house, be sure to know your address and any phone numbers needed to call directly. Create a little sheet to carry in your purse.

4. Know any local bugs/insects/snakes that may be in your area. For snakes, I have learned the kits don’t really matter, you need to get to a hospital ASAP, but have a first aid kit and anything extra you may need for stings, bug bites, and yucky tummies.

5. Bring a language translation book. We got by with Google Translate and a few doctors who could speak English. But the doctors used one for us, and if you don’t get cell service, this is the best option.

6. Cell service! I paid the extra arm and a leg for the 2 weeks we were gone to use my phone whenever and however. THANK GOODNESS. Not only could I communicate to doctors, our insurance, and my best friends nonstop, it made me feel connected to home. And George could watch videos and FaceTime with his friends. Believe me, this helped him everyday feel safe and happy.

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