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An “A” for Effort

We’ve all heard of getting an “A” for effort. At least it was an “A,” right?

But how meaningful is that grade if you still fail?

I remember a patient I shall refer to as David.

I didn’t know David very well at all. He was a patient in the Medical Intenstive Care Unit (MICU). He was not on my team. In fact, I didn’t really have a team. I was cross-covering the patients who were already admitted for a strech of 6 nights.

At the start of each shift, the primary team would hand me a list and “sign out” their patients to me. They would tell me about pertinent, active issues. They would also try and anticpate what could go wrong and let me know what to expect. Also, if there were any studies that were pending they would let me know if I had to check on the results.

David was one such patient. What I knew about him could be written down on just a portion of a full letter-sized paper. He had previously been diagnosed with cancer a little over a year ago. He had underwent treatment with surgeries and chemotherapy. During this visit to the hospital he came because of pain. As the ED completed their workup for the cause of the pain, they discovered he had a clot in his leg and multiple clots in his lungs. They also saw a large mass in his abdomen that appeared to be malignant.

In the ICU, the primary team was treating his multiple blood clots with a heparin infusion. Heparin is frequently referred to as a “blood-thinner.” It’s purpose, in this case was to prevent further clots from developing and to prevent the current clot from growing.

When patient’s have blood clots in their lungs (usually called a pulmonary embolism or PE) this is usually the treatment. However, if a patient becomes unstable (blood pressure or oxygen levels drop) there are more drastic treatments that can be attempted. One such treatment is thrombolytics. A thrombolytic is a medication whose purpose is to break down a clot. It is reserved for the unstable patients because they are quite risky. There is a risk for bleeding and one must always consider if a patient has any contraindications for this therapy.

On this particular night, David’s nurse called me. While he had been fine for the last day or so, he was now appearing very uncomfortable. His respiratory rate was increasing. His blood pressure was trending down. His oxygen levels were also trending down.

After spending a few minutes watching him, I made the call to Anesthesiology. I explained the situation and told them that I thought David would need to be intubated as he was in respiratory distress. Within minutes they were at the bedside and preparing to intubate.

Contacting the family was my next order of business. There was a daugther listed as the next of kin in his chart. My first call went to voicemail. I left a brief message asking for her to call me back.

Within a few minutes David’s daugther returned my call. She was understandably concerned. I had to explain what had happened. I then began asking some detailed questions about David’s medical history. I needed to know if he had any contraindications to thrombolytic therapy. The answers I got were reassuring. David was stable, though, after intubation and initiation of one vasopressor. We would wait until she arrived and we had a chance to speak in person before going forward with thrombolytic therapy.

In the meantime I would have to place a central venous line and an arterial line in order to continue administering medications and monitor his hemodynamics. In between these two procedures I found out that his hemoglobin was dropping. I had no obvious source of bleeding. My heart sank as I knew I could no longer use any thrombolytics. There was enough evidence to presume he had a bleed and I had no way to rule it out at that time.

An hour later, Tonya, her mother, and two other siblings arrived. They were ushered into the conference room. I gathered what little notes I had about David, took a breath, and walked into the room. I made sure to hand off my hospital handset to the Charge Nurse so that we wouldn’t be interrupted unless absolutely necessary. She would screen the calls.

The family took in the grave prognosis with great composure. I explained that I could only support him temporarily. I could not treat the clots with thrombolytics. I could no longer treat his clots with heparin either. I could only place a band-aids. But considering the clinical picture, I expressed my doubts that David would survive into the following day.

David’s wife, though, seemed to persist on telling me what happened throughout his battle with cancer. I tried to politely tell her that we needed to address the issues at hand — not his constipation or abdominal pain that he experienced a year ago after the initial diagnosis and treatment. I couldn’t tell if this was her way of coping. As I allowed her to continue re-telling the events of last year, I looked at each of David’s grown children. They knew what was happening. They seemed to just want to let their mother go through this in her own way, though.

By the end of my shift David would eventually need 5 different vasopressors concurrently. He was maxed out on the ventilator. He had received over 3 liters of fluids and 4 units of blood. I knew it was only a matter of time. I had done everything I could. David died before I came in for my next shift 10 hours later.

There are times in the hospital when doing everything you can — when doing your best — is just not enough.

And those times suck.

Period.

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Helpless

I can remember a string of particularly busy nights. I was on the ICU service — sort of.

During our training, we have one month where we are assigned to “MICU NF.” The month has been described to me by previous residents as the worst month of your entire residency. There are two 3rd-year Internal Medicine residents assigned each month. They alternate weeks as the senior resident admitting patients to the medical intensive care unit (MICU). On the week you are not admitting at night, you spend your days in clinic. On the week when you are admitting at night, you spend 5 straight nights working. The last two days of the week are covered by other senior residents on their elective months so that you have a couple days off.

To be honest, the nights are “hit or miss.” After all, you cannot predict what comes through the door of the emergency department or when patients will decompensate on the wards. In addition to fielding calls from the ED for admission, you are responsible for carrying the Rapid Response pager. A rapid response can be called for any patient already admitted to the hospital. A staff member, usually the patient’s nurse, can call a rapid response on the ward when they feel their patient is decompensating and requires rapid intervention and/or transfer to the ICU for higher level of care.

On this particular night I was coming in to my 3rd night in a row. As I arrived I went to speak to the on-call MICU attending to find out our bed and team capacity for the night. She told me I had room for four patients. I nodded and went to the call-room.

Later that night, after I had already admitted one transfer patient I was sitting at my computer when the admission pager went off. It was the ED and they asked if I had a bed available. I answered “yes,” and proceeded to take down the information.

When I arrived in the Emergency Department I found “my” patient. I shall call her Dinah. She was intubated and off sedation. I glanced up at the monitor above her bed; her heart was racing. Her blood pressure was acceptable. I glanced over at the IV pumps, though, and noted that she was on levophed1.

I spoke with her RN to get a bit more detail about what had transpired since Dinah had arrived in the ED. I also spoke with Dinah’s husband (whom I shall refer to as Husband from here on out).

Dinah was young. She was in her late 30s. She and Husband had a couple teenaged children at home. For the last week she had been under the weather. But it was not totally unexpected. Others at home were also sick. They probably all had the same bug going around. But a few days prior she developed a productive cough and shortness of breath. These two symptoms did not improve and finally she agreed to come seek care.

When she arrived, she was hypoxic indicating that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. She was started on supplemental oxygen and then subsequently was tried on BiPAP. Unable to tolerate that, the physicians in the ED decided to intubate her in order to mechanically ventilate2 her.

By the time I was called and arrived in the ED to evaluate Dinah, she had already coded once. That complicated matters even further. She had not woken up after the cardiac arrest. But it was difficult to tell at that point if this was due to the arrest itself or the medications that had been running to keep her sedated while she was on the mechanical ventilator.

Soon after arrival to the ICU, Dinah would code again. The team worked efficiently performing chest compressions, recording the events, and pushing medications as I called them out. After ten or so minutes we got a pulse back.

I updated the family who was still present at the hospital. The number of people had grown. Watery eyes looked at me for something — anything. They wanted hope. I wished that I could have confidently given that to them. But I couldn’t. By this time there were signs of multiple organ systems failing. She wasn’t producing any urine. She was in shock requiring vasopressors. She was in respiratory failure with a machine breathing for her. She had yet to show any signs of waking up after the cardiac arrest earlier despite being taken off medications that would sedate her.

I knew the prognosis was grim. I tried to explain that to them. I then asked if there had ever been any discussion of end-of-life care. Would she want to be on all of these machines? But it is very rare for a person in their 30s to have serious discussions of this nature. People don’t talk about dying — at least not their own deaths — at this age. They talk about growing old together with someone they love. They talk about watching their children grow up, go off to college, get married, and have children of their own.

Husband confirmed my suspicion. They had never discussed these issues before. For now, he insisted, we would continue doing everything we could — including keeping her a Full Code3. I didn’t argue with the decision. Had Dinah been 95, I may have. But Dinah was in her 30s. She was supposedly healthy just a week ago.

Thinking back to that night I am not sure when I started to sense my own helplessness. I think it hit me after Dinah arrived on the unit from the ED and I started counting up the organ systems that had failed. It definitely hit me after she coded again.

For the rest of the night she continued to decompensate. She was dying in front of me. And all I could do was throw temporizing measures at the situation. Her oxygen saturation kept dropping. The respiratory therapist kept increasing the support provided by the ventilator. Her blood pressure kept sliding down, slowly but surely. I kept ordering additional vasopressors until she was maxed out on 4 different ones. I think the helplessness hit me with each vasopressor I ordered.

Of course, the helplessness hit me every time I turned to the family to offer an update. Every update was negative. I don’t think I delivered an ounce of “good” news that night. I watched as family streamed into the room two-by-two (per ICU policy) with tears streaking down their faces.

Before my shift ended Dinah passed away. She did so with her family present, surrounding her hospital bed.

And I stood by, helpless.

  1. Levophed, or norepinephrine, is an IV medication classed as a “vasopressor.” It helps by raising the blood pressure in a patient with hypotension or low blood pressure. This class of drugs is often referred to as “pressors” for short. []
  2. Mechanical ventilation involves an advanced airway, typically a tube that goes in through the mouth and passed the vocal cords. This tube is attached to a machine — a ventilator — that is able to breathe for a patient by pumping oxygenated air into her lungs. It can also sense when a patient is trying to take a breath and assist. []
  3. When a patient’s code status is “Full Code,” in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, a Code Blue is called. Chest compressions, shocks (if appropriate for the cardiac rhythm), and medications are administered in the hopes of “bringing the patient back.” []
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On Teaching

The following is something I wrote in 2009 while still a medical student:

Teaching is a hard thing. By teaching I don’t mean explaining or instructing. Take, for example, teaching basketball to someone. Telling someone the rules of the game is not, to me, teaching them how to play basketball. Explaining what the rules mean and how and when they apply is not teaching either. Teaching involves more. It is showing someone how to dribble the ball, demonstrating the correct form, and then helping the student develop these skills. Teaching is not merely conveying knowledge. It is imparting excellence — or, at the very least, competence in a particular area or field.

Teaching involves lifting a student up with compliments while simultaneously providing criticism that is at the same time constructive, painful, and humbling. Delivering these two — compliment and criticism — can be tricky. How does one find the right balance? It’s unfortunate that there is no formula. Each person is different. The combination of compliment and criticism that motivates and inspires one student could very well devastate and discourage another. Maybe the truly amazing teachers are able to read their students and expertly walk that fine line.

In the absence of truly amazing teachers, or truly amazing teachers with plenty of time to spend with us, a student must resort to other means of attaining competence. One alternative is learning from multiple teachers. Good teachers have different methods, techniques, and personalities. Each one can provide a different, yet helpful angle.

As this academic year inches closer and closer to an end, my mind seems to frequently wander to the future. One of the things I think about is my position as one of the chief residents next year. I hope that I will able to be a good teacher. I may even be willing to settle for an “ok” teacher too.

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Maybe I should just concentrate on learing as much as I can as a resident.

Teaching, I feel, is such a great responsibility. Especially when you are training people to take care of patients. The good thing is that I won’t bear this responsibility on my own. I will merely be a cog in a larger wheel; I will only be one part in a larger system. There will be plenty of seasoned attendings who will gladly teach the residents, and I am sure myself as well.

Teaching, I hope, is something that one can learn. And I hope that through the next year I will be able to develop my own teaching style. I’m sure I won’t be able to develop in a year — it’ll take time. But I do hope I am able to make a significant evolutionary leap in my development as an educator and teacher.

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Code Status

Every single patient that gets admitted to the hospital needs to be asked about their “code status.”

I usually ask about this in this way:

Now I have to ask this question to everyone I admit, regardless of what they are being admitted for.

In the event of an emergency, if your heart were to stop or beat ineffectively, if you are unable to breath on your own, what would you like us to do?

Do you want us to do everything to bring you back? This includes doing chest compressions, shocking your heart (if it is appropriate) and putting a tube down your throat to help you breathe with a machine.

Some patients who have been admitted frequently will be familiar with this question. They will immediately answer and ask that we either “do everything” or do nothing and just “let them go.”

Others stare blankly at you because they have never been forced to answer this question. They may look at their spouse. For those that hesitate I explain that there are risks to these attempts at resuscitation and that the older a patient is and the more medical problems they have, the less likely a full recovery should be expected.

I also allow them time to think about it and discuss it. I tell them that they don’t have to decide now. I also tell them that the decision they make is not final and “set in stone.” They can change their minds later. However, if they are unable to make a decision at this time, they will default to a “Full Code” status until they tell us otherwise.

Asking the question(s), regarding code status, is easy. Hearing the answer, on the other hand, can sometimes be difficult.

What about the senior citizen with medical comorbidities — who is unable to answer questions on their own due to the severity of their medical problems — whose family insists we do everything to keep them alive? It is not rare.

As physicians, we look at the patient from an admittedly detached point of view. Sometimes it is out of habit. Sometimes it is out of necessity.

It is difficult when we see our patient, who has poor functional status by any standard of measure and who would likely incur more harm than good by performing resuscitation measure in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, carry a “full code” status in their chart because family is unable to come to terms with their state of health.

I do realize that there are many reasons a family will have for not rescinding a full code status. That is probably a topic for a whole different post.

This post, to me, seems more like a stream of consciousness post than a post that was well thought out and that had a point to prove or make. I apologize for that. It is just an issue/topic that has been on my mind recently.

For those of you who have had to carry this type of conversation regarding code status, how do you approach patients? How do you approach families? How do you discuss this issue regarding patients who are unlikely to have any benefit from resuscitation but whose families are adamant that all measure be taken?

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What’s a Chief Resident?

As I mentioned in the last post, I will be staying here at LLU for at least a year after residency officially ends. I will be staying on as one of the Internal Medicine Chief Residents.

So what does that mean?

I have found that it means different things to different people. In other residencies, the chief resident position or title is given to residents in their final year of training. And during that year as “chief resident” they are given additional tasks. From what I have seen, this is the case with other residencies like Emergency Medicine and ?many surgical specialties.

In Internal Medicine, the chief resident is someone who has already completed their residency. A quick search on google for “chief resident” brought me to the Duke Internal Medicine website. This is their description of what a chief resident is:

The Chief Resident position is the single largest investment in leadership made by the Department of Medicine, and the chiefs serve as key leaders for the program. Chiefs are selected for their exceptional clinical and leadership skills. The chiefs work as a team to provide leadership and support of the key missions of the residency program and function as key mentors and advocates for the residents. While each chief has separate responsibilities at their primary site (Duke, Durham VA Medical Center, Duke Regional Hospital, and VA Quality/Safety), the camaraderie among the chiefs sets a positive tone for the program and allows us to accomplish the many goals we set for the year. Notably, many former chief residents remain on faculty at Duke, serving in leadership positions throughout the health system. In recent years, the chief residents have been responsible for organizing the Stead Societies, reorganizing the noon conference series, instituting leadership training for JARs at the VA and evaluating patient flow on the general medicine services. In addition, the chiefs galvanize the competition for our annual Turkey Bowl, lead recruitment of new interns and have a tradition of providing entertainment at the annual DOM Holiday Party.

Chief residents are chosen during the SAR (PGY-3) year, and serve as chief residents with a faculty appointment during their PGY-5 year. Typically Chief Residents complete a fellowship or hospital medicine faculty year during the PGY-4 year, and return to their fellowship or hospital medicine position after completion of the chief year.

[emphasis added]
Source

They make it sound like quite the lofty position, don’t they? Apparently their chiefs serve in their PGY-5 year (5 years after graduation from medical school).

It would be important to note that there are differences with how my progarm does things. Internal Medicine (IM) Chief Residents here are selected during their PGY-3 year but proceed directly into the chief residency following the completion of residency. And I would hold off on claiming any “exceptional clinical and leadership skills” for myself. Also (not noted above), we will spend time rounding as the Attending Physician with the teaching service for a number of weeks throughout the year. But for the most part, the job responsibilities are similar across teh country for IM Chief Residents. In fact, the new group of LLU chief residents will be attending the APDIM Meeting in Houston, Tx in April. This meeting brings together leaders from IM residencies across the country (including program directors and chief reisdents) to sit down and learn about education and leadership.

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The Twists & Turns of Life

As I look at my blog it seems that I have not written an update since November of 2014. I do apologize for not being better in keeping up with writing. I am not sure who I am apologizing to, though, as I have no clue about who is actually still reading this.

A few days ago I came by to browse through my archives. It was a trip down memory lane, so to speak. As a blog, this one has been around for quite a while. My first post, although it was moved over here from a previous iteration, was written while I was still an undergraduate student back in the 2005-2006 academic year. I definitely did not forsee where I would be today.

Last year I remember blogging about fellowship applications. Even that did not go as planned. I started out the fellowship application season intent on joining the NRMP Match hoping for a spot in Nephrology. My plan was to puruse nephrology and then follow that up with a year of critical care training. I even interviewed at Henry Ford’s combined Nephrology/Critical Care program.

But life happens. Life sometimes gets in the way of — well, life.

As the deadline approached I was faced with many questions. I wrestled with these questions and in the end decided that it would be best for me to withdraw from the fellowship match. It was not an easy decision. And on the weekend prior to the deadline to finalize rank lists, I officially withdrew.

I have not ruled out a fellowship. But I had decided that at this time, it would be best for me to wait.

There were many questions that I faced in making this decision. I won’t share all of them. But some included quality of life, lifestyle, job satisfaction, and family.

After making my decision I spoke with our Internal Medicine Program Director. He was one of the faculty members who wrote a letter of recommendation for me. I shared my decision with him — that I had decided not to participate in the match. He asked if I had ever considered doing a year as a chief resident. He had no idea that I had. In fact, as an intern I had actually thought I wanted to one day be a chief resident. And so I answered that it was something that I had been interested in doing in the past.

Now, about 5 months away from the end of residency, I find myself as one of the future Internal Medicine Chief Residents.

Life is full of twists and turns. Sometimes, half the fun is watching where it takes you.

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Night Three

It’s now night 3 of 6. Six straight days — er, nights — covering the ICU patients here at one of the local county hospitals. Night 1 was great. Occasional calls here and there from nurses for little things that did not require much brain power. I am also working with an intern. He is covering the non-ICU patients. Night 1 went well for him too. I think I saw him watching tv shows on his iPad during the down time.

Night 2 was definitely busier for the both of us. For me, there was one patient who pretty much required my attention the entire night. And when I finally failed at placing a functional arterial line, I had to go call Anesthesia to help me place it. And then while they were at bedside, I asked if they could also intubate my patient as well. Later, as the early morning hours rolled around, I was about to place a central line. I had collected the consent and all the necessary materials. I had the ultrasound machine ready. However, the patient was still moving around so I asked that the sedation be turned up and I would return shortly.

I never did return. Because while I was waiting for increased sedation, I got another call for a patient on the other side of the ICU. Apparently they were having non-convulsive seizures through much of the night and the EEG tech was notifying us. Six in the morning. The patient had already been well loaded with dilantin, a type of anti-seizure medication the night before. However, despite the dilantin, the seizures continued. I considered adding another medication at a constant infusion via IV. The caveat, though, is that a constant infusion of versed (the medication I was considering) requires a patient to be intubated because it can depress the respiratory function.

I did not want to make that decision alone, though. So I paged the on-call neurologist. Unable to get a response, I finally paged the neurologist who would come on call at 8 AM. She advised against the versed infusion and suggested a different regimen. By the time this was sorted out, the day teams had already began showing up and I signed out the events of the night to them.

Tonight I am writing this on night 3. The call team admitted at least one very sick, ICU patient. At this point we have come up with a plan and we will continue to see how the patient does over the course of the night.

While I generally dislike working nights, there are some things that are nice.

I just have to focus on those niceties for another 3 nights.