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.