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.



The Silence

The following is a post I wrote in medical school that I never published.


“C’mon,” my resident called out to me, “Let’s go do something.”

“Ok,” I replied as I half-jogged to catch up with her.

It was a slow night in Labor & Delivery. I wasn’t doing much. Most of the patients I saw that night during Night Float (shift from 5:30 PM – 7:00 AM) were patients in triage with various complaints. Most were women who had been feeling contractions that day. I think most were sent home that night because they weren’t yet in labor. (Labor is defined as contractions plus cervical change. Since they had contractions without dilation of their cervix, they were not going through active labor.)

The resident and I walked to triage. The nurses had told us that there was a patient in triage who was still in the early part of her 2nd trimester. She came in complaining of decreased fetal movement. The experienced ones on the unit didn’t think much of it. They wondered if she had even felt movement before this time as it was early in the pregnancy. But the patient was here; and so we went to see her.

As we walked into the room the nurse was trying to find fetal heart tones with the handheld Doppler Ultrasound device. (A Doppler Ultrasound is a handheld device that allows one to hear the fetal heartbeats.) She muttered something about the equipment in the room not working, about her doppler’s battery running out. She could not pick up any heart sounds; her probes were met with silence. This should have been my first warning sign. The nurse then left the room to allow us to do our exam.

Our patient was lying in her hospital bed. Her husband stood by her side. Their toddler sat in a chair, amusing himself with a toy. The patient explained to us that she understood it was early to feel movement. But she had started feeling movement a couple weeks ago. However she noticed that it was significantly less a few days ago. That day, though, she had felt none. She wondered if it was just because she wasn’t noticing it. After all, we often advise expectant mothers to sit still in a quiet place when they try to do “kick counts” because it is easy to block the movement out when the baby is still small.

The resident fired up the ultrasound machine and started probing. She was going to try to assess for fetal heart rate since the nurse hadn’t been able to with the Doppler.

“There’s the head,” she said as she pointed it out on the screen. She continued moving the probe around, sliding it over the jelly-covered belly. I thought I recognized the chest wall, but I was so bad at looking at ultrasound images that I didn’t think much of it when the resident kept moving.

“I usually find it really quick. But maybe the baby is turned away,” she told the couple. Again, throughout the ultrasound, only silence.

My resident then turned to me, “Can you call Dr. A on the unit? She might be better at this.”

Dr. A was our senior resident — less than a year away from becoming an attending. It made sense that she would be better at this. But this was also my second warning sign.

I left the room, but instead of getting on the phone, calling the unit secretary, and asking for Dr. A, I ran to the unit myself. I didn’t want to waste time. Besides, since I didn’t know the unit’s extension, I figured I could run to Dr. A faster than I could call.

When I returned with to the room with Dr. A, she politely introduced herself and replaced the resident at the ultrasound machine. She took her turn at the machine. Within a minute, though, she turned to the resident and quietly asked her to page the attending physician on call. And there, accompanying the silence, was warning sign number three.

The resident and I walked out. She paged Dr. B. In the hospital, they don’t like paging the attending unless absolutely necessary — especially when it is at night.

I was surprised at how fast Dr. B came. I remember thinking that the call room must be really close.

Dr. B, the resident, and I walked into the patient room. Dr. B introduced herself as the supervising physician and took over for Dr. A at the ultrasound machine. After a little bit she turned and asked us to turn the lights back on.

“I’m sorry,” she began as she looked at the patient and her husband, “there is no heartbeat.”


I don’t know if I still remember the mother’s face. I think I do. But it isn’t a very clear picture in my head. I didn’t want to stare as the tears started streaking down her face so I looked away. It was tough. Labor and delivery is usually a unit of such joy. The patient’s are generally young and healthy. They leave with brand new bundles of joy.

But that night, instead of joy and new life, I came face to face with silence.


Again, MICU

This year I was one of the “lucky” residents who were assigned two MICU months and two CCU months.

I am finishing my 2nd year of residency in the MICU. It has been a long and exhausting month. My last call was probably my most emotionally draining one.

The call day had ended and I soon found the MICU empty of other residents. I was the senior left on duty. Around 10 pm, one of the nurses came up to me and told me that an arterial line was no longer functioning properly. The line was needed as the patient was on a couple medications to support her low blood pressure and the arterial line provided an accurate measure of her blood pressure. This patient also needed frequent blood draws to check her pH, CO2, O2, and HCO3 levels in her blood.

I asked the nurse to get things ready and I would attempt to try and place another line. After notifying the attending, I started scouring the MICU for our ultrasound machine. Knowing that the patient was on pressors (medication to maintain blood pressure), I figured her artery might be small and I would use any help I could get.

To make a long story short, I made 3 attempts with the help of the ultrasound. First attempt I got a red flash of blood in my catheter that indicated I had hit the vessel. However I could not successfully advance the guide wire. As I re-checked the location of the vessel on the ultrasound, I realized that her vessels were clamping down even tighter. I had to try further up her arm for attempts #2 and #3.

After three attempts I threw in the towel. I paged my attending and asked for help. He came back and suggested we try a femoral arterial line instead of one in her wrist. Having never placed one I was eager to at least try. In the end, though, the attending ended up placing one.

Minutes later, the patient would code. She went pulseless and chest compressions were immediately started. We brought her back. But she would do it again later that night. The second code was not successful. And in the early morning hours I phoned sleepy relatives to deliver the fatal news.

The following morning as rounds began, one of my interns notified me that Mrs. X had approached him. She wanted to withdraw life support on her husband. She would later do so and request that the intern and attending be present as they disconnected him from the medications and ventilator that kept his body alive for the past week.

I watched as she wailed and cried over her husband’s body. And slowly and quietly we walked away; because we had to move on to other sick patients.

We moved on to a room where a young body lay motionless. A mother was hysterical saying that it was “too soon.” There wasn’t a dry pair of eyes in that room as our team walked in. And I watched as my attending deliver blow after verbal blow. The patient was past any intervention. There was no surgery or medication left to try. Expected reflexes were absent. There were no signs of spontaneous breathing; the patient was fully dependent on the ventilator. Our medical advice to the family? Withdraw life support. Despite initial vehement protestation by a grieving mother, the family finally made the decision to withdraw life support late that day.

One of the family members looked right at us and said, “I don’t know how you can do this every day.”

Sometimes, I wonder that too.


Very Sick and Nearly Dead

When caring for patients on an inpatient basis — that is, patients who are admitted to the hospital as opposed to seeing patients in clinic — there are many moments when you must have crucial conversations. For the most part, medical students are shielded from needing to carry out these conversations. As a medical student, I may have asked patients on admission about their code status. However, I never wrote orders based on my conversations. And if a patient stated that they did not want to be resuscitated in the event that their heart stopped or they could not breathe on their own, I always told the intern or resident so that they could confirm and document the conversation. I think it’s appropriate to allow students to begin asking these types of questions; I also think it’s appropriate (and legal) to have residents/interns confirm and do their own asking when a medical student initiates discussion of these topics.

There are other conversations that, unfortunately, become more familiar as one gets accustomed to inpatient medicine. The conversation with patients and families regarding goals of care is probably as heavy as it gets. At times, this conversation spans days. When taking care of patients who are all-of-a-sudden critically ill, it is often extremely difficult for this conversation to take place and families often need to be walked through the reality of the situation and the grim prognosis. Even with patients who are chronically ill, these conversations may take time.

One of the key pieces of information during these conversations is the severity of the condition and the prognosis. In my short experience I have found that patients and families react differently. Some will cling to your every word, writing down the way you say things and even making sure to write down your name. Others listen with a blank stare; they make you wonder if the are even listening. It is both the honor and the burden of the physician to accurately and effectively convey this information.

Unforunately, it isn’t always a burden we carry well. Too often, I hear doctors (myself included) described the state of a patient as “very sick.” I don’t know if there is a good answer to why we, as a profession, do this. Perhaps it is easier to say someone is “very sick” rather than that they “are dying.” Perhaps some of us view death as the doctor’s ultimate defeat — something that we sometimes refuse to admit. Perhaps we have our own personal issues with death and dying (consciously or sub-consciously) and treating a dying patient forces us to confront, or at least acknowledge these issues (consciously or sub-consciously). Regardless of the “why,” I think we ought to do a better job of communicating to families and patients.

I remember calling a patient’s daughter. I remember telling her that her father was “very sick.” As she tried to grapple with the words I were telling her, she asked me, “Is he dying?” As I sat holding the telphone handset to my ear I finally answered, “Yes, he is dying. I cannot say when. I cannot tell you if it is days or weeks right now. But he is dying. He is getting weaker everyday.” Five days later, after I had left the service, I learned that my patient had passed. And in finding out about his death, I found solace in the fact that I had done what I could to prepare the family.

As difficult as it is to hear that your loved one is dying, I think we owe it to our patients and their families to be prepared for whatever comes next — at least what we think is most likely according to our education and experience. Some patients and their families understand what “very sick” means. Others don’t. The words we use, though, are not important. What is important — what is crucial — is that we communicate effectively with our patients and their families.


Another Day, Another Loss

My patient died today.

It was my first death as the senior resident on the team.

Couldn’t help but think about what I could have done more.

After I was notified that my patient had passed, I went up to the unit.

The room was full of people. Slowly they trickled out. Two family members lingered, one was her brother who had been by her bedside for so many hours in the last few days.

I offered my condolences and offered my hand. He looked at me, his eyes red, and started shaking his head.

And then he hugged me. And thanked me. Thanked me for what I had done. Thanked me for my calmness through her dying.

And I hugged him back.


Too Late — Part 2

Part 1 can be found by clicking here.


It was a few weeks after I had said goodbye to Helen. I remembered her. I can’t say I stayed up at night thinking about her or what became of her. No one does that — at least no one does that for long. It’s too difficult. It’s too much of an emotional toll. Besides, we see too many patients.

I remember coming back from a day off. When I returned and logged onto the computer in the morning I was surprised to see Helen’s name on my list of patients to see. I looked around the resident workroom, found the senior resident on my team, and asked, “What happened? She’s back?”

Helen, I had learned, had returned to the hospital. Her sister had brought her in because she didn’t feel like she could take care of her. I was puzzled. Wasn’t this the same reason she came in before? Hadn’t we discharged her to a skilled nursing facility? The answer to both of these questions was a yes. Apparently after some time at the nursing facility Helen had decided that she wasn’t happy there. So she left. And went back to live with her sister. Déjà vu.

When I finally went to see Helen I was surprised at how she looked. She appeared as if she’d lost significant weight since the last time I saw her. She was also using oxygen. She looked physically and emotionally tired.

“Hi,” I said to her as I walked in. She looked up at me and managed a smile. She remembered me. I asked her what had happened. I learned that she had never made it back to the Oncologist. Something came up. I didn’t hear what exactly came up, but she dismissed it — she wasn’t interested in chemotherapy anyways. She had talked to her family and they had decided that palliative care would be the best option. She had also chosen to be DNAR — which meant that in the even that her heart stopped or developed an arrythmia or if she was unable to breathe on her own, there would be no “code blue” called, no chest compressions, no mechanical ventilation. I told her that I understood, and that we would respect her wishes. As she had expressed interest in palliative care, I told her I would get in touch with our palliative care team and ask them to come and speak with her.

Because of her condition, I was fairly certain that the palliative team would take her onto their service for in-hospital hospice care. But I wasn’t sure when she would be accepted as this usually depends on bed availability. I made the call to the palliative care team and was able to speak directly to the attending who said that Helen would be seen as soon as possible that day. I thanked him and continued seeing the rest of my patients. Within a couple hours, I had received a page from the palliative care attending. Helen was accepted. She could be trasnferred to their unit before noon.

I was excited. She wouldn’t have to wait days for a bed to open up. I thanked the attending and assured him that I would get the necessary paperwork, or computerwork, done as soon as I could. I also went down to see Helen. I wanted to share the good news myself — that she would be taken care of on the palliative unit where the staff was very good at comfort care. Again, she smiled. I explained that as she was transferring to another team, I would no longer see her. There would be a new team of doctors taking care of her. But she asked if I would still come and visit her. To be honest, I was a bit surprised about her request, but I told Helen that after her transfer, I would come by when I had a few minutes.

At the end of the day, I opened up her chart on the computer. I was making sure that all of my documentation was correct. I also noticed that the Palliative Care Attending had also left a note. He wrote that he had spoken to Helen and her family and felt that she was deteriorating and had hours to days left. I was happy for Helen. At least she was now where she would be best taken care of, where the goal of care would be comfort. I realized, though, that if she really only had hours to days that I would have to go and visit her soon if I were to honor my word.

The next few days were a blur. We were busy. We were slammed with admissions on call days. On non-call days I had to leave by noon to another hospital where I had my clinics in the afternoon. But every once in a while I made sure to find out that Helen was still on the Palliative Care unit. When things finally settled down and I found myself with a few moments of downtime, I walked over to the palliative care unit. It had been days since I last saw Helen. This time I would visit her, not as her doctor, but as — well, I didn’t know what exactly I was visiting as. I wasn’t her doctor anymore. And I don’t think I could say I was visiting as a friend. But she had asked me to visit her and I had agreed. So there I was.

Walking the unit, I kept looking out for her name.


I made another round on the unit to make sure. Her name was nowhere to be found.

I learned that she had passed away just hours earlier.

I was just too busy. There were too many things to do. I was too late.

And that’s the story of a women named Helen1.

On some level, I feel like I let her down. I couldn’t keep a simple promise to come and make a visit. It’s easy to say that I was “too busy” and that there were “too many” things to do. But one could always argue that if it were a priority, then I would have visited her. But maybe there was a part of me that didn’t want to see her. Maybe I wanted to avoid coming into a room as the doctor and realizing I had nothing to offer — nothing that would make a difference. Perhaps, though, all she wanted was some company. Perhaps she had come to terms with her imminent death and she wasn’t looking for a cure — instead, she was just looking for a fellow human being.

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Too Late — Part 1

She was an elderly woman; I’ll call her Helen1. Her hair was silver. She smiled pleasantly as I walked up to her bed in the emergency department. But her eyes betrayed her. Her eyes were dark and solemn. When I asked Helen how she was doing, she told me she was “alright.”

I picked up her chart and noted that it was her first time here. Fortunately, though, she had brought her records from her previous hospitalizations. We discussed why she had come, what had previously been done for her at the other hospital, and what her goals were now.

She had been recently diagnosed with advanced, metastatic cancer. I learned that her oncologist had wanted her to get a PET scan — a scan that would allow them to see the extent of her metastasis. I also found out that the reason she had come to my hospital (or maybe I should say the hospital I work at) is that she had lost her home in a city over an hour away. With no other options, she had moved in with her younger, widowed sister who lived just down the street. And now, she presented to this emergency department. Because this was the closest, large hospital. I also learned that a big reason for coming into the hospital is that her sister just couldn’t take care of her. The patient needed help. Her sister needed help.

We admitted Helen and over the next few days ordered a few tests and reviewed outside records. We knew she had a fluid collection in her lungs (pleural effusion), but we didn’t feel it necessary to put her through the risk of a procedure as she was breathing well without any oxygen. We got our Oncology service involved and they actually scrapped the idea of doing a PET scan. They said it wasn’t necessary. Reviewing outside records they already knew this was metastatic cancer — a PET scan would no longer change management of therapy at this point.

I remember walking in to see Helen shortly after I was notified by the Oncology resident that they had already spoken to her with her options. The Oncology resident told me that their note was in the chart. Of course, I reviewed it before I went in.

As Helen lay in her bed, I asked her if she had been seen by oncology already and if they had talked to her about what could be done. I knew the answer already, but I often let my patients tell me. Sometimes it’s a good thing as this allows me to get an idea if they actually understand the situation.

In Helen’s case, she understood — for the most part. She told me that there were two options: chemotherapy or no chemotherapy. If she received chemotherapy she would probably live about 1 year and have to go through side effects. If she chose not to have any chemotherapy, she wouuld have about 6 months. What the oncologist had said was that for patients with her scenario, the mean survival was 6 or 12 months depending on therapy vs non-therapy.

I suppose it’s common for patients to hear phrases like “mean survival” and forget that we are talking about averages. They apply it specifically to their own case. It makes sense. I’d probably do the same thing. But there’s a reason most doctors never give out solid predictions. We give ranges on purpose. We understand that patients never read textbooks — and so they present in strange ways or with little variations and surprises.

I stood at her bedside. Silence filled the air. Helen offered up another smile and said, “It’s ok. I’m 88. I’ve had a good life.” All I could do was offer up a smile. She told me she was leaning towards no chemotherapy. She didn’t like the idea of all the side effects. But she would have to talk to her family first. She would call them and give her answer to the oncologist in a week’s time.

I nodded. We had found a nursing facility for her to go to. There was nothing we could offer her at this point other than some pain medication for the pain she had in her chest. I couldn’t help but think that she should have come in sooner. But would it have made a difference? What if she had come in before the cancer had spread anywhere? Would she have chosen chemotherapy then? Would her old, frail body have taken those medications? Would she have been able to afford the treatment?

Too many “what if’s.” Too many “too’s.” Too late. Too old. Too much.

I said goodbye to Helen. She would be discharged the next day and I was going to be off. I wished her the best. I reminded her to follow up with Oncology in a week. Little did I know, I would be seeing her again too soon.

To be continued…

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