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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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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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County Life

This month is my first of two months rotating at one of the local county medical centers. It is very different than either of the other two hospitals in which we find ourselves.

Traditionally it has been called our “senior capstone” experience — acting as the senior resident at the county.

The patient population is diverse. Sick patients walking daily with strange diagnoses.

At night, we find ourselves mostly on our own covering the ICU patients.

During intern year, my first rotation was here at County.

It is very strange to find myself back, now in the senior resident position.

They say time flies. I am counting on it.

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MICU to Heme/Onc — What a Change

After a month of intensity on the MICU, I have switched to the Hematology and Oncology service.

I won’t lie. The first few days after Switch Day I realized that I missed the intensity and the severity we had on an hourly basis with critically ill patients. It was like coming off of an adrenaline rush.

There are few Heme/Onc emergencies that require a response from the team immediately. I have explained to teams requesting a consult that their request was placed quite late in the day after we have completed rounds, and since it is not an urgent matter, we will see the patient in the morning.

I have been consulted on masses found incidentally or not-so-incidentally on imaging. Masses that are highly suspicious for malignancy. After seeing the patients, I write my recommendations: Please obtain a tissue biopsy. If stable for discharge, patient can follow up in Heme/Onc clinic as an outpatient. (Of course, there are frequently other specific tests I might ask for.)

Sayonara. See you later. Thanks for your question.

I don’t mean to sound or appear callous about patient’s with cancer. I appreciate the gravity of the subject matter. I know it often sounds like a death sentence when the diagnosis falls upon a patient’s ears for the first time. And the second. And sometimes, even the third. I know how it affects the family of the patient. I know they are scrambling for news, grasping for hope. I know how it feels because I was one of those family members when my mom was diagnosed with cancer while I was in college. So don’t misunderstand me. I don’t downplay the significance or the weight of what I deal with now that I am on the Hematology and Oncology service.

I just mean that the energy required of me is a lot less.

The intensity of the critical care unit takes it’s toll emotionally, psychologcially and physically.

I sleep a bit more now. I have time to read more now. And yesterday, I even had time to go discuss a research project with an attending.

It’s a good thing that residency affords these highs and lows. I don’t think I would survive 100% of either level.

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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.

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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.

Nothing.

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.

  1. see Privacy Policy []