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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]