Friday, July 31, 2015

By the time I got back, my DKA/wannabe escapee guy had not escaped, but had made everyone on the unit so angry they wished he would. His nonstop bitching and creepy remarks, combined with his gross treatment of his girlfriend and his frequent not-jokes about how we should just let him shoot up because he was going to anyway, had really not endeared him to any of the staff.

When I arrived, he smirked at me, then informed me that he would be leaving at 0930 whether I wanted him to or not, and if I had any shit left to do for him I better get it done in a hurry. And that he would have a long list of breakfast foods from the cafeteria, but didn’t want to stay on the line and wait to order, so he would just tell me and I would have to call down and order for him. When I told him he could either order his breakfast or go hungry, he shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “I have my own insulin, I’ll give myself a dose and go into hypoglycemia, and you’ll get fired.”

I have honestly never had a pt so openly threaten to harm himself to manipulate me. “I’ll give you IV dextrose,” I said, “and your insulin will mysteriously go missing while you’re unconscious, and you’ll wake up just fine except you’ll be hungry. Here’s your phone, you decide if you want breakfast or not.” Then I went and reported all this to the charge nurse and documented it.

His girlfriend met me in the hallway a little later. I won’t tire you with the entire conversation—it was very long and wandering and difficult to listen to—but the gist of it seemed to be that she wanted to stay in the methadone program and get clean. If she stayed with him, she said, he would never let her get clean; but if she left him, who would take care of him?

“I think you’re right,” I said. “He’s gotta find his own rock bottom, and hope that it isn’t a grave. If you want to get better, you’re definitely going to have to get away from him, and you’re going to need some professional support while you’re remodeling your life.”

“But what if he dies?”

“Then he dies, chickadee. Maybe you won’t die too. When you’re drowning, you gotta kick off your shoes.”

I know there’s not much hope for her. But I really hope, if she dies of this, she’ll at least die without that asshole being rude to her the whole time.

At any rate, I got that dude’s discharge paperwork done in record time. I am already a lightning discharge nurse, which usually helps out my pts who really really want to get home in time for the game, but I had him ready to go by 9:15. I cornered the hospitalist that was seeing him and told her she could either give him discharge orders or sign his AMA*, that I had everything ready to go for him to leave, and that the only medical reason I could see to keep him was that he’d threatened to inject himself with insulin so I’d have to order his breakfast. We could have stretched that into a suicide threat, but honestly, it wasn’t. And there wasn’t much else we could do to help him.

(*AMA, in this case, has nothing to do with reddit—it just means Against Medical Advice.)

If I seem callous about this, know that I have zero interest in whether a person is addicted to a substance—it’s a disease we understand very little about, and one that destroys lives as ruthlessly as any sepsis or stroke. The mental health issues that so often accompany addiction, those I have even more sympathy for: my family is not without its comorbidities, and I have seen firsthand over many years the impact of addiction, bipolar disorder, major depression, personality disorders, and post-abuse trauma, all untreated and all devastating. I see this shit every day on the ICU, and it’s a parade of tragedies that never fails to make me sick with frustration that I can’t save them.

But there are, among the tragedies, people who victimize others in their tragedy. Just as it’s hard to feel fully sympathetic for a person who survived horrific childhood abuse and goes on to abuse their own children, it’s very difficult to feel that sympathy for a person whose lifestyle is so self-destructive and so poisonous that they won’t let their loved ones escape the same trap, and whose attitude toward the people they’re hurting and the people who care for them is one of loathing and snide gloating.

And there are people who are offered the help and support they need, and laugh at the people who offer and how disappointed they are when those gifts are refused.

Not a lot of sympathy, no. I was glad to see him go. He asked if he could keep his IV “for convenience.” I gave him an incredulous look and then “accidentally” pulled his IV out with one sharp yank.

“Oops,” I said. “Usually I leave those in until right before discharge. Oh well, you’re leaving soon anyway.”

He and his girlfriend sat in the room, rolling cigarettes from the tupperware of tobacco, until I escorted them to the door. On the way out he joked that maybe he’d offer me a ride in his truck sometime. I couldn’t even feign a farewell smile.

Meanwhile, next door, a coworker of mine landed a pt with Evans Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that causes your body to eat all its blood. The pt was acutely psychotic for some unknown reason and lay in bed screaming as if being burned with hot irons. Pain medication did nothing; anxiety medication helped. He couldn’t tolerate anything touching his body and ripped off his ECG leads and clothing constantly. We didn’t bother putting in a foley, but any time he needed to urinate, he would start screaming extra loud and rolling back and forth, cursing and wailing, until he finally let it all loose and soaked the bed/floor/wall/everything in the room.

The second time this happened, I was helping hold his legs down while he struggled to kick and bite the nurse, and the dam broke just as he started bucking. The ensuing arc of piss undulated across the room like one of those floppy-hose kids’ toys that squirts water at shrieking babies in the back yard. He got himself in the face pretty good, and it shut him up for a minute, his whole face contorting in puzzlement as he smacked his lips and snorted. Then he saw that he’d peed comprehensively all over the other nurse—he only got my arm a little—and started laughing hysterically until he passed out from more Ativan.

Meanwhile I had a second pt to take care of: a woman whose uterus had been removed earlier this year for cervical cancer, whose extensive internal scarring had formed massive adhesions and twisted her small intestines until pieces of them died. She’d undergone immediate surgery to resect the dead bowel, and been in pretty good shape afterward. Yesterday morning, however, she had become confused, then gone into respiratory distress. Early in her confused state, she’d pulled out her feeding tube, vomited, and possibly aspirated before finally being intubated and sedated. My job, today, was to support her through what could either be the return of bowel ischemia, or the beginning of ARDS.

She required lots of fluid support and plentiful pressors. She could hardly tolerate turns, and her urine output was minimal at first, though it picked up as we started Lasix to get rid of her sixteen liters of extra fluid. She was in Tiberius’s room, which felt very strange, because her family was also delightful and friendly and religious.

By midafternoon it was pretty obvious that she had ARDS. What’s more, her intestines started to pick up slack and give me some really gross noises, which is fantastic to hear in a pt whose guts are still stunned from massive injury and surgery. But man, that ARDS was not treating her well, and we kept cranking her fiO2 and PEEP up to keep her ventilated… and, eventually, oxygenated. It takes a lot for your lung tissues to stop exchanging oxygen well. We finally found a nice plateau at a whalloping PEEP of fourteen. (Five is the average. Ten is what you get when you’re ARDSy. Twelve is considered a bit much.)

The rest of the day was a matter of balancing her pressures with her body’s ability to tolerate pressors. Levophed made her arms and legs mottle deeply and turn icy cold, and didn’t have as much impact as I would have hoped on her blood pressure. The PEEP was making it hard for her heart to fill and squeeze effectively, which dumped her BP, which in turn made it difficult for her body to get rid of the excess fluid that had accumulated in her body.

There are three spaces in your body where fluid can hang out. Well, I mean, there are lots of places where fluid hangs out, but there are really only three we care about when we’re thinking about fluid overload and blood pressure.

One space is inside your cells. They’re just little water balloons, right? Some DNA and RNA and a mitochondria or two floating around in there, maybe some enzymes doing heavy lifting, some proteins grabbing shit and gluing it together… and, you know, water. This part is pretty boring to me unless a) my pt has been exposed to cyanide or b) my pt is going to need some kind of insulin fuckery to move sugar or potassium into their cells.

Another space, which I am HIGHLY obsessed with, is the vascular space—your actual bloodstream. Water, albumin to thicken the water and keep it osmotically the same as everything else, blood cells, dissolved gasses and sugars and shit… but mainly, blood pressure. Blood volume. If you’re bleeding out, the first thing I’ll give you won’t be blood, it’ll be saline; it’s the same salt concentration as your blood, and it will expand your blood volume so that the blood cells you have left can actually get around and your heart has something to pump.

Remember: if you ain’t got pressure, you ain’t got shit.

But there’s a third space: the areas between the cells, the structural nooks and crannies of the flesh. And when you’re massively inflamed, that space fills up. When your finger gets stung by a bee and swells up, you don’t suddenly get twice as many finger cells—rather, your inflamed cells call out for help, and your body responds by flooding the areas between them with water so that your white blood cells and antibodies can move around more easily and clean up the toxins. Your finger swells up.

When your whole body undergoes systemic inflammation, as with sepsis, that is a whoooooole lot of swelling. And all that water has to come from somewhere—namely, your vascular space. Pretty soon, there’s not enough water volume in your blood for your heart to circulate effectively, and your bloodstream is drying up, and your organs are dying for lack of blood flow while your body happily carries on dumping all its water into your puffy fingers like it’s gonna do any good there.

That’s the basic dynamic of sepsis. And this lady, with her aspiration pneumonia and her fucked-up guts, was septic as all hell. We had boosted her blood volume over and over with fluid boluses, and done our damnedest to pull the fluid back from her third space into her vascular space, but in the end all you can really do is try to interrupt the septic/inflammatory processes with antibiotics and other drugs, support their blood pressure with volume and pressors, and wait for them to pull out of it so you can dry them out again.

Thus, we gave her Lasix. Albumin first, to draw the fluid into her vascular space; then, after thirty minutes, Lasix to diurese her, to pee off the fluid so it didn't overload her struggling heart and increase the pressure and fluid drainage inside her lungs.

It was a long, exhausting afternoon, full of minutiae and sweating into my eyes. Her mottled flesh continued to spread, and her edema increased visibly from the beginning to the end of my time with her. I don't have a good feeling about her outcomes. I suspect she will never be stable again until she's dead.

Meanwhile, another crazy substance-abuse pt was admitted down the hall. I could hear him screaming and cursing even while I was turning my lady, and one of the other nurses poked her head in to ask if I still had the key to the velcro restraint box (I did not).

Things seem to come in waves on the ICU. We’ll get a bunch of STEMIs in a row, then a bunch of GIBs, then a bunch of ARDS. In reality, it’s probably just a normal distribution of all the shit that can go wrong in a decent-sized city; to the endlessly superstitious nurses on the ICU, it means that once you get two pts with similar symptoms, you are destined to get at least two more in the next week or so. This happens often enough to turn our confirmation bias into rock-solid religious conviction. Not looking forward to the next round of crazy.

But who knows? I could just be destined for admit after admit with stuck gut and sepsis. Or I could be too tired to think straight. I suspect the latter is more accurate. Time to pass out.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Week 7 Shift 3

This shift did not start well. I gave report the night before to a nurse who has, best I can tell, the most brutal ball-shriveling resting bitchface I have ever seen in my life. Alex* is extraordinarily pretty, always immaculately groomed, incredibly capable and conscientious, and has the amazing power to make me feel like a feeble, wriggling brine shrimp during report.

“What have his sugars been running?” No eye contact.

“Oh, uh…” /checks the lab sheet “Not too high. Uhhh… One-sixties. See.”

Her lips thin out. “Mmmm-hmm. Did you cover him?”

“I gave him… uh… one unit at noon. And uh…. I didn’t cover his last blood sugar.”

Flat stare. “You didn’t.”

“No, it was… his blood sugar was like… one point above the cut-off. I didn’t want to crash him.”

“Mmmm-hmmm. So I’ll cover that, then, and recheck in four hours. When I’m supposed to. Did you get all the tubing changed?” Her expression is somewhere between of course you didn’t and I can’t fucking believe this.

“Yeeeeeah.” Then I wither in my seat and stare at my report sheet for a while. She never says anything hurtful or really judgmental, she just has a tone. Also did I mention she’s beautiful? That makes it a thousand million times worse. I always tell myself after report with her that I didn’t fuck anything up, that I did a good job this shift, that the things I didn’t get done were things I had good reasons not to do.

So, having given report on the crazy lady to her, I came back in a little terrified in case I had missed anything.

Instead, she informed me that she’d got a sitter for the pt again once her daughters had left for the evening—our night CNA who always stays over, Rose*—and that she’d really gone nuts last night. Great. Alex also said that she’d had two seizures last night, both of them beginning with the characteristic left-eye jerk that she usually pulled, and ending with tonic-clonic seizing.

She’d also had something that Alex described as “really weird,” an apparent syncopal episode. She’d recovered afterward, although her mental status was not so great for the rest of the night, but she’d gone apneic (unbreathing) and unresponsive for almost a full minute, and her heart had raced. Her post-ictal period had been extremely short.

“I don’t think it was a seizure,” said Alex. “She didn’t jerk her eyes around. But I don’t know what else it could be. Honestly? I was about to start coding her when she came to. The doc said that if she’s not back to normal by eight this morning, we’re going to start a bunch of lab panels and get a CT scan. Which won’t be fun, because she literally will not be still.”

Sure enough, she was fidgeting in the bed, occasionally mumbling to herself, pushing at the blankets with her hands and then pulling them back up. God, putting her in a CT scanner was gonna be hell. But hey, 0715, she had forty-five minutes to get some sunlight and snap out of it. My other pt was my little GI bleed fella again, so I got a ten-second “nothing new, discharge today” from the nurse and came back to see about getting my fidgeter out of sundown land.

Rose was a huge help. “We can just get her up to the commode,” she said, “and then maybe if she does well we can put her in the chair for breakfast, have her look outside. That should bring her around.”

So we hoisted her up to the commode, and she immediately dumped a gallon of dilute urine and let out a huge sigh of relief.

I fixed her gown. “Better?”

She nodded, then looked up at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “My name is Martha*,” she said, as if just remembering this fact.

“Yeah,” I said. “You ready to sit in the chair, Martha? We have some toast and scrambled eggs for you.”

A big emphatic nod. She looked really confused, kind of blindsided, and I didn’t blame her—if she was snapping out of sundowners, she would just now be entering the period where she starts genuinely waking up, the way I often stagger to the toilet in the morning without being quite sure whether it’s day or night. Rose helped me stand her up in the waltz position—her hands on my shoulders, my hands gripping her gait belt, my knees braced against hers in case hers buckle—and we started the process of pivoting to sit in the chair.

About halfway there, she made a strange expression. “My name is Martha,” she said again, and her pupils spilled wide, and her body went completely slack.

Rose and I barely kept her from hitting the floor, mostly by hauling on her gait belt and thighmastering her lower body with our knees up into the waiting recliner. She was completely limp, taking little hiccup-breaths, going gray in the face. Her eyes stared into the middle distance. “She’s having a seizure,” said Rose. On the monitor, her heart raced, then fell into a high bradycardia, rate of 55. Her bladder emptied. She wasn’t really breathing, and even the hiccup-breaths were diminishing into nothing.

We kicked the chair into full recline and I grabbed the ambu breath bag. “Check her pulse,” I said. On the monitor, her heart rate cruised down into the forties. “Check her pulse! Does she have a pulse!”

“It’s a seizure,” said Rose, but she fumbled for a pulse—wrist, throat, groin. “It’s just a seizure!” Meanwhile she kicked the bed into flat mode, max inflate, pulled the CPR board off the head, and slapped her walkie-talkie to call for a respiratory therapist and the flex nurse. We all do this: we say what we really hope is true, and the whole time we prepare for what we really hope isn’t true. Rose moves very quickly; the flex nurse, Franklin*, ducked into the room within seconds.

“You guys need help getting her back to the chair?” He looked at Rose prepping the bed, me bagging air into the pt’s lungs while still trying to find the flicker of pulse I’d felt before, and raised his eyebrows.

“Code,” I said. “Press the button!” Rose smacked the alarm and the whole unit dissolved into organized chaos.

“Jesus,” said Franklin. “You don’t fuckin do half of report, do you?” He dove over the bedside commode, nearly slipped in the lake of urine from my technically-dead pt, and helped me cradle-lift her in one adrenaline-filled swoop back into the bed, where we laid her flat and started compressions. On the monitor, her heart rate alarmed in the twenties with a wide complex—slow movement of electricity throughout the heart, a very bad sign—until we took up the lead-hammering pace of CPR.

Good pulses with compressions. The RT took over bagging. The intensivist—one I forgot to introduce before, a mild-mannered fellow with a soothing presence and a way with difficult families—pushed into the room just behind the code cart, which the charge nurse was plugging into the wall while Franklin stuck defibrillation pads to the pt’s chest. “What happened,” he shouted—codes are incredibly loud—and I told him the very short, very confusing story: she was on the commode, she stood up, she died.

We coded the ever-loving shit out of her. Pulseless Electrical Activity was all we got—not even a shockable rhythm, just that useless, flaccid bradycardia on the monitor with no physical pulse at all. PEA arrests tend to have incredibly bad outcomes; the heart is too fucked for the electrical system to even realize the muscle is dead.

In the middle of all this I walkie-talkied the unit secretary to ask her not to let any visitors past the desk for this pt. I mean, god for-fucking-bid that her daughters walk into this shit: their mother blank and staring in a bed, her few unbroken ribs mashing into pieces under my hands, blood foaming up in the breathing tube we’d just crammed down her throat, naked violent death at its least lovely.

Nothing worked. Nothing even started to work. Rose and I were both in a pretty bad emotional state—this was not the pt we’d have expected to code. For fuck’s sake, she had broken ribs and a UTI! And, okay, it looked like she’d thrown a clot and had a pulmonary embolism—the blood clotted in the tube as the lab tech drew it from her arm—and there wasn’t much we could have done about that, but I thought about last night’s syncopal episode and about the expression on her face as she died in my arms and felt absolutely, bottomlessly sick.

We called it after thirty-five minutes, a lifetime to code a woman in her eighties. The intensivist went in the hallway to call her family, and managed to get through to the two most anxious daughters, both of whom went completely to pieces over the phone. The other daughter wasn’t picking up her phone.

I arranged her as best I could, then took over the phone after the intensivist, calling the organ donation group (a legal requirement, typically to rule a pt out for donation) and the medical examiner’s office (another legal requirement, in case someone dies under suspicious circumstances or there’s a chance of hospital wrongdoing), trying to get the okay quickly to take the breathing tube and IVs out. You can’t take anything off or out of the pt until you get the ME’s okay.

While I was on the phone with the ME, the daughter whose phone had been off rounded the corner, ignored my attempt to flag her down, and pushed into the room. “Mom,” she started, then screamed: “Mom! MOM! Somebody help!”

God almighty, the unit sec hadn’t stopped her at the desk. Her sisters hadn’t got through to her either. She hadn’t answered because she’d been on the road, coming here, to visit with her mother over breakfast.

I’m just glad it was the more level-headed one. Of course she was devastated, absolutely wrecked—but she’s more familiar with death, and she was able to integrate it and understand it much sooner than her sisters would have. By the time her sisters arrived, I had taken out all the tubes and wires, brushed her hair, tucked her in, and had her looking halfway like herself again, except for a smear of blood beside her pillow that I covered with a washcloth.

I called the chaplain. Turns out the chaplain was off that day. The family hovered in the waiting room, terrified to go see their mother’s body, wailing and crying, at least one daughter nearly fainting twice. I called the weekend chaplain, who often covers on her days off, and asked if she’d be willing to come in and sit with the family while I finished up their paperwork and helped them get to a settling point.

She came in. I owe her big. Unfortunately, after she talked the family into going home and awaiting a call from the funeral home to go see her recovered body there, she hung around and tried to be emotionally supportive to me, at a time when I had a shit-ton of paperwork to manage and really wasn’t feeling terribly in need of a shoulder to cry on.

Mostly I was pissed as fuck, and frustrated, and I wanted to punch something. Every last fucking thing that could have gone wrong seemed to have gone wrong. I couldn’t believe she was dead; I could not believe that we had failed to keep her daughter from being surprised with her death. I was very polite with the chaplain, but finally I hid in the bathroom until she left.

Then I went into my GIB guy’s room for the first fucking time that whole shift. It was now 0830.

I gave him his breakfast, which was mostly cold by now, and took his blood sugar so he could eat it. I smiled graciously the entire time and apologized for taking so long. “I guess you heard everyone in the unit running around like crazy,” I said. “We were trying to save another pt who had taken a bad turn.”

He dug into his toast and asked: “Were they okay?”

“Not as okay as I hoped.” I don’t want to lie to people, but I can’t always tell them the truth, and either way it’s bad form to bomb somebody’s day with a spiel about how their neighbor just died.

As I emerged into the hallway, Alex appeared, expression of stern disapproval firmly in place. “That went badly,” she said, and I braced myself to defend my actions. “Here, I got you this.”

It was a Starbucks latte. A real, honest to god Starbucks latte. I am a little ashamed, but not much, to tell you that I got a little misty. “Thank you so much,” I said.

“You did really well,” she said. “I can’t believe she just coded like that. And her family… You handled that really well.” Then she left for home, while I sipped my latte and rejoiced in the knowledge that her chronic bitchface doesn’t reflect her actual opinion of me.

Ten minutes later, the guy showed up to carry Martha’s body away, and I finally gave the GIB guy’s morning meds and helped him to the bedside commode. I don’t mind telling you I was sweating like a horse the whole time. Waltz position and pivot, knees locked to knees, the whole time I’m chanting in my head: Please don’t code, please don’t code.

He didn’t code. He did shit an absolute lake of filth. I bet he felt better after that.

After this I took a nap. My blessed coworker and patron saint Mavi covered me for what we euphemistically called an “extended break,” and I spent forty-five minutes facedown on the break room sofa, dreaming about a bubble bath full of little adorable swimming mammals that would pop up through the bubbles and squeak, then dive like otters.

I awakened to the charge nurse shaking me gently. “Can you take the guy in twelve*? He has a sitter.”

Okay. Whatever. “What’s going on in twelve?”

“His nurse is getting a fresh VATS and he’s just… a little heavy.”

“Oh good. Sure. Whatever.”

He wasn’t just a little heavy. I mean, physically, he weighed maybe 200lb, but he was in four-point locking Velcro restraints with a bedside sitter and an ass full of Haldol injections. The dude is in his late twenties, a Type 1 diabetic, with a serious drug problem.

I don’t mean that he’s addicted to something, although I’m sure he is. I don’t even mean that he’s taking something nasty on the regular, although I’m sure he is. I mean that this guy will, apparently, do literally anything to avoid sobriety, up to and including begging Robitussin from a pt family member in the waiting room. I don’t think he even got enough Robitussin to get high.

And at any rate this was two days ago, when he was on the med-surg floor, before he went completely apeshit, ripped the whiteboard off the wall, threw a chair at his nurse, and ran down the stairwell to escape from the hospital. He was in for DKA and pancreatitis, and definitely didn’t seem to be in control of his faculties, so we hunted him down; he was in his truck in the parking garage, screaming and banging on the window because he couldn’t figure out how to get the door open.

He had taken a whole bunch of god-knows-what—tested positive for amphetamines, cocaine, opioids, and benzos, although the latter two he’d had in-hospital with his pancreatitis pain and his alcohol withdrawal. Oh yeah, his blood alcohol level was elevated too.

We weren’t able to figure this out until he had been thoroughly restrained, jabbed with an obscene amount of Haldol, shot up with about 4mg of IV Ativan, and strapped down while he drifted off into a mumbling daze. His blood pressure was out the roof—not uncommon for cocaine, especially crack, which we suspected because a) he’s homeless and poor as shit and b) he had a bunch of copper brillo pads in his passenger seat. He was also difficult to sedate, which we expect with meth usage… and he was insanely violent and psychotic, which we expect with the kind of bullshit gas-station drugs that get sold as ‘potpourri’.

I mean, he successfully tricked us into keeping him from being sober for another 12 hours. But he did not endear himself to us, what with all the punching and broken furniture.

By the time I got him, he was starting to calm down, and I was able to ease him off the restraints, although the sitter remained. His girlfriend came in, tearful, also obviously accustomed to sleeping in cars and shooting up, and I got her a sandwich and a warm blanket and told her to go ahead and sleep in the recliner for a while. When she woke up, her boyfriend was still semiconscious and mumbling, so she and I had a little contract chat: she goes to the methadone clinic, so I promised her that while her boyfriend was in the hospital, she could stay here and sleep in the chair and have three meals a day—as long as she attends her methadone clinic meeting times and doesn’t bring in any drugs or alcohol, which are absolutely forbidden on campus.

An hour later I caught her rolling a cigarette (no, not even a joint, a cigarette—loose tobacco leaves in a greasy recycled lunch-meat Tupperware), and explained that if she lit it up in here, the ceiling sprinklers would come on and drench everything. “It’ll ruin your phone,” I noted, and the pt spoke up from his groggy muttering to shout: “Put my phone in the drawer!”

I started to suspect that he wasn’t as gorked out as he seemed.

An hour after that I took his blood sugar and it resulted at 422. “What did you eat,” I asked him.

“Nothing! I haven’t eaten in, like, days.”

A cursory bed-shake revealed four full-sized Butterfinger wrappers and an unmistakable pile of Oreo crumbs. Like really, dude. We had a talk: “I know you want to get out of here as fast as possible, but you realize if you drive your blood sugar up, you’re just gonna end up back here, right? And if you have to have an insulin drip started again, you won’t be able to leave easily?”

He shrugged. “I’m leaving here tonight, even if I have to escape.” Big smile. “Hey, you wanna come with me? There’s always room in my truck.”

His girlfriend started complaining, then called me a whore. I left the room “to let you guys get control of yourselves,” and heard her berating him as I left.

“Why do you say shit like that? It’s not even funny!”

“It’s just my sense of humor, babe. Roll me a cig?”

God. Gaaaaaawd. By this point he was 100% conscious and aware, just being a total asshole. Every time I went in the room, he gave me a steady stream of “humor” about how he was leaving in an hour even if he had to hit someone, how the doctor had dropped by and said he could have dilaudid, how he would “sign whatever you guys say” to get out this evening because “I gotta meet a guy for some drugs. Just kidding!”

His expression didn’t say ‘joking’. His expression said that he thought I was stupid enough to believe he was joking.

A lot of people tell inappropriate jokes in the ICU. It’s a stress-coping mechanism, usually, if not a flattering one. A lot of people who feel out of control of their lives and bodies try to make the staff uncomfortable to re-establish their own feeling of autonomy. Typically I’ll handle this by setting strict boundaries, leaving the room with an admonition for the pt to get themselves under control, and looking for other places to give the pt some perception of autonomy. You can tell that it’s a stress response—they laugh with brittle force, they make lame uncreative jokes and remarks, they show their teeth and the whites of their eyes. There’s a little panic in their voices, a little aggression in their eyes.

Some people harass staff because they’re depressed, detached, feeling hopeless. They’re terminal, or their condition may never improve. They feel out of control, but they also feel like the world around them is hostile and unsafe. They self-deprecate as much as they attack; they have a bleak laugh, monotone voice, the kind of jokes that cut deeper than they should. They kinda joke like Robin Williams: all mania and grief.

(I could never watch Robin Williams comedy. He just looked so sad all the time. He looked like he was joking so he wouldn’t cry, or like he was trying to make someone laugh to keep them from swinging at him.)

These people need to feel control, but they also need to feel safe. They need palliative care, to help them find ways to live meaningfully at the end of their lives. They need a wry sense of humor to deflect their jabs, and to help their grim outlook become an enemy they can despise instead of surrendering to.

This guy… well. Some pts have zero intent of changing their lives, and resent being in the hospital at all. Some pts think they’ve tricked you, because here you are taking care of them when they hate you and would gladly hurt you if they could get away with it. Some pts think you’re a sucker, their bitch, their waitress; they make remarks and take potshots because they can, and they want to remind you that in their minds, they’ve already won.

I can’t stand pts like that. I hate seeing the expressions on their faces: the smirking challenge, the gloating, the certainty that they can get away with anything they try to pull. It turns my job from a joy and a labor of love into a gross afternoon of feeling wasted and exploited.

About an hour before end of shift, I got to give up my GIB guy and take on a new admit from the OR, a tiny old woman with Alzheimer’s who fell in her assisted living facility and now has a broken clavicle, broken facial bones, and a brand-new left hip repair. I barely had time to get her settled before shift change.

As I was waiting to give report, the afternoon charge came up to check on me. This is the same charge from yesterday afternoon, the one who knew my pt. “Oh,” she said, “did you transfer Martha to the floor?”

Explaining that was not fun.

After I gave report and was headed to clock out, I passed my tiny old lady from the other day, the one with the Diet Dr. Pepper and the razor-edged, if slightly unhinged, wit. “Hey,” she called, “can you come get these men out of my bed?”

“Which men,” I asked, poking my head into the room. She was alone, lying in a bundle of blankets.

“These men behind me,” she said, gesturing to the pillows shoved under her left side. “I’m all wore out! I’ve had enough. Tell ‘em to go home.”

I took the pillows out and told her the gentlemen wouldn’t be bothering her any longer. Then I made it halfway to the garage before I started wondering what, exactly, she’d thought those “men” were up to in her bed, wearing her out.

I hope I grow up to be an old lady just like her.

With an hour to go til report, I took a walkie-talkie call from the charge. “I need you to give report to Franklin on your GIB guy,” she said. “There’s a fresh hip coming up from the OR who went into a-fib on the table, and I need you to recover her until the nocs get here.”

“Shit, why can’t Franklin land her?”

“Franklin has the heart. So you’ll need to keep an eye on the GIB guy for him, and give your 1800 meds, because he won’t be able to get into the room easily.”

Sigh. “How about I just keep GIB for an hour and give report to the night nurse, and not waste time reporting to Franklin before the hip gets here?”

“Oh, could you do that? Thanks!” Click.

Yeah, whatever. GIB guy was happily chowing down on dinner, and I brought him his 1800 phosphorus-binding med (oh yeah, he was on dialysis too, and required medications to prevent his phos from climbing too high between trips to the fridge).

(The fridge here refers to the huge chunky dialysis machines that our dialysis nurses push up and down the hallways and use to scrub our pts’ blood. We call them “fridge nurses” and exchange good-natured jabs about the relative superiority of our respective nursing careers. Most of the hospitals in this area either keep their own dialysis fleet or employ the major dialysis-nurse agency in the city, which means that I’ve known most of them for years even though I changed facilities last year.)

The fresh hip was a little old lady with Alzheimers who had taken a dive while going to the bathroom and ended up with a broken clavicle, hip, and left hand. The stress of surgery had irritated the shit out of her heart, which went into a-fib, raising her risk of clotting. When the top chamber of your heart is just wiggling around ineffectively, it forms the perfect environment for clots to form—a warm, open compartment with walls that massage the blood rather than pushing it. And since she’d just had surgery, anticoagulating her was not an option.

So we started her on a diltiazem drip to slow her heart rate—she was quite fast—and laid her flat to recover. And then it was time to give report.

After which I went the fuck home and made dinner, checked with my sister to make sure she was doing okay at the GED tutoring sessions and to ask if she has an internship lined up yet, and then went out for an hour with my writing buddy to work on something besides a shift report: a highly simplified D&D campaign I’ve been running for some friends who wanted to learn tabletop RPGs but were intimidated by all the numbers and charts. It’s a small dumb thing that’s more story and flimflam than hard game-crunching, but I’ve been enjoying it, and it’s adapted well enough to a beginning group that it’s keeping ten simultaneous players occupied nicely. Plus my writing buddy is a game designer type so I can pick his brain for help when shit gets real, and he plays NPCs when I need them.

This is my first time DMing since I was in college. I am not good at it, I don’t think. But we have fun. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Week 7 Shift ACTUAL 1

I posted my reports out of order. Friday's was actually supposed to be today's, and vice versa. Mea maxima culpa, and also whatever dude.


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Started out this morning with a couple of sweet pts—my first day back since Tiberius died. I was kind of hoping for a pair of raucous assholes I could joke around with and care for without working too hard; instead I got two cute tiny old folks, both with Parkinson’s, both with lung cancer.

One had undergone a right mid-and-lower lobectomy, leaving him with nothing of his right lung but the upper lobe. The other had undergone chemo, had a really rough time of it, and then come back for her checkup to find that the cancer had spread quickly, after which she developed a UTI and sepsis.  The former will be going home in a few days—the surgery was successful. The latter will also be going home in a few days—antibiotics will have her comfortable enough to enjoy her remaining months at home.

The lobectomy pt had a little extra challenge to face. He’s orthostatic at home: when he sits or stands up quickly, his body can’t keep his blood pressure steady, and he faints. He fell a month ago and broke a small bone in his foot, requiring him to wear an immobilizer boot whenever he gets up to walk. Not that he was walking far; the previous shift had tried to take him for a walk down the hall, and he had made it as far as the med cabinet before his eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped like a rock. His chest tube made it even trickier to mobilize him, since it drained into a big square box called an atrium that had to be carried along everywhere he went.

And he really wanted to walk around. His pain was well-controlled with an epidural in his back, which numbed him from nipples to liver, preventing him from feeling the full impact of the huge surgery. Pain control is crucial in major thoracotomies like this one—I think Tiberius had an epidural too, immediately after his pneumonectomy and before things went south—because, as with cardiac surgery pts, this pt population is at huge risk of death if they lie still for too long. They need the pulmonary hygiene of coughing, which is almost impossible to manage if you’re in agony every time you breathe in; they need the blood-pumping action of muscles massaging their legs’ veins to return the blood to their hearts; they need to be able to breathe deeply, so their lungs don’t collapse, and the volume of air you breathe in declines sharply when you’re in bed all day.

None of these things are particularly compatible with a fresh open chest. If you’ve ever cracked a rib, you know what I’m talking about: fighting the urge to cough, breathing in sips and whispers, cursing your significant other like the Nosferatu because he strolled through the room and made a stupid pun and you laughed unexpectedly.

I cracked a rib about a year ago because I was at the pub for Drink & Draw with a bunch of my artist friends, and was invited by one of them—a massive Hawaiian man whose job is an even split between “draw monsters for video games” and “travel around the world giving workshops on how to draw monsters for video games,” both of which are hard-drinkin’ jobs—to help him finish off some shots that a group of art students had bought for him. I am an inveterate lightweight who gets a little woozy after a couple glasses of wine, so it was deeply stupid of me to take him up on his offer. At some point I asked him if people tried to fight him in bars, and joked that I (one hundred twenty-five pounds of hair and freckles) should totally fight him sometime. He responded by picking me up in a bear hug, which cracked my rib. He was very sorry and expressed disbelief that anybody could break that easily; I was very sorry and expressed a lot of vomit and groaning.

Anyway. This dude had to walk if at all possible. With fear and trembling we propped him up on the edge of the bed, and let him sit there for a while, reminding him over and over that he needed to wait to stand up until his body caught up with its new position. A few false starts later, and we propped him up on the cardiac walker—its big elbow cushions make it easy to walk with, and staff are known to rest their forearms on it and dangle their feet to help relax their spines during a hard shift. Heck, I like to lean on it and sail down the hallway, propelling myself with gentle taps of the toes, scaring the piss out of the CNAs and smacking into the medicine cabinets as I go. (This only happens in the late afternoon, when things have calmed down a bit.)

On the walker, he made it out into the hallway and down the hall before he turned white, slumped sideways, and said: “Leave me alone, I feel fine.” His eyes stayed open, but his head sagged and his knees wobbled. The charge nurse came running up, pushing a rolling recliner she’d snagged from a nearby room. “I ain’t sittin down,” said the gentleman as he slowly toppled, trailing his chest tube behind him.

“Sir, you’re passing out,” I said, trying to maneuver his swerving backside into the recliner while bending around the walker and juggling the chest tube atrium. “Please, sit down.”

“I feel fine,” he repeated. He was definitely staying awake, but his body was absolutely done with this standing-up bullshit.

“You look like a package of used hot dogs,” I said. “Sit the hell down.”

He started laughing, which I guess was too much for him, because he lost consciousness and slumped back (mostly) into the recliner like a sack of wet bricks. Thirty seconds later, as his body caught up with the change, he came back to… still laughing. “Hot dogs,” he said. “Hot dawgs. This girl’s a pistol, bang bang.”

I’ve had worse compliments. Once a pt told me: “I’d marry you, honey, but you’re a bitch from hell.” Still a little heartbroken over that one. But I have to agree with him.

His chest tube had kinked off when he flopped over on it, and the pressure differential had him feeling a little stuffy by the time we got him back in his room. I straightened the tube and hooked the atrium up to wall suction, and he gave a little start as a huge bubble slurped from the tube through the water seal. “Whatna hell was that,” he barked.

“Well, sir… your chest farted.”

More laughter. “Does your mama know bout your mouth?”

I assured him that my mother was a good, upstanding Baptist woman who would rather not know about my mouth, locked the chair brakes, and went to the break room to open palm slam a cup of coffee and two ibuprofen for my unhappy back.

I try to take care of my back. Lots of nurses get hurt and end up on disability. Back injuries build up over time and then suddenly seem to happen all at once, and I don’t want to end up slipping a disk mid-turn. I use the equipment at hand, follow strict body mechanics protocols, and am shameless about demanding help from other staff. Still, nursing is a high-contact sport, and sometimes you just throw yourself between someone else and the floor.

I’m not always funny, either. Sometimes I hit a charming, exhausted zone where my filters are down and the words fly fast, but shortly after that I turn into a blathering mule who can’t get three words out in a row. Panic increases my chances of witticism; exhaustion makes me sound clever. People are often surprised that I can tell a quippy story with a solid punch line and then be asleep before everyone is done laughing.

So I tell people about black holes. They come from supermassive stars, I tell them: huge flaming whirling nightmares so massive that hydrogen is crushed into iron at their cores. At last each one collapses under its own weight, crushing itself into nothing, waves and particles of radiation squirting out of its terrible fist at every crack and seam. And just as the star reaches the point of no return, ripping through space-time itself, swirling into the inescapable singularity, an enormous gout of brilliant blue light pours out, scouring everything in its path with searing, perfect illumination: Cherenkov blue.

That’s me, right before I collapse. I get tired, groggy, lazy; then, for a few moments, I am brilliant and clever and unstoppable and incisive; then I am lying on the break room sofa in a puddle of my own drool.

Anyway. I digress, boringly.

My other pt, the one who will go home on comfort care, is loopy as a rabbit in the grass. She is also deaf as a loaf of bread. She has hearing aids, which she hates wearing, and I don’t blame her because they scream constantly from the feedback hell of being turned up to max and shoved into her wax-plastered brain-holes. She grimaces and nods and looks completely confused while you try to talk to her, and the whole time there’s this distant metallic squeal like robots fucking. She is, however, so cute I can hardly stand it.

She keeps saying these things that sound like complete wacko non sequiturs, that make sense a few minutes later in context. She was cold, so I brought her a blanket from the warmer, one with blue stripes on it. She declined it: “Not with the red! I’m not a traitor!” Okaaaaaay. She did have a big red allergy bracelet on. I got her another blanket, one with no stripes, which she accepted.

A little later her family arrived, and as I relayed this story to them, they nodded sagely. “Of course,” they said, “those are XXXX University colors, and she cheers for XXXX State.”

I mean, I like football. I hated it when I lived in Texas, where football is a religion and the weather during football season is the best evidence we’ll ever have of God’s wrath, but since I moved to Seattle I’ve learned to enjoy it. (Something about how obnoxious and balls-out gleeful the fans are, and also about how Richard Sherman was fucking hot even before he opened his gorgeous mouth and a whole higher education drifted out of it like a fleet of sexy butterflies. Pardon me, I’m going to have a drink of water now.) I am the worst possible kind of football fan, and I still don’t think I could maintain that level of team spirit while slowly dying in a hospital bed.

We got her up to the chair for a while—yes, we ICU beasts have a total obsession with mobilizing our pts—and then had trouble getting her back into bed a few hours later, during shift change as I passed her off to the next nurse. Fortunately the oncoming guy was strong and good-spirited, and we wrestled her back into bed without dropping her somehow, even when she wobbled and her knees went completely limp. “The black-eyed ones always did that to me,” she quavered as we tucked her in. “Weak in the knees.” I was halfway home before I realized she was talking about the night nurse, who is a genuinely attractive young man with lots of muscles who quite literally swept her off her feet.

My lobectomy pt transferred up to telemetry immediately after that, keeping me late to give report to the upstairs nurse. I stressed the importance of taking things VERY SLOWLY with him, and told the whole grisly story of his afternoon walk. “Are you sure he’s tele status,” protested the nurse, and I don’t blame her, because nobody wants a pt who can turn into a floppy lump at a moment’s notice.

“Yeah,” I said. “Bye!”

I am a dick. Sorry, folks, that you have to know that about me.

(Generally speaking, orthostatic hypotension isn’t a reason to keep a pt on the ICU, especially if they’re orthostatic at baseline and need exercise to get moving again, which the tele floors are better at administering since ICU is focused on early mobility. It would have been very bad form, and dangerous to the pt, for me to pass him off without explaining how serious his orthostatic hypotension could be, but I honestly didn’t have time to coax the upstairs nurse into recognizing all this.)

As I left, they were already moving a new pt in, a tiny little lady who screamed and thrashed and hit everyone within reach. Her daughter stood in the hallway, dancing from foot to foot in that telltale hand-to-breastbone posture of a family member who is going to be ridiculously anxious the whole time. I will bet you one US dollar that I get that pt in the morning, and that she hits me.

Maybe I can jinx her into being a perfect doll.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Week 7, Shift 1

Well, I definitely got the crazy little lady this morning, and no, my attempt at jinxing her didn’t work. But more on that in a bit.

My adorable pt with the screaming hearing aids had really bad sundowners last night, and spent all morning groggy and slow to communicate. Even after I put in her hearing aids, she mostly just lay in bed napping, drifting off mid-sentence every time I tried to have a conversation with her. Somebody had given her a bump of dilaudid last night for an episode of back pain, and she apparently processes opioids slower than I process an entire brick of cheddar cheese, so she was completely zorked most of the morning.

Her family came in and stood around the bed, morose, watching her mutter in her sleep. “She’s really gone downhill,” said her son. “Yesterday she was so bright and awake, and she was up in the chair for hours… Today she barely wakes up to say hello. What happened?”

I explained about the pain medicine and our plan to closely limit her opioid administration from here on out, and added that her labs were all improving and her vital signs were solid, and that I was recommending to the MD for her to be transferred to a unit with a lower level of acuity. The family was uneasy, and I don’t blame them—I was keeping a weather eye out for weirdness myself, because while I had a pretty good explanation for her behavior (or lack of behavior), any time family says their loved one is different, I pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught something that would have gone unrecognized—a heart attack, a stroke, a major status change—just because I pay attention when family is worried.

(Sometimes I have to completely ignore worried family, when their worry is pathological and they’re doing themselves and their families no favors… more on that later. And yet, if the family is worried, even if it’s just because they’re always worried, I stay at a higher level of worry all day. Not necessarily about the pt, especially if I can look at them and tell that they’re doing fine, but I have plenty of my own shit to worry about and if we’re having a party anyway, heeeey!)

In this case, I was definitely watching her closely, especially when family brought in some edible and drinkable treats to try and coax her into eating. I was concerned that, despite her passing her swallow eval earlier, she would (in her current groggy state) fall asleep while chewing and end up with a hamburger in her lung. I hovered by the bed while her daughter leaned over and bellowed in her ear: “MOM. DO YOU WANT SOME DIET DR. PEPPER.”

And man, her face lit up like Mardi Gras in Las Vegas. Her eyes popped wide open and she levered herself upright in bed like a vampire popping out of the coffin. “Do you have any?”

After that, she was still prone to drifting off, but now she had a vested interest in staying awake. Family? Pssshhh, you can see them anytime. Diet Dr. Pepper? Now that is worth feigning alertness.

Fortunately, she really wasn’t in need of a lot of care, and the doc agreed around 0900 to downgrade her acuity to telemetry. I say ‘fortunately’ because my other pt Martha*, the crazy lady from last night, demanded almost all of my time.

Her history of bipolar disorder has provided her with a history of lithium use, and last year she attempted suicide by taking all of her lithium pills at once. The ways in which people attempt to kill themselves just horrify me. Taking two bottles of Tylenol? Finishing off your Wellbutrin in a single go? Jesus, are you trying to make sure you suffer on your way out? I mean, I sincerely hate the idea that anyone has to deal with the utter bleakness of chronic depression and the spiral that leads down to suicide, and I wish to god nobody killed themselves at all, and I hate that our society makes mental illness such a hush-hush no-funding issue that people can reach that point of suffering without having the resources they need to escape… But the shit that people do to themselves trying to kill themselves, that shit is like an Eli Roth porno. Even handguns fail frequently enough; it’s not uncommon for a person to attempt suicide, fail, and have an entire lifetime of medical fallout to deal with… or six weeks of pure torture in the ICU before they finally manage to actually die.

And of those who succeed in slow motion… they all want to live by the time they die. It’s awful.

Please don’t fucking kill yourself. Entirely aside from the fact that you’ll miss all the movies of the next few decades, that you’ll miss the chance to fake your own death and escape to a South American country and become the mysterious foreigner who lives in the jungle, that you’ll leave behind a body that somebody has to clean up… you have a pretty significant chance of ending up in a nursing home, just conscious enough to feel pain and humiliation, for the rest of your life.

Give it another year. Do something different. Talk to somebody about it. Don’t end up on my unit with ARDS from inhaling your own vomit when the pills kick in. If the Huntington’s is closing in and you really gotta go before you turn into a slack-lipped veggie on a vent, plan that shit out and have your family by your bed. If you don’t think you could convince someone to sit by your bedside while you die, it’s not time for you to die yet.

Anyway, that’s a grim little side note. The point is, this lady took all her lithium pills, and after a major round of dialysis, she ended up with a seizure disorder, diabetes insipidus, and maybe about two-thirds of her original IQ. This time around, she’s in the hospital because a week ago she tripped and fell at home, broke most of her ribs on the left side, and ended up with a hemothorax—a big pool of blood in the space her left lung was trying to occupy—plus pneumonia from her immobility and from being unable to breathe deeply and cough without pain, plus dehydration from the DI, plus a UTI.

Diabetes insipidus is a totally different animal from what we usually refer to as ‘diabetes’. Diabetes mellitus—those of you with some base in languages may recognize the root of ‘mellitus’ to mean ‘honey’—is sugar diabetes, which I have ranted about at length here. Type 1 diabetes mellitus means all the insulin cells in your pancreas were devoured by your immune system in a bizarre childhood autocannibalistic orgy, and you probably need an insulin pump; Type 2 diabetes mellitus means your body is growing resistant to insulin and your pancreas is maybe not pumping out as much as you need, often because you have a genetic predisposition or (more likely) your fat cells are overstuffed and trying to tell you to lay off the cheesecake.

It’s called ‘mellitus’ because your kidneys are dumping sugar, and your piss turns sweet. Doctors used to have to taste their pts’ urine to see if they were diabetic. It’s never been a good career for the mentally well.

Diabetes insipidus, therefore, means that your urine is insipid instead of sweet—it’s bland and watery. Lucky doctor. The problem here is that, inside your braincase, your pituitary gland (yes, the gland responsible for dragging you through puberty) has become fucked up somehow. In addition to hairy-armpit hormones, your pituitary gland regulates your water balance, secreting a hormone called vasopressin to remind your body that it actually needs water to survive. (In higher doses, vasopressin also causes your vasculature, your blood vessels, to constrict and increase your blood pressure… thus the name ‘vasopressin’. We use a synthetic version of this regularly on the ICU to raise blood pressure in septic pts.) So if you have a pituitary tumor, or massive brain trauma, or certain types of toxicity like lithium… you will constantly gush gallons of dilute watery fifteenth-beer piss, even though you’re dehydrated and dying of thirst and could really, really use all that water you’re filling your Depends with.

So this woman was constantly in desperate need of a trip to the ladies’ room, which is hard to manage when you’re completely deranged from a urinary tract infection, your entire left chest is hamburger on the inside, and you aren’t firing on all cylinders to begin with. She couldn’t bring herself to use a bedpan, and initially she was too dizzy and sick to get up to a bedside commode, so she would try to hold it until she just couldn’t, then fill the bed with a liter of water-pee and start screaming. Nothing we said to her made any sense to her. She hit and kicked and screamed, and it took her daughter and a sitter to keep her in bed and safe and calm.

Her daughter looked familiar. I’d seen her last night in the hallway, but now that I was in the room with her, she looked really familiar. After the first ten minutes of introductions, I recognized her with a start—she’d been the caretaker for a pt I cared for at my last facility, and she’d been an absolute nightmare. A few delicate questions confirmed my suspicion, and she recognized me too.

She had been enormously controlling, extremely anxious, convinced that we were neglecting her ward even though her nurse could never even get out of the room. She would regularly decide that the pt needed something—a breathing treatment, a new medication, a very specific positioning, an aggressive round of nasotracheal suctioning—and she would insist on it until the doc either gave in or had a stern, invariably ugly talk with her about appropriate care. She was absolutely unable to manage her stress, and this led to her ward being absolutely punished with unnecessary and uncomfortable turns every time she got comfortable.

But this just meant I’d had time to establish a rapport and a set of boundaries with her, and thank living fuck, I was able to get those back into place pretty quickly. I promised to genuinely consider any request she made, but told her I wouldn’t sugarcoat anything or perform any kind of care that I felt endangered her mother, and that if she got stressed out I would stay in the room for fifteen minutes at a time while she went to the waiting room to collect herself.

It worked pretty well.

Then she fired the sitter. The new guy who’d come in for the morning shift is this super sweet CNA I’ve worked with several times, a tall black guy with a genuine smile and dimples to boot, who spent thirty minutes with me last time he floated to our floor while we scrubbed a massive Code Brown off the walls even though he could by rights have ducked out halfway through. He is a wonderful, compassionate human being whose bedside manner is gentle as a lamb and soothing as a fifth of whiskey, and within thirty minutes of his assuming sitter duty, the daughter fired him for being ‘intimidating’.

“My mom is kind of old-school,” she said, clutching her elbows and speaking in low tones, trying her damnedest not to sound racist as hell. “She gets really scared if there’s anyone… intimidating around.” Inside the room, my pt was holding the CNA’s hand and smiling at him while he asked her about her grandchildren.

I told her I would see what I could do, and dove into the chart. Turns out, this cute little old lady with the crazy thrashing etc had not received any pain medication during her stay besides her scheduled toradol, which seemed unrealistic to me considering that she had six broken ribs and regularly freaked out like somebody had filled her bed with bees. She had PRN dilaudid IV available, and I drew it up and headed into the room.

“Are you having pain,” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “I want to go home.”

“Are you hurting?” Sometimes it helps to ask again a different way. “Maybe just a little bit?”

“Yeeeeeah. But I want to go home. So I’m not hurting.”

“We’re gonna get you home as fast as I can,” I said, and pushed the dilaudid. Pts with dementia often have trouble recognizing and expressing pain, and sometimes they think that if they tell you they’re not hurting, they can go home faster. Sure enough, five minutes later she was sleeping like a baby, had peed another liter without freaking out, and had gone from shallow rapid breathing to deeper, regular breathing.

So I sent the CNA off to the charge nurse to be reassigned, and gave her round-the-clock dilaudid coverage. She woke up nicely between doses, no thrashing, coughed on command, and gradually improved to the point that she could get up to the bedside commode.

Pain control is a big deal. And it amazes me that, with all her WebMD recommendations for care, her daughter hadn’t seemed to pick up on her pain. She didn’t need a sitter for the rest of the day.

Her two other daughters dropped by that afternoon. One was even more anxious than the first, terrified of the hospital, terrified of her mother’s condition, not wanting to talk about any of it. The other was fairly laid-back, having worked for a nursing home for a long time, and was mostly stressed out because her sisters were stressed out.

The pt did have a seizure. It started with her eyes jerking to the left, which apparently is her characteristic onset symptom; her daughter called me in, and I gave her Ativan to break the seizure as it kicked in, so she ended up having a few seconds of genuine tonic-clonic seizing before lapsing into post-ictal grogginess.

About 1300, just after my hastily-shoveled lunch of microwave burrito and cottage cheese, the charge nurse cornered me. “I hate to do this,” she said, “but we have a new pt coming in and nobody to admit them. Can you give your tele lady to this other nurse, and admit?”

Charge just seems like a position where you have to constantly deliver bad news and ask people for huge favors. I will definitely want to train for charge someday, but I also dread the thought of having to tell someone that I’m screwing them over because their assignment is too easy and I need somebody to land a clusterfuck and you’re it.

So I gave report and handed off my cute little lady, who was chugging her fifth Diet Dr. Pepper, and took report from the emergency room on a frequent flier.

This poor guy has been in the hospital five times already this year, and god knows how many times last year. He has some kind of GI bleed, probably in his small intestine, which recurs regularly for no reason anybody can pin down—no history of alcohol, no NSAID use, no fucking idea. Last year he had what our GI docs call the “million-dollar workup,” a cascade of diagnostic tests culminating in a literal swallowed camera capsule that films your entire gut as it passes through. No results.

This time his hematocrit was really, really low. I gave him several blood products and wiped his ass a few times while he shit out the last of the blood, and his GI bleed was over—just a couple days of blood transfusion and crit checks, and he’d be back home with his mystery bleed, happy as you please. He’s been here so often that the docs ordered him a full meal plan as soon as his crit stabilized, recognizing his telltale signs of recovery. Usually GI bleeders have to wait a while to eat… we just know that this poor guy is done bleeding once he starts getting hungry, and there’s no use in keeping him ravenous all the way up to discharge.

We did an EGD though, because we kind of have to, because it would be shitty to miss a bleeding ulcer just because he’s never had one before, and have him perf his stomach and die. It was a five-minute affair and he was damn near awake for the whole thing—he said he was used to it by now. That is not a thing I can imagine getting used to. He had a beautiful pink happy stomach lining though. His breakfast of scrambled eggs was still intact and recognizable and made me extremely hungry. I really need to start bringing multiple freezer burritos per shift.

I got hiccups toward the end of shift. I used to get them all the time on nights, usually between three and four in the morning, big whooping hiccups that sounded like some kind of lost stork wandering the darkened hallways calling for its young. My coworkers used to make relentless fun of me. Well, guess what, these coworkers also make fun of me when I start yelling HOOP uncontrollably in the middle of shift.

I could close my mouth and kind of muffle them, but that hurts. So fuck you, I’m gonna contribute to noise pollution, and you can all suck it and/or wear earplugs.

I hope this doesn’t become a regular thing.

At 1500 shift change, the new charge nurse dropped by and poked her head into the room. The pt’s daughter gasped. “Oh my god, I didn’t know you worked here now!” Turns out, this particular charge nurse once directed the adult family care center where my pt’s mother spent her declining years, had known my pt since she was a teenager, and had held all three anxious daughters while they were all still in diapers.  There was a distinct change in the dynamic after that—they seemed to trust us more, now that their old friend was in charge, and I didn’t have to enforce boundaries quite so stringently.

It’s a small fucking world, my friends. I never met this charge nurse before I started working here, and now here I am, taking care of a pt she practically raised, whose daughter I knew from another facility as a pt caregiver. This isn’t a huge city/region (technically the two facilities are in different cities, part of the sprawl of the central metro), but I am always amazed at how often I run into nurses I know from other places, pts I took care of years ago, and people I have to pretend not to recognize lest I violate HIPAA or make shit awkward.

Been checking up on my abd guy. Yeah, he’s still alive. Why, how, I’m not sure. His hemorrhagic necrotizing pancreatitis and total kidney failure have reduced his quality of life to “constant torture when he’s not in a coma.” Lots of legal pushing later, and they’ve assigned him a guardian ad litem… who now has to jump through a million legal hoops and decide whether or not to let him just die.

It’s not an easy choice. He’s very far removed from anyone who could speak for him. His roommate, who only realized he was hospitalized because nobody was using the toilet paper for three days, says he has a daughter somewhere…. But he’s never said her name, just called her ‘my daughter’. He left no living will, no advance directive, nobody with a durable power of attorney.

His coworkers keep coming by to check on him. They’ve all shelled out to get a rental storage unit for his belongings; they show up in their work uniforms, still sweaty and obviously exhausted from their shifts, to stand by his bedside for a few moments and tell him what’s going on at work. We can’t tell if he understands any of it. He opens his eyes sometimes to painful stimuli.

They obviously care about him a lot, and to me this means something. Most people who suffer from major addictions don’t have a lot of people who care about them; they sever their ties, drive away their families, and are slowly devoured by whatever chemical owns them, alone. Even recovering addicts usually spend a little while with their only friends being fellow recovering addicts, if they’ve been addicted for some time. At least that’s what it feels like.

But it’s telling that this guy, despite being a profound alcoholic, separated from family and friends, struggling with addiction, is still someone that his coworkers care about. They’ve worked with him for a long time. Some of them know that he had big issues with alcohol, and have delicately made the awkward effort to inform his nurses so we can “make sure that gets taken care of too.” They really miss him, and that means something to me—even feeling isolated, even in the throes of addiction, even sweating on his deathbed… he (like many other addicts) is still loved. And they are so glad to see him get help that they’re holding out hope he’ll recover, even though he’s long past the point where his death can be more than delayed.

It breaks my heart. I wish he’d got help sooner. He would have been surrounded with love.

In the meantime, all I can really hope for him is that he dies soon, and quickly. Maybe somebody will show up for him that has some legal authority.

Fucking depressing, man. On a bright note, today one of the consulting MDs accidentally locked himself into the staff bathroom, jamming the doorknob somehow. While the environmental services guys scrambled to try and get him out, he kept up a steady litany of exhortations and pleas: “You guys have to hurry, I gotta get out of here. I took a power dump in here. You gotta get me out, guys. Take off the hinges…”

I’d laugh harder if I didn’t occasionally get locked in a room with a pt who’s shitting uncontrollably. The aftermath of a three-pounder is nothing you wanna breathe in a closed space.