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.
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