I had Friday off. I spent it on meaningless bullshit and faffery, for the most part; my sister and I had a meeting with her new guidance counselor to schedule some aptitude testing and discuss tutoring/counseling options for the next week. She’s settling in well—learning things like “how to make a sandwich” and “how to use a bus.” I feel like I’ve been working almost every day since she arrived.
Saturday morning I assumed the role of first admit nurse, then took report on one pt, a frequent flyer who has been notorious for her poor adherence to heart failure medications and home bipap use. She is cared for almost entirely by her devoted son, who does a fine job except that she refuses a lot of care, and hits. Or did. Last time she was here we put her on a horse-tranquilizing dose of Paxil, and this time around she’s been fairly pleasant and cooperative.
Her son is a very gentle sort, a little bit Bob Ross and a little bit hapless victim, so I was quite surprised to hear him call the Paxil her “anti-bitch pills.” He said it in such a self-deprecating way that it took me a moment to realize he was making a joke. I suspect that his life has changed a lot for the better since we started her on the meds.
She hadn’t been handling her bipap well lately, though, so not only had she collected lots of carbon dioxide, but her heart failure was really acting up. Explaining this will take a little bit of pathophysiology, so buckle in.
The old ICU saying goes: if you ain’t got pressure, you ain’t got shit. Blood pressure is so crucial to survival that we’ve even changed our CPR methods to emphasize compressions—pressing on the heart to maintain some blood pressure—and decreased the whole rescue-breathing thing to “meh, if you have time, but don’t stop compressions.” Oxygenation and ventilation (remember, ventilation refers to airing out the carbon dioxide in your blood) are important, but without pressure, you can’t get the oxygen to the tissues or return CO2-laden blood from the tissues. And your body can deal with a little low oxygen or high CO2 (your blood keeps a huge amount of oxygen after its first pump-through!), but not with a loss of pressure.
But what if you have too much pressure? High blood pressure makes tiny tears in your veins, which scab and scar and become susceptible to clots. Not as damaging as high blood sugar, which is like knives in your blood, but it will definitely tear you up inside. And if your blood pressure gets too high, you might blow a blood vessel in your brain—you will typically feel a headache only once it’s too late to do more than contain the bleed. High blood pressure is a silent killer.
What about if you have a pressure imbalance? That’s what’s happening to this lady. She has an obstructive breathing disease, with nasty sleep apnea that traps air in her lungs while she sleeps. The pressure in her lungs grows and grows as her body struggles to overcome her collapsed airways, until finally the air escapes with a whoosh and she can start the process of gasping for more air. There’s a reason people with sleep apnea are always tired and shitty-feeling: they spend their nights suffocating.
Meanwhile, the right side of the heart, which pumps blood into the lungs to be oxygenated, has to pump against a huge amount of pressure. As the pressure grows in the lungs, the blood has to be squeeeeeezed in with incredible force, and eventually the right side of the heart blows out like a stepped-on water balloon, becoming weak and floppy, and struggling to empty itself so more blood can return from the body. So blood backs up in the body, and the water that would normally be peed away by the kidneys just squeezes out into your tissues instead. Usually the lower part of your body first. People with right-sided heart failure get giant, swollen ogre legs, which get so stretched out they form big bubbly scars where water is tucked away, never to be returned to the bloodstream again.
One of the most crucial treatments for this is a diuretic, a water pill that convinces the kidneys to pee extra water away while it has the chance, since it’ll take a lot more work for the body to get water all the way back around to the kidneys again. So if you are, say, a grouchy old lady who hits nurses and doesn’t believe in taking her pills, pretty soon you’re retaining more water than New Orleans in hurricane season. And if your bipap is lying in a drawer while you sleep, your CO2 rises, and you become too groggy from CO2 poisoning to wake up and breathe.
CPAP and BiPAP can help a lot with this too. CPAP gives a little boost of air pressure to keep the airways open; BiPAP uses two different pressure levels, one for inspiration and the other for expiration. The increase in pressure is absolutely minimal compared to the whole “lungs stuck shut” pressure differential, and the overall result is that the lungs stay open, the volume of air (and thus the ventilation of CO2) is maximized, and the pt is wildly uncomfortable for the first little bit and then suddenly realizes they can breathe again. Nobody wants to wear a mask over their face… until they realize they can finally sleep like a real human with the mask on.
So she came in to the hospital nearly comatose, swollen up like a marshmallow in the microwave, smelling like the inside of a hobo’s shoe. I have a personal thing about stinky pts: I want them to be clean. I will make them clean if it kills me. Under no circumstances short of immediate, life-threatening danger will I allow my pts to lie in their filth with a baguette’s worth of yeasty crust on their scalp and a gunt-tuck full of smegma the texture and color of butterscotch pudding. If you come into my merciful care and your vagina is oozing all-natural Cheez Wiz, you had better get ready to spread.
I shoved a bedpan under her head and shoulders and soaked her in warm soapy water up to the ears, periodically sloshing more over her scalp and dumping the detritus in the toilet to be replaced with more. Once the water started clearing up, I emptied half a bottle of chlorhexadine mouthwash into the next round, and let that seep through the microbial rainforest of her ratty hair until the tectonic plates of yeast-plaque gave up and let go. The scalp underneath was raw and pink and looked like a fresh pork chop with a little incidental gray hair growing out of it.
All her folds I scrubbed, with the help of the long-suffering CNA, lashing the creases with antifungal powder and lining them with folded absorbent pads. The less said about her lady parts the better, but I can’t imagine how anyone could have dustflaps that yeast-eaten and not cry like a kicked dog every time they took a piss.
Her son came in near the end of the scrub-a-thon and gaped. “She never lets me wash her,” he said. “The last time I tried, she hit me and said she’d be dead before anybody washed her hair again.”
“Well, unconscious,” I said, and added that if she really wanted to stay filthy she was going to have to make sure she took her medicine so she wouldn’t become unconscious and be at the mercy of nurses again.
Then I got a call from the charge nurse: a rapid response from upstairs would be my admit, an alcoholic gentleman who had come in with pancreatitis three days before, gone into massive withdrawal, and then become so short of breath that he was being emergently intubated upstairs.
I knew right away it was going to be a clusterfuck. The intensivist was up to his neck in the drowned kid’s case, and was in the middle of a chest tube insertion that would need to be followed by a bronchoscopy. His acute lung injury was reaching the point where he couldn’t maintain decent oxygen levels, let alone ventilate effectively. Worse, he’d started to show signs of severe brain injury, small seizures that ramped up throughout the day until (right around the time I left) he was in status epilepticus, a massive seizure storm that we couldn’t seem to get under control. Needless to say, if my guy was going to be trouble, he was going to be my trouble.
Naturally, he showed up looking like yesterday’s shit. Blood pressure tanking, legs cold and mottled, foley catheter having drained less than 5mL of urine per hour (we start worrying at 30mL/hr) for the last six hours, nostrils flaring to suck in more air even while the ventilator forced each breath in. His anion gap—a measure of his energy status on the cellular level—was incredibly elevated, along with his blood glucose, which suggested that his sugar was staying in his blood rather than being eaten by his cells. His body was acidotic, which supported that idea—starving cells shit out torrents of lactic acid—but, weirdly, his potassium levels were low.
Those of you who have been following this blog for a bit have already been bashed over the head with the relationship between insulin, sugar, and potassium, but I will explain it again for the new admits. Insulin isn’t a magic anti-sugar substance—it’s just the key that opens your cells’ mouths so they can eat the sugar out of your blood. It also lets them eat potassium, which is a positive anion that keeps the inside of the cell electrically imbalanced against the outside (where negative sodium ions and other such things float around). Between the potassium, which is the electricity that powers the cells’ pumps, and the sugar, which is the gasoline that powers their engines, insulin keeps your cells purring along like that Nissan 240Z pignose you had in college and will never forget.
(I did not have that car. I barely know what that car is. My husband had that car and still obsessively draws pictures of it, rhapsodizes about it, and laments its demise to this day. He likes engines a lot and likes to stay up late at night and look at pictures of old Soviet planes until three in the morning, hurriedly switching windows back to wholesome Miata portraiture when I stumble to the kitchen for a glass of water. This is a dumb derail and I will stop.)
If there’s not enough insulin, or if your cells have become resistant to insulin, your blood sugar will soar as your cells starve. Potassium lingers in the blood, slowly throwing off the balance of positive and negative until muscle cells—especially heart muscle cells—can’t function properly. As your cells rip themselves to pieces, looking for anything they can burn for energy, pouring out lactic acid diarrhea from eating their own garbage, your heart begins to short out and beat erratically.
So it was really weird that he was hypokalemic—LOW on potassium. Especially since his kidneys had started failing, and thus weren’t able to dump any potassium. Even weirder, his lactic acid levels were still fairly low. (I can tell you now, days and days later, that even nephrology was never quite able to pin down the reason behind the rhyme with this one. Actual quote, with warning for medical blather: “Anion gap acidosis. The large anion gap is unexplained by the minimally elevated lactate or phosphorus level. The acidosis is larger than the ABG or serum bicarb suggests since he is currently receiving 180 mEq per day of sodium bicarbonate. Doubt ketosis. Doubt salicylate at this point in hospitalization. Because of ileus, could possiblly have d lacate. No heavy lorazepam (he did have several doses IV) or other propylene glycol ingestion.”)
But all this weirdness aside, I can tell you he was sicker than shit. His abdomen was HUGELY distended and hard to the touch. It’s not uncommon for people with pancreatitis to have swollen, painful bellies—really, that’s usually what brings them in—but this was just out of control. I laid him flat to turn him, and his blood pressure bombed. His ice-cold, mottled legs had no pulses. I sat him back up and he recovered his blood pressure, and I developed a hunch.
Low blood pressure from sepsis isn’t positional. Positional hypotension usually means that either the aorta is so scarred up (usually from smoking) that the heart can’t push blood hard enough to reach the brain when you stand up, or that something is crushing your heart in one position and not in another position. I suspected abdominal compartment syndrome.
Compartment syndrome is what happens when some part of your body is so swollen that it fills up its entire "compartment" and crushes itself, preventing blood from circulating to the tissue. Compartment syndrome in an arm or a leg can result in losing the limb, and the primary treatment is a fasciotomy: a deep slash that opens the muscle sheath-- the fascia-- so the swollen tissue has somewhere to expand to.
But what if you have massive pancreatitis, and your intestines are so swollen they're crushing all your internal organs, blocking your aorta, preventing blood from returning to your heart, and blocking any blood flow to themselves at all?
One carefully worded discussion with the intensivist-- who was moving the drowned boy into a rotoprone bed, which would rock him gently face-down to help drain his lungs and keep them open-- I got permission to put in a consult by a GI surgeon. "If he's pissed," said the intensivist, "I'm gonna tell him it was the pushy nurse that put in that order." We get along well and are facebook friends, but he's testy when pressed and haaaates being told what to do.
Whatever. Put in the consult with a note of my own-- STAT PLEASE SUSPECT ABD COMPARTMENT SYNDROME-- and within an hour the GI surgeon had cleared his slate and called in the team for an open abdomen washout.
He returned three hours later with his guts still open. A plastic bag contained his bright-red, massively swollen small intestine, sutured to the edges of his incision. Gooey abdominal fluid poured from every crease and seam. His urine output picked up a little, but to this date he hasn't recovered kidney function yet. His legs turned pink again, and his breathing eased. His guts had been crushing him to death.
I had him almost stable by the time night shift arrived. I gave report, helped clean and turn and mop his juices out of the bed, and staggered out of the hospital. I was so tired I slept in my car for an hour before I could drive home.
I will tell you all more about his care and progress tomorrow, and hopefully get caught up completely, as I finally DON'T work tomorrow. For now, I will tell you that there is an actual photograph of his guts posted on my Patreon, and that shit only gets crazier.
Rachel was readmitted that day. She was having sharp pleural pains in her side, and she has a pneumothorax. She's getting another chest tube, but isn't expected to stay long. She's gained ten pounds since discharge and is as sweet as ever.
A forty-five-year-old woman died that day of sudden-onset pneumonia with hypoxia. We are all a little stressed over all these young, incredibly sick pts.