Every morning at my main facility we all cluster around the front station, receive our assignments, collect our walkie-talkies, and get a quick summary of the daily shift news. Yesterday’s morning started out very strangely for me, because I was unusually late and clocked in at 0645 exactly, when group report starts. This meant that by the time I made it to the front desk, everyone else already knew who I’d be taking care of, and they all watched me approach with this blend of pity and relief that told me right away what was about to happen.
I was getting an albatross.
I’ve only been working on this particular ICU for about six months, so I only have about three pts in my frequent-flyer nemesis roster. You get these pts by being unusually good at managing their bullshit, by being newer than everyone else and therefore not having been “fired” yet from the pt’s care team, or by having some other connection to them (speak their language, look like their beloved granddaughter, know how to pack their huge gross chronic wound) that makes it easier for you to take the assignment than for someone else. Everyone gets frequent fliers, and sometimes they become like mascots, or cute but frustrating pets, or (in rare cases) like part of the family.
Sometimes, though, they are mind-breaking time sinks with poor boundaries and unrealistic expectations of care and revolving-door care issues. They are chronically ill and rarely compliant. They have complicated needs that make it difficult to transfer or discharge them: mechanically ventilated at home, profoundly noncompliant with dialysis, covered in massive wounds, deathfat. Somehow they never fucking die.
Crowbarrens* is that guy. His metal-as-fuck name (I wish I could share the real thing) belies his whiny needy bitch-ass behavior and ready nurse-hitting fist. Bedbound at home with his neurodegenerative disease, he lives off his slavishly devoted wife, whom he bitches at and curses almost constantly, even when she’s not there. He hits; he demands female staff; he refuses to use a call bell and prefers to scream. His continual anxiety issues make him feel eternally short of breath, and his endless gargled litany of I CAN’T BREATHE, I CAN’T BREATHE doesn’t help much either. He uses his home ventilator with an uncuffed trach that allows him to eat, which he does every chance he gets, so he’s enormous. His tiny wife tries to placate him with food when he starts hitting her.
I don’t know why the hell they haven’t been broken up yet by some legal loophole. He returns to our ICU every three to four weeks like clockwork and is here for three to six days, minimum. This is because his wife gets frustrated and exhausted—he doesn’t let her sleep or leave the house, either—and calls 911 with some excuse, usually shortness of breath. Then she spends the few days of respite stocking the house, cleaning, sleeping, and getting ready to resume care for this complete turd of a human who will come back to her home and slap her around whenever she brings him anything he asks for.
Rumor has it, a few years back she snapped and took a baseball bat to him. Then she called 911 and reported that she had assaulted her husband, and meekly accompanied him to the hospital to await judgement; the social workers declined to get Adult Protective Services involved on grounds of “fucker had it coming.” I have no idea how true this is, but everyone believes it, which should tell you something about Crowbarrens.
What that means for his caregivers is constant verbal abuse, refused care, hitting, and bellowed orders. Nothing relieves his shortness of breath except heavy sedation. You can drug him into a stupor and he will still call out occasionally: I CAN’T BREATHE. We manage this with an endless parade of anxiolytics, opioids (to reduce respiratory drive), nebulized respiratory medications piped through his ventilator circuit, and verbal feedback on his oxygenation status (always 100%) and tidal volumes (always 850mL+). The distress is entirely perceived. Knowing this doesn’t help very much.
He’s my albatross because I am the tallest and meanest. (I’m not really the tallest anymore—I used to work on a unit where I was the only gangly white girl on a unit of tiny, shapely Filipina nurses and tiny, ancient Filipina senior nurses, so at 5’8” I was practically a human skyscraper. I come by the meanest part honestly though.) My whole family is insane and I am very accustomed to dealing with behaviorally difficult people, so when I get a Crowbarrens I kinda go for a three-part approach:
--First I try limit-setting and sharply defined boundaries. I will come into the room once every fifteen minutes; I will suction your trach once every hour. If I see anything alarming on the monitor or I have something to bring you, I will come more often than fifteen minutes, but you’ll see me or someone I send AT LEAST every fifteen minutes. I won’t suction your trach any more often because over-suctioning causes irritation, which will make you feel more short of breath. Every choice is presented not as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but as ‘now’ or ‘later’.
--Failing that, I have the pt repeat the boundaries back to me, simplifying as necessary. When will I be coming back to the room? How do you call when you need me? Why are we going to wait a little longer on the trach suctioning? If their memory is too bad to handle a fifteen-minute break without forgetting, I start repeating a very rigid script instead of having them repeat back, validating concerns but not acting on them. Your oxygen level is 100% and you’re moving eight liters of air with each breath, which is very good. You must feel very short of breath, considering all the suctioning we’ve done lately, so I’m going to wait a little longer before I tickle your throat again.
--If that’s not successful, I have two options, depending on whether the pt is really too brain-fucked to comprehend anything or is just being a manipulative ass. In the former case, I go completely apeshit and spend the whole shift wishing I could die and/or binge on Netflix instead of being at work. In the latter case, I assume there’s some personality disorder on the same spectrum with borderline, and foster a desperate sense of dependency and attachment. This is not at all healthy, I’m sure, but there you have it: Crowbarrens and his wife haven’t fired me yet, and even though I am the number-one asshole on the unit and force him to do awful things like ‘sit in a chair’ and ‘take pills’ and ‘fear my disapproval so much that he keeps his hands to himself’, he still asks for me by name.
So that was my day. Somebody had loaded him with bowel medications and he was shitting like Mt. St. Helens every forty-five minutes. Most of the boundaries and limits from the last visit held nicely, though, and as long as I held up my end of the bargain—every fifteen minutes, without fail—he behaved himself and even calmed down when I told him his breathing was fine.
HD lady was, some fucking how, still alive. She even woke up enough to start refusing dialysis and telling her kids she's ready to die. Yeah, they took her down for another washout, patched her gut, and now we're just waiting for the next hose to pop.
I could NOT believe she was still alive. Not only should that last leak have killed her, but anybody with decision-making power should have seen the amount of Saw-level torture we're putting her through and called a halt. God save us all from the mercy of our grandchildren.
My other pt was a cute old guy who had gone into flash pulmonary edema a couple days after having a lobe of his lung removed because of a lump. He was intubated and sedated and his family was sweet and anxious. Lots of education about his condition, pathophysiology, and medical needs. The intensivist did a speed-bronchoscopy at his bedside, sucked out a few mucus plugs, and declared him “probably ready to extubate tomorrow.” He was sicker than Crowbarrens, but much much less work.
After the 1500 shift change I finally got my lunch break, and spent it unconscious. From outside the break room, as I drifted off, I could hear Crowbarrens yelling. Fuck you, old guy. Take a fifteen-minute break from swinging at people, okay?
At 1530, as I emerged blinking and drool-crusted from the break room with pillow-lines on my face, my HD lady was extubated to comfort-only care. Her family had finally read the writing on the wall, and agreed to let her go.
She woke up a little after they extubated her, and was able to say a few words to her husband before she passed: "Love you, ???? bear. Love you sweetie."
I didn't catch all of it. Her whole family gathered in the room, grieving. She was loved.
Later I got the hell into it with one of the CNAs. She is very experienced and has worked on that unit for a long time, and is in nursing school, but this seems to manifest in her as a) she knows fucking everything and tries to tell you what to do and b) she is almost impossible to pin down for turns and clean-ups and other mundane chores. There is a standing rule that if a CNA comes to help a nurse and the nurse isn’t ready to do the job, the CNA moves on to the next chore and comes back whenever.
To this CNA, that means if I call her up and ask her to grab a bottom sheet while I grab the wipes and then meet me in room 20 to clean up a poopslide, my lack of sheet & wipes means I’m “not ready” and she’s not obliged to help me. Plus, if I call her and she’s busy but “will be there in a bit,” that means she’ll sweep by in anywhere from five to thirty minutes and if I’m not standing at the bedside with the whole room ready to go, instead of calling me back, she just moves on. She also bails on any cleanup or chore the moment the absolute essentials are done, leaving me with a trash can full of shit, a half-naked patient whose crotch I’m still wiping, and a pile of unshod pillows that will need cases put on before I can use them to prop up the pt’s arms and legs.
The critical parts, to her, are the parts where we take turns lifting the pt to wipe ass and roll the laundry out of the way, then put clean laundry and two pillows under their butt. The rest is for me to do. She’s busy, you see.
So as the intensivist set up next door for his speed-bronch, calling me repeatedly so he could get his job done, I was still up to my elbows in Crowbarrens’s panniculus, trying to get him clean enough and decent enough to leave him alone for thirty minutes, breathing the incredible stink of the trash can full of shit that the fucking CNA had actively declined to carry across the hall and throw away on her way out. What would have taken two people maybe five minutes to finish up took me fifteen, during which time the intensivist cooled his heels. I didn’t get the room finished until after the bronch, which meant the room was filthy and reeking when the pt’s wife showed up to visit.
CNA work is incredibly exhausting and difficult. It’s easy to burn out. It can be tricky to negotiate when you have different ideas about what you’re supposed to do. I have met very few CNAs I didn’t respect enormously. But her bare-minimum practice makes my job incredibly hard sometimes, and I definitely caught her in the hallway later and Had Words. She expressed that I was a crazy and demanding asshole and that my expectation that she would grab laundry on the way to bed changes and help finish cleanups was completely unrealistic. I said I would arrange to have everything at the bedside when I called her, but that I expected her to follow up with me if I wasn’t in the room more than ten minutes after my first call, and that I expected her to stick with cleanups until the room was either moderately decent for family to see, or until the nurse specifically said she wasn’t needed anymore.
This is the extent of my conflict management skills. She tentatively agreed but also said she expected me to “behave myself.” Not sure what that means exactly.
It set a bad tone for the end of my shift. I walked back into Crowbarrens’s room, caught him berating his wife, and chewed him out until he actually apologized. I must have looked like some kind of glass-eyed monster. Then I sat outside the room, making stern eye contact with him the whole time until my relief came on. He did not once complain of shortness of breath. I think he finally found something else to worry about.
Then I went home, opened my laptop, and fell asleep before I could even log into facebook. So that was my shift.