Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Week 3 Shift 1

I totally expected to get Crowbarrens back today, but I guess some other poor sucker got that assignment. I heard him yelling as soon as I got on the unit—I CAN’T BREEEEEATHE—but I ended up at the other end of the hall from him.

One of my pts is a lady with severe COPD from years of smoking. Her burned-out, scarred-up lungs barely open when she tries to breathe, and gross germy crap builds up in all the crevices and now she has pneumonia. Between her baseline COPD (which forces her to wear an oxygen cannula at home) and her plugged-up lungholes, carbon dioxide piled up in her body until her blood became acidic and her brain started to shut down from as a result.

It is actually pretty easy to keep your oxygen levels livable. Oxygen exchange from the little air sacs in the lungs to the blood vessels that snuggle up to them is really efficient, and even depleted air and blood have enough oxygen to keep you going for a little while. The hard part is getting rid of carbon dioxide, which is what actually triggers your breathing impulse—your oxygen level at normal health stays totally steady between breaths, but your CO2 rises and falls as you breathe, and between each breath the CO2 makes your blood more acidic until your brain triggers the next breath. Breathing is your body’s primary method of controlling its acidity, which is why I roll my eyes at fucking “alkaline diets” because a variation of a few tiny points of acid buildup can make you gasp like a carp.

I mean, yeah, you can make your whole body heavily alkaline if you puke/shit/breathe too much acid away. You can make yourself alkaline by hyperventilating. We call it ‘hyperventilating’ and not ‘hyperoxygenating’ because what makes you feel dizzy and sick is not too much oxygen, it’s too little carbon dioxide, and the process of removing poison gasses from an area is called ventilation.

Cancer and other major diseases tend to cause your blood to become acidic. This is because they are expensive for your body to maintain and compensate for. Cancer is hungry (all those cells multiplying out of control) and infections take tons of energy to fight, and when your body starts to get depleted of its energy sources, it’s forced to rely on a backup mechanism of energy production that produces tons of lactic acid. Which, of course, raises the acidity of your body. Making your body alkaline somehow would just mask the symptoms of the acidosis, if you could actually achieve it without your body just adjusting your breathing rate to maintain equilibrium.

At high acidity levels, many of your body’s proteins—that is, the power tools of your body, enzymes that look like molecular wrenches made for specific tasks—are unable to operate properly. Your brain fogs up and your organs start to take damage. Enough carbon dioxide, and you enter a state of narcosis and can’t be awakened.

When this happens because of carbon dioxide retention, we start by improving the ventilation. This usually means pressure-supported breathing, to force open the little air sacs and prevent them from collapsing during expiration, which would trap all that newly-CO2-laden air down in the lung where it can’t escape and be replaced with oxygenated air. Sometimes this means intubation, which allows us to tightly control pressure and volume; sometimes it means a bipap mask, which puffs air at two different pressures during inspiration and expiration, but is uncomfortable as all hell if you aren’t used to it.

So this lady is wearing a bipap mask to clear out her CO2, and is sleepin’ it off. She has restless leg syndrome, and apparently restless-everything syndrome, because at baseline she twitches constantly while sleeping (per her medical record) and let me tell you, she’s in there jerking around so hard her arms and legs keep flopping out of bed. She looks like a cat dreaming about fifty mice in a box.

My other pt I will give you only minimal information about, because they and their family members are likely to sue the hospital. Their radiology reports after a traumatic accident seem not to have been read correctly, and somehow everyone missed a large fracture, which caused them incredible pain for days before someone reviewed the case and discovered the fracture. One major surgery later, they are finally improving, but one of their relatives is an MD specialist and every time I go in the room I get cross-examined about medications, procedures, and test results. They are clearly looking for conflicting information to contribute to their lawsuit, and it is really unpleasant and pointless.

Pointless because when they take this case to court, they have everything they need to make their case—the exact number of times the pt used their pain-medicine button today (Patient-Controlled Analgesia is rad) really doesn’t have much bearing on whether the hospital is liable for the delay of care last week. I can’t give them any of the information they would need for legal purposes, and they have full rights and access to their entire medical record on request anyway. All I’m allowed to tell them is what I’m doing and what I’ve done—not what previous shifts have done, not what the doctors think, not what the full plan of care is—because as a nurse it’s outside my scope.

This is not exactly bolstering my pt’s trust in me as a caregiver. It sucks real bad.

Fortunately the social worker here is an angel clothed in human flesh and she spent about an hour in the room talking to the pt and their family. We are kind of teaming up to help make sure the “little things” get taken care of—parking validations, a chair for the family member on the phone by the hall window, calls to insurance companies and whatever else we can do. We’re not trying to cover up the fact that legal discussion is totally appropriate for their case (if I were them I would be looking for an attorney too), just trying to help them find some dimension of care that they don’t have to feel totally on guard about. This might sound disingenuous, but the fact is: after a bad outcome, the breach in trust between provider and patient can be incredibly detrimental to the pt’s further recovery. There’s a lingering fear that you might recognize from the last time you had to send back a dish at a restaurant: now that I’ve spoken up, even though I was in the right, will the servers spit in my food?

Which means that the little things, the pampering and attention to detail, are especially important for pts who have, or feel that they have, had wrongs done to them. It’s emotionally strenuous to be lying in bed with an awful disease or injury, thinking about how someone dropped the ball and caused you more pain and suffering, and wondering if the other staff will neglect or injure you as soon as you let down your guard. Like, even if you’re fucking crazy and nobody did a damn thing to you, your anxiety is gonna spike out the roof and you’re going to drive your caregivers crazy trying to monitor their every move… which sometimes means you’re cruising WebMD at the hospital because you feel like you need to provide your own care.

And, I mean, that loss of trust is sometimes legit. If somebody lops off the wrong leg or injects your kid with poison, you’re going to be extremely distrustful of medicine in general for a while, and nobody can fucking blame you. But you’re still in that awful helpless position of knowing that you still need medical care, and there’s the rub.

So if your immediate care providers, your nurses and other staff, can win your trust back a little at a time, and give you a little bit of a chance to relax, that’s a big deal. If you get every medication explained, bottomless ice water that never seems to hit empty, advance notice every time anyone touches you, and the question what else can I do for you every time anyone leaves your room, you start to forget that you’re supposed to be on guard, and you get to feel for a little while like someone is genuinely watching out for you again.

Is this time-consuming in the extreme? You fucking goddamn bet. Are you gonna get the Disney treatment if my other pt is on the verge of coding? No fucking way in hell. Am I still going to meet your basic care needs and tell you what’s going on in excruciating detail, even if I don’t have time to fluff your pillows and make caring faces at you? Well fuck, I’m writing all this.

Anyway. The day got better once that connection was made. The family is sleeping now.

A pt down the hall came in crazy—an alcoholic who quit in the ‘90s by switching to speed and who has recently been using lots of PCP. His adult son apparently got a weird phone call earlier today and went by to check on him, found him seizing, and called 911. Earlier this shift the PCP guy woke the hell up on full sedation, self-extubated, kicked his son in the head, bit a nurse, and gave himself a head laceration by beating his face against the side of the bed. The son came staggering down my way, shaken up pretty hard, terrified that his father would die and livid that his father was putting him through this mess again. He shored up at my end of the hallway and told me the whole story of his father’s sad and miserable life, while I charted and let him vent.

I mean, I got a shitty family too. Not angel-dust punch-a-nurse shitty, but shitty enough that I know what that helpless anger and fear feels like, and how useless it is when people try to give you advice or even really react emotionally to the situation (which just makes you feel ashamed of Dear Old Dad again). All I want when I’m venting is for somebody to laugh incredulously at how dumb Dear Old Dad was this time around, and acknowledge that the whole situation is shit but what can you do. I hope it’s the same for this dude. He certainly seemed to feel better after getting it off his chest, and by the time the RT team (plus five adorable duckling students) got his dad re-intubated, he was back on his metaphorical feet.

It sucks, man. The dude looked a little like Chris Pratt with an extra twenty pounds. I could definitely put myself in his shoes and I wish I could fix his dipshit dad for him.

About an hour later somebody called me down to Crowbarrens’s room to “talk to him,” which is both the highest possible praise and the worst possible fate. We had a nice conversation and then I spent about twenty minutes trying to teach his nurse for the day about limit-setting and boundaries. I think I really scared him the other day when I lost my cool at him, though. He was very upset that I wasn’t his nurse (see: unhealthy dependence as patient management tactic) and even more upset when I told him (this is a lie) that I deliberately didn’t take him today because I was really bothered by the way he yelled at his wife, and that if he could earn back my trust I’d be glad to take him as a pt again. He nodded eagerly. No idea whether this will impact his actual behavior in any meaningful way, but wouldn’t it be nice?

He only wants me as his nurse because I made him think that he “earned” my positive regard, and now he fears losing it. This is a shockingly effective tactic with patients who suffer—and make staff suffer—with control issues. I learned it from my mother’s second husband, who was a prison guard for a while, and I have used it with a number of really difficult pts. I feel ethically conflicted about it, but honestly, by the time somebody reaches the point that you have to make them worry about losing your respect so they won’t punch you, they probably aren’t capable of having healthy human relationships.

(This will backfire violently if Crowbarrens actually shapes up, because then I will be his nurse forever in perpetuity until he dies, which will probably be three days before I start collecting social security. Albatrosses live forever.)

Another fun pt story that’s been going on here lately: a woman with a history of ETOH (the polite way to say alcoholism) who is in catastrophic liver failure and keeps bleeding out. She had some transfemoral procedure—I think a liver embolization for a major bleed—and the insertion site at her groin has re-bled five times now. Violently. Spurtingly, even. She has almost no platelets, negligible clotting factors, and hepatic encephalopathy so intense she thinks she’s in Guam being tortured by insurgents (??????). Today she was transferred back from the medical/surgical floor with another rebleed, a softball-sized hematoma in her groin that pulsed like an alien egg sac. I wonder how much longer until the blood bank cuts her off—she’s had something like, what, seventy-five blood products in the space of a month? And she’s end-stage liver failure and an active drinker, so she’s not eligible for a transplant. This will not end well.

On the bright side, all the suction modules in her room will get a nice thorough cleaning, because she spurted blood everywhere in that general vicinity. Nobody goes in that room without every piece of protective gear they can find—she’s also Hep C positive.

Remind me some time to go into the mechanisms of alcoholism and liver failure and how it makes you bleed, especially from the throat and the intestines. I am too tired to keep typing anymore.


  1. It's amazing how well you manage to deal with such tough shifts. Definitely gave me something to think about re: boundaries in difficult-patient care.

  2. Confession time: I do resource gathering and case management for a few people, and had to use your Crowbarrens-handling method with one of them, a multi-drug user trying to quit who turned out to also be unmedicated bipolar.

    Unfortunately I didn't do the boundary-setting well enough, and when he went totally manic and I fired him, he started sending me creepy and threatening messages on whatever social media messenger he had me on.

    I still get scared when I hear he's been around. Just so readers are aware, this technique is really difficult and can backfire badly if you are not super careful.

    (I refuse to take addiction cases anymore, so hopefully that won't happen again.)

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