After six days off to hang out with my middle sister, the one who works as a CNA, and get my social life on (it's very sad and lame and involves babysitting and eating teriyaki), I went back to work this morning for a stretch of three days.
Not a half-bad shift. I took report on a man who kept having recurring pleural effusions-- buildups of fluid in the space between the lung and the chest wall-- and who had, because of a history of facial lymphoma that made docs suspect possible cancer, undergone a VATS procedure a couple of days ago. VATS is a Video-Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgery, and can be used for everything from chopping out part of your lung to fixing a hiatal hernia. In this case, surgeons had burrowed a camera into this guy's chest, scraped out chunks of lung and lung-lining, and gnawed open a little window for the gooey effusion fluid to leak out of so it won't squish his lung. This procedure actually comes with quite a bit of pain, and often requires chest tubes for drainage afterward, which continues the pain factor until the chest tube is pulled out.
Your body doesn't like having anything shoved between its ribs and/or into its thorax. Nothing that digs around in your chest is going to feel good.
This poor dude had a genuine sensitivity to opioids. You know all those pts who insist that they're allergic to all pain medications except that one that begins with D? It's virtually impossible to be allergic to all opioids except one. All of anything except one, really. It's like being allergic to all beef except filet mignon. In this guy's case, every opioid we'd tried on him resulted in tremendous nausea and vomiting, so we were keeping him tanked up on tramadol-- an opioid-like painkiller that often spares its victims the side effects of morphine, although it isn't as effective against severe acute pain-- and tylenol (paracetamol), which potentiates the tramadol and provides a bit of pain relief on its own. As a result, he was hurting.
The biopsy came back while we were having a walk around the unit: no cancer. The walk around the unit wasn't much fun for him, though. After a thoracic surgery it's crucial that patients walk around and keep moving, or else their lungs's little air sacs collapse and they get pneumonia, and fluids build up instead of sloshing around where the chest tube can drain them, and in time even the heart's output drops dramatically. The human body is kind of like a car: if it sits in the garage, it's gonna be useless pretty soon. Even a few hours without breathing exercises and a brisk walk can earn a post-surgical pt a fever, which is the body's natural response to having its lungs close up.
So a lot of times my job is to make my pts miserable by flogging them up and down the halls to keep them from dying. They hate this, by the way. Moving is painful, no matter how much pain medication I give; walking is exhausting, even with the cardiac walker that lets you lean on your arms instead of your hands. One of the hardest-earned skills in an ICU nurse's repertoire is the combination of energy, sweet-talking, brutality, and limit-watching perceptiveness it takes to get a hurting, pissed-off, six-and-a-half-foot-tall man out of bed when he wants to watch the news instead.
This dude, though, propped himself up on the cardiac walker and took the full unit circle at damn near a sprint. He panted and sweated, but he insisted his pain was manageable, and his chest tube dumped a good 50mL of fluid while he was huffing his way down the hall like he'd stolen the oxygen tank he was sucking down at four liters per minute. The cardiothoracic surgeon passed us in the hall, did a double-take, and downgraded the guy to telemetry status then and there. So I got to hand him off to a tele nurse in time for the 1500 shift change.
My other pt was a frequent flyer of the pleasant variety-- all the dialysis nurses dropped by to say hi as his assigned dialysis nurse took him off peritoneal dialysis for the day. He really got the short end of the health stick. Before he was fifteen, some unknown genetic disease had shredded his kidneys and started in on the rest of his vasculature; after this he received a transplant, which failed, and then had two dialysis fistulas fail, had a series of myocardial infarctions (MIs, generally known as heart attacks), got stents on his stents distal to his other stents, and finally was deemed so sick he needed bypass surgery before the age of forty-five.
I got him the day after the surgeons had gravely informed him that he wasn't eligible for a bypass surgery, because none of the other veins in his body were in good enough shape to use on his heart. Instead, the plan is to attempt yet another stent placement in the morning to relieve his intense chest pain with any exertion. He was pretty vacant, mostly playing mobile games on his ipad and sleeping, and I don't blame him. I think that whether the stent works or not, his next step may be to get evaluated for a donor graft, in which some generous dead person contributes a major vein to keep this guy's heart pumping.
Anyway, he gets peritoneal dialysis now, since conventional dialysis is a much more complicated option for him than it used to be when his veins worked. He essentially gets fluid pumped into his abdominal cavity, where it soaks up pollutants and sucks imbalanced electrolytes out of the blood, after which the fluid is pumped back out and discarded. It makes his blood sugar skyrocket, for reasons I haven't researched (it's not a thing I do, although now I'd like to know why it does that), so he was critical care simply because he needed an insulin drip with hourly blood-sugar checks.
The day was very quiet for him, apart from an ultrasound of the femoral arteries to see if the surgeons would be able to stent him in the morning. We'll see how that turns out.
Finally, after losing the VATS guy, I picked up another pt-- a very young woman in her thirties, a mother of three, whose autoimmune disorder had attacked her liver and caused massive cirrhosis. She was quiet and friendly and polite, but she'd been throwing up blood for three days after running out of Protonix (which she took because she had a history of ulcers), and her blood levels were disastrously low. With a hemoglobin of 4.2 and a hematocrit of 12.8, she was white as a sheet and her blood was watery when I stuck her finger to check her sugar levels.
Worse, her immune issues meant that she was IgA deficient, requiring any blood she received to be carefully washed in the blood center forty-five minutes away... and she had an unusual antibody, which has to be identified at the blood center, and which may severely limit the amount of blood that's available to her. So she was just lying there in bed, too weak and pale to do anything but shift her weight off her left hip (which was killing her because her sciatic nerve has been inflamed since her last pregnancy), waiting for blood to show up.
She wasn't throwing up any blood, so the doctor was hesitant to stick a scope down her throat, lest a scab scrape off and start the bleeding all over again. But if she bleeds again tonight, she'll be getting scoped. I won't find out until morning. I hope she's okay.
Spent a good hour of her admit time on the phone with hospital IT trying to figure out what the fuck was going on with Epic today. Man, hospital IT, talk about a fucking thankless job. If you do everything right, you're completely invisible and nobody cares that you exist; if you change anything you get a furious blizzard of kickback no matter how necessary the change is or how seamlessly it's implemented; if you offer technical support you get snapped at and huffed at and terminally eye-rolled; and even after the person who called is sick of the problem and ready to ditch it and rig a makeshift solution and move on, you have to go back and fix it ANYWAY because there is a REPORT.
Frankly, I'd rather handle poop.
Rachel is doing well today. She keeps having setbacks on her discharge, but she was moved to the big room at the end of the hall, where her panoramic window gives her views of mountains instead of boring downtown glass. She was able to stand up today for a few seconds, but is still incredibly weak and easily made short of breath. Her son visited again the other day, and they wheeled her down in a recliner to meet her daughter in the lobby, so she got to hold both her babies and give them kisses.
The woman who's been bleeding after her liver failure is still bleeding. They put the femoral pressure thing back on her today. She has a huge pressure ulcer on her groin from the fem-stop crushing her constantly, but it's the only way to keep her alive. Her abdomen is increasingly distended and there are worries that she's bleeding into her belly, but we can't drain her with a needle because that's one more place to bleed from. The doctors have been trying desperately to talk her and her family into focusing her care on comfort and family interactions rather than on these continual, painful, brutal, even disfiguring treatments we're doing to her to keep her alive while she turns yellow and exsanguinates.
I wonder how long a blood bank takes to cut you off.
She screams pretty much constantly. Pain medications just don't work for her, because her liver is so fucked. It's very disturbing to staff as well as family and other patients. I don't think I could stand to do CPR on her, knowing that she's Hep C positive, spewing blood everywhere, and fatally ill even if we bring her back from one death. I guess I'll find out soon enough what my moral boundaries there are.
Liver failure is one hell of a way to go.
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