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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Week 3 Shift 3

Arrived to find my assignment slightly shifted. The unfortunate peritoneal dialysis guy spent all morning waiting to see if they could stent him this afternoon, so he was super low acuity and they paired him with a very high-acuity pt down the hall, a different guy who required a sitter to keep him from pulling out all his lines and tubes. As a result, I only interacted with him as the next-door nurse, filling in cracks for the nurse officially assigned to his care. In the meantime, the patient patient (hurr hurr) twiddled his thumbs until cardiology decided that they would brave his awful vasculature and many allergies, and dig out whatever was clogging his heart.

Oh yeah, did I mention the many many allergies? This dude is allergic to BENADRYL. He’s allergic to everything that can be given to control an immune response. I am assuming that his vascular badness is probably related to an autoimmune issue, because god damn, this poor schmuck is allergic to his own eyebrows.

This will make his cath procedure very tricky, because he’s anaphylactically allergic to iodine dyes and most other radiopaques used in angiography. This will make it difficult for the cardio folks to tell what they hell they’re looking at while they’re trying to suck the clot escargot out of his arterial butter sauce. Or whatever gross, snail-related metaphor you care to use.

The cardiologist finally decided that there’s no fucking way anyone can be violently allergic to antihistamines and steroids, and decided to take the gamble that Benadryl and prednisone were given to him to control an already-occurring reaction and therefore got swept up with the whole ‘anaphylaxis’ thing. It’s much more likely, after all, that during his episodes of anaphylaxis from –mycin antibiotics, he got a bunch of anti-allergy medications that didn’t fully control his reactions, and assumed that the reactions were to the medications as well.

It’s a stiff gamble. Some people really do have horrible reactions to prednisone. We performed a scratch test, dipping a needle in the offending substance and nicking the back of his hand; then, seeing no reaction, we administered a quarter-dose very slowly; then, still seeing no reaction, we finished the dose and started over with the other anti-allergy medicine. Turns out he isn’t allergic to Benadryl OR prednisone. Huh.

So down he goes for his cath.

My pts, the ones I was actually taking care of, were a little less anticlimactic. As I sat down to get report, the night nurse informed me that my pt from yesterday, the woman with the GI bleed, would be having a procedure done at 0730. As I took report, the endoscopy nurses were cramming the room full of scope supplies and monitors and such. The pt was stable last night, received four units of blood, and was looking a little more pink in the cheeks, but still had huge esophageal varices, so she would be getting an esophagogastroduodenoscopy to pinch off some of these little throat-hemorrhoids so they wouldn’t keep bleeding.

(We typically refer to this procedure as an EGD, for obvious reasons.)

So at 0730, I pumped her full of versed and fentanyl, then held her hand and kept an eye on her vital signs while the GI doc snaked a long thin tube down her throat, sucked each hemorrhoid (varicele) up into the end of the tube, and popped a little rubber band off the outside of the tube over each one to pinch it off. This is called banding, and is very effective for most pts—the band eventually falls off, but by that time the varicele has clotted off and either healed or turned into a chunk of scar.

She tolerated the procedure very well, and afterward got to drink cranberry juice while we chatted about her iron-deficiency anemia (I advised her to start cooking in a cast-iron skillet) and how hilarious it is when guys assume that women will freak out about blood. Then I gave her some pain meds for her crazy-making sciatica and she took a chair nap while I scrambled around over my other pt.

The other pt was admitted under the diagnosis of probable sepsis. She presented like somebody who was about to crater: massively elevated white blood cell count, severe anemia and hypotension, confusion and weakness, and a lactate of fucking 10. My eyes bugged out of my head when I saw that number, let me assure you—4 means something is really wrong, and 6 often corresponds with impending death. Mind you, I was getting this patient while preparing for an EGD in the next room.

She had also gone nuts on night shift and pulled out her central line. Her husband had apparently called 911 because he got home from work and found her sitting on the couch, raving and screaming about dead relatives. I went into that room ready for Armageddon.

Instead I found a cute little old lady lying very peacefully in bed, where she greeted me politely and answered all my questions with ease. She looked way too healthy for somebody dying of sepsis. Her hands were wrapped up in mittens to keep her from pulling lines, but before the EGD nurses had arrived, I already had the mittens off. She was completely aware and alert and cooperative.

Other things didn’t add up. All her white blood cells were mature, suggesting that this wasn’t an acute massive response to infection. She was afebrile; she was bruised all over her side; she was having massive left shoulder pain, and her belly was tender. Her confusion had completely disappeared, and she had received a total of two units of blood, one liter of lactated ringer’s solution, and a round of antibiotics. The doctor wasn’t buying sepsis any more than I was, so we agreed to redraw a lactate to see if something had got crossed up.

This lactate came back 1. That is a totally normal lactate and it’s also physically impossible for lactate to drop from 10 to 1 in the space of three hours. I assume somebody drew it upstream of that IV of LR she got downstairs. The pt also informed me that the tourniquet was left on her arm “for like ten minutes” during that blood draw, so if that’s not hyperbole, it could have absolutely caused the lactate to draw up abnormally high.

Not sepsis. Electrocardiogram came back clean; why the shoulder pain? Pain at the point of the shoulder is often a result of phrenic nerve stimulation… and she was complaining of abdominal tenderness… and she was covered in bruises. We took a chest X-ray and were absolutely boggled to discover what looked like a serious left-sided pneumothorax—no reason for her to have air in her chest cavity outside of her lungs. No broken ribs. What the hell? We prepared for a chest tube placement, but decided to check again just in case. Additional X-rays showed that the ‘pneumothorax’ was a skin fold on her back, showing through the lung to mimic an air pocket. That is just bizarre.

And told us almost nothing. Finally a CT scan revealed that nothing was fractured, but her spleen was enlarged and had somehow ruptured. A slow ooze from her popped spleen was filling her gut with serous and sanguineous fluid. Well, shit. That would explain the phrenic pain. Why was her spleen enlarged? Why was she so loopy to begin with? Why the unconvincing markers of infection?

If you’re a medical professional, you may already be wincing in sympathy. She’ll need a biopsy to confirm it, but we’re reasonably certain this unfortunate woman has leukemia. Her white blood cells are reproducing out of control, causing her spleen to enlarge and preventing her from making enough red blood cells to keep her energy and oxygenation within brain-satisfying parameters. While her husband was at work, she had developed tremendous weakness, and apparently she slipped and fell and ruptured her swollen spleen, but wasn’t able to remember or report this by the time her husband came home.

Her hematocrit continued to drop throughout the afternoon, so around 1500 the team came to haul her off to IR and attempt to embolize her spleen, to stop the bleeding, and if necessary to remove the thing altogether.

While she was gone, most of the MD team got together to talk to the screaming lady with liver failure and explain to her that she had run out of options, and to press her and her family to shift their focus from recovery (now impossible) to comfort (such as can be given). Constant drug-induced diarrhea has kept the woman’s ammonia levels low enough that she can sort of interact, but she doesn’t seem to understand that her status has progressed to terminal, and her family isn’t willing to make the decision. She is in agony. I can’t even imagine what it must be like, lying in a hospital bed, convinced that you’ll be okay in the end if you just make it through another day—another week—another month of suffering, and screaming constantly because you hurt so much and your brain is so poisoned. Nobody deserves that kind of death.

Well, maybe a few people. But judgement like that isn’t mine to make.

I wonder if it would really fuck a kid up to name them Karma. Would they feel like it was their duty to dispense justice? Would they become some kind of self-righteous asshole, delivering their brand of Batman justice (most likely in snide youtube comments and e/n threads)? Would they resent the implication of responsibility, and refuse to accept the burden of making the world right? Would they just roll their eyes and wonder why the fuck their parents named them something so stupid?

Definitely gonna name my hypothetical future offspring Hatshepsut and Hypatia and Sagan. You know, cool names that won’t get them beaten up. I should not be allowed to have children.

No real news from Rachel today. She’s just chilling at the end of the hallway, smiling and waving at people as they walk past.

Two of our nurses are leaving. They are a married couple; one is starting nurse practitioner school in Utah, and the other will be working at a hospital near the school. We had a huge potluck for them today, and one of the CNAs brought a massive pile of utterly flawless raspberry mini-macarons. I have never experienced such emotion over anything in any hospital, ever. Literal tears of rapture were shed. Everyone in the room was uncomfortable and I don’t care.

Favorite memories of the two departing nurses:

--One showed me a video of her kids jumping off a low bed and faceplanting on the carpet, over and over. The younger one shrieked with laughter each time and kept jumping and laughing even though she bit her lip and was bleeding freely. The older one sobbed, but kept doing it, because apparently she is a competitive lil shit who can’t let her sister outdo her at anything. The nurse laughed at this video until her on-screen self appeared and put a stop to the festivities, while obviously struggling to contain her laughter. “It’s good for them,” she said. Her kids look happy and ferocious and beautiful.

--The other is the nurse who brought the fake flan to the last potluck. He is the only male nurse who will still willingly work with Crowbarrens. A couple of admits ago, he walked into the room where our albatross had just landed, and instead of addressing him directly, he looked into the mirror and chanted: “Crowbarrens, Crowbarrens, Crowbarrens” at his reflection. Then he wheeled, pulled a huge startled double-take at the guy, and shouted FUCK.

Crowbarrens laughed so hard his vent circuit popped off. I laughed so hard I had to take a breather in the equipment room. Every ICU needs a complete nutjob nurse with a younger-uncle sense of humor.

The only downside to this potluck, which is amply compensated for by the macarons, is that with everybody carousing in the break room I’m having to steal my naps elsewhere. Worse, I’m having to compete for nap space. So every time I try to steal a ten-minute snooze in the family-conference room where the short uncomfortable sofas are, there’s somebody pumping breast milk in there, or sleeping on a sheet on the floor, or having an actual family conference (the nerve). I ended up picnicking a couple warm blankets on the bathroom floor, locking the door, setting my alarm for ten minutes, and passing out on the padded tile. It’s not gross if there are blankets, right?

I used to do this a lot more often when I worked in Texas. The unions in Washington are very pointed about nurses getting their breaks, but in Texas I was lucky to get a thirty-minute lunch split in two, confined to the tiny break room with its two wire-backed chairs. I worked nights, so when I hit the wall around 0300 I would pretend to take a dump, and instead sprawl out on the bathroom floor on a stolen sheet and take the edge off with five minutes of shut-eye. It’s not terribly comfortable, but nothing is less comfortable than sleep deprivation.

Back then, I was sleep-deprived because I worked mandatory overtime, drove an hour each way to work, and had to sleep during the hottest part of the day when even the air conditioning couldn’t get my bedroom below 90F. Today, I’m sleep-deprived because my sister left yesterday and I miss her, and because on Sunday my other sister (I am the oldest of five recovering creationist-homeschoolers) is coming to live with me and my husband in our one-bedroom apartment for the summer while she gets her GED. She is 19 and has been sorely held back by my well-meaning mother’s inability to parent and educate a homeschooled, isolated teenager in a farmhouse in the woods fifty miles from the rest of humanity. I am pretty worried about the possibility that she won’t adjust well, won’t be able to get through the GED/internship program that I’ve found for her, and will end up living on my dime until I find something to do with her. Sometimes this results in insomnia, which is a nasty thing to have between shifts.

She’s a good kid. She’s better than I was at her age—she’s already managed to drop the ingrained homophobia and sexism she was brought up with, and is a lovely, articulate, hilarious person. I think she’ll do well. I’m just a selfish snot who gets all whiny about having to share my living room. And tonight I’m gonna pop a Benadryl before I sleep.

Hopefully I won’t die of anaphylactic shock.

Anyway. The splenic embolization was a grand success, and my pt returned high as a kite on pain meds and sedatives, not even minding that she had to keep her leg straight for the next four hours and that I had to poke her sore crotch-wound every fifteen minutes to make sure she wasn’t bleeding. My other pt spent the afternoon sipping Sprite, walking around, and generally looking about a thousand times better than she was last night. The guy down the hall got his stent, and is back on his ipad playing internet poker. Rachel wheeled around the unit in a transport chair pushed by a tech and high-fived an RT. Screamer lady has been drugged into oblivion and it seems to be finally catching up with her.

If it seems like a lot of these pts vanish into thin air after I’m done writing about my shift, well, that’s a thing that happens. ICU staff rarely gets the whole story—the rehab after the acute illness, the full recovery, the death at home surrounded by family, even the shift to comfort care a week later on the medical floor, all of that stuff is lost to us. We know very little about our pts before they arrive, unless they’re frequent fliers, and even less once they leave, unless they come back. So most of the stories I see, I glimpse in passing—a few scenes from the movie, a few illustrations from the book. When I leave, I disappear from the story that’s consumed my day, and I fall into a strange different story where I eat chicken teriyaki and watch Netflix and taste different kinds of honey and read science fiction and scrawl terrible essays about Tolkien and imagine that someday I will be an actual writer, as if the real story weren’t going on all around me in the places where my shifts end and beyond the hospital where I’ll be tomorrow whether my pts are still there are not.

There might be happy endings. I’m sure there are generally endings of one variety or another—endings of lives and the chapters in them, endings of nightmares, endings of doomed hopes, who knows? I get to see sad endings (she’s still screaming, and will scream until she dies); I get to see a certain brand of happy endings (down the hall a man I don’t know is gently dying, with his grandchildren holding his hand, never having to suffer the indignity and pain of a breathing tube); I get to see strange endings that are nearly happy (they leave, and I never know what became of them); and I get to see endings that are only segues into the next chapter (Crowbarrens is, as I write this, sitting in the ER waiting to be admitted).

My stories are short stories. My endings are reports at the end of shift.


  1. I love your stories, endings or not.

  2. "someday I will be an actual writer"

    seriously what the fuck, you are very clearly an actual writer right now. One who is causing me shortage of sleep because I am staying up too late to find out what happens next and also to learn fun biology facts. I wish you would write a straight up biology textbook in this style. It would be on all the bestseller lists.