Thursday, July 16, 2015

Week 3 Shift 4

My splenic rupture pt had a rough night. It’s not uncommon for people over the age of 70 to get confused at night when they’re in a strange place, sick, covered in tape and wires, and this can lead to some really risky situations. In her case, she pulled out her PICC line, which was put in yesterday to replace the internal-jugular central line she pulled out the night before. I came in to find her wrists strapped down and her nurse sitting at the bedside, gently talking to her to keep her occupied and soothed.

Used to be, as soon as you started acting like you might pull something out, you got your wrists strapped down with restraints. These days, we pay a lot more attention to delirium, and restraints dramatically increase both the incidence and severity of delirium. The night nurse who cared for her while I was sleeping is a damn good one and I trust him, so when I saw the soft bracelets on her wrists I knew things had gone to shit.

She’d pulled her PICC while making eye contact with him, holding his hand with her free hand, and saying that she felt pretty good. Grab and rip. After this she pulled two peripheral IVs, removed her oxygen a dozen times, and tried to pull out her foley catheter. The night nurse felt that restraints were the only way to keep her IV access in, so he sat beside her for the rest of the night, talking to her to keep her from going completely crazy.

Sunlight is the usual cure for this kind of delirium, which is so common we call it “sundowning” and expect it with certain age groups. Once the sun comes up, you can usually transition the pt from wrist restraints to puffy mittens, then open the fingertip part of the mittens, and finally free their hands entirely. Sometimes it’s even quicker than that.

Delirium is very different from dementia. Often, severe acute illness will combine with other factors like dehydration, sleep deprivation, and unfamiliar medications to make a patient forget where they are and what day it is, possibly even thinking they’re in a different country or it’s 1970 or that I’m a Nazi captor in a WWII prison. (This is depressingly common in older folks from Europe, many of whom were terrified as children that they would be captured and tortured by enemies of war.) We call that confusion, initially, but if confusion has an acute onset (they aren’t like this at home), the pt can’t focus long enough to follow a brief set of instructions (“I’m going to spell a few words, and I want you to squeeze my hand whenever I say ‘A’.”), and they can’t get their bearings enough to answer simple questions (“Will a stone float on water?”), they’ve moved past mere confusion and are delirious.

In a state of delirium, a pt is likely to hurt themselves—falling, pulling out tubes, etc—and is at very high risk of having weird delusions and hallucinations. These are a big deal because, in the delirious state, your mind can’t really differentiate between reality and the bizarre ideas that come with confusion and delirium, and it processes these as if they’re fact. You can end up having intense, vivid PTSD flashbacks to things like being smothered by aliens, raped and tortured by Nazis, shoved into a box and left there for hours, and burned alive—even though none of these things actually happened. The flashbacks and mental fuckery can last for literal years afterward. People who become delirious in the ICU generally have cognitive issues for a long time after discharge. (We see this a lot in re-admits, who aren’t quite themselves when they leave and return a month later completely whacked out.)

Perhaps most immediately worrying, delirium can disguise other major signs of danger, like altered level of consciousness, pain, and feelings of impending doom.

So I progressed her pretty quickly from restraints to mittens to open mittens. Too quickly—she pulled out one of her IVs. She has another, though, so I stopped the bleeding and let it rest. I feel like her mental status is one of the most vulnerable aspects of her health right now, and it would be awful if she (an independent woman who teaches music) ended up in a nursing home when she leaves here.

Anyway, as the shift progressed her lethargy continued, and she had trouble articulating almost anything she said. Head CT from yesterday was totally clean, neuro checks negative except for lethargy and verbal difficulty, blood sugar and hematocrit stable, abdomen stable, and finally we just settled in to “watch and wait.” I asked her son if she wears glasses, because although she claimed not to, she also didn’t know what state she lived in… Son brought in glasses and a novel she’d been reading, and a little later in the afternoon she came around just fine.

Still a little worried about her. Drowsiness after a splenic rupture is usually a sign that the pt is about to take a turn for the worse. But she had plenty of time to make that turn, and instead finished up my shift with a quick trip to the bedside commode and a bit of worrying-aloud about whether she would be able to get up the stairs at home. (She will be strong enough to get up the stairs by the time we send her home-- physical therapy opens almost every intial interview with, believe this or not: "Do you have stairs in your house?" This is a goon joke.)

As for my pt with the GI bleed, she was quite thoroughly recovered. She was downgraded to medical status halfway through the day, and after a bit of consultation with the blood bank, the doctor decided to go ahead and top her off with the last unit of matching, prewashed blood they had on hand, then send her home in the morning. Her family came in to visit during the afternoon, and her kids were so excited to see her that they literally jumped up and down, in place, for almost thirty minutes. One of them would settle down, and the other would kind of chill out, and then the first one would start bouncing again, and pretty soon they'd just be hopping in place, talking three hundred mph in their weird little shrieking voices. Kids are basically insects, is what I'm saying.

At three, afternoon shift change time, I traded out-- GI bleed passed off to a nurse with a group of other medical/telemetry overflow pts, new pt picked up. This guy was still critical care status, having been extubated around 1030, and he had a very distinct set of challenges to present me.

He is a developmentally delayed man, about forty, mentality between six and eight years old. Very polite-- turned his face and covered his mouth when he coughed, waved at everyone-- but easily frustrated and, for obvious reasons, very stressed out. He had been at his adult family home, eaten a bunch of dinner, aspirated it somehow, and gone into respiratory-cardiac arrest. 911, CPR, intubation, bronchoscopy with washout, extubation the next day. Really good outcome, no neuro deficit from baseline. 

His lungs were still pouring sputum in response to the dinner invasion. Listening to his chest was like sticking your stethoscope into a washing machine full of shoes. Every few minutes he would cough up huge rippling mountains of sputum, which he had a very hard time managing and would suck back down his windpipe maybe one out of three times, causing another coughing fit. He did NOT like having the suction catheter in his mouth. He also wanted dinner, and some soda, and the speech therapist unsurprisingly made him strict NPO (nil per os, aka nothing by mouth) because he genuinely couldn't swallow his own spit without choking.

He'll probably get that functionality back, to a degree, but we still have to assess what made him aspirate in the first place.

In the short term, I got a packet of honey from the condiment drawer, smeared a trace of it on the suction cath (also called a yankauer, a plastic wand for sucking things out of the mouth and upper throat), and offered it to him as a "honey straw." He loved it. There wasn't enough honey to cause any trouble, and honey doesn't come off easily, so I wasn't worried about choking... and it encouraged him to keep it in his mouth almost constantly, coughing up crap and immediately jamming the "honey straw" back in his mouth. I refreshed it every hour or so and he cleared his airway wonderfully the whole time.

The real challenge came from his severe chronic constipation. An abdominal CT performed yesterday on admit, for his hugely distended belly, revealed that his colon was PACKED with shit. Cecum to rectum, dilated to a terrifying degree, crammed full of poop that hadn't seen the light of day in months. They loaded him with a truly amazing volume of bowel meds, and the night before he had started out with a few semi-liquid stools-- the kind of thing that manages to seep through the shit tunnel gridlock and keep you from backing up so hard that you die.

And he was backed WAY up. He kept burping and it smelled distinctly of shit. His OG tube, pulled out with the breathing tube when he was extubated, had been pulling something that the doc initially worried about because it looked a little like coffee grounds (a sign of gastric bleeding)... but which, when the OG tube came out, was pretty clearly just backed-up shit. Shit from his STOMACH. That is not supposed to happen and is a very bad sign.

Anyway, by midmorning apparently he was having a stool every couple of hours. When I got him, he had really picked up the pace, and was stooling almost constantly, especially when he coughed. The liquid had passed, and the rest was loosening up-- so we started out with mucus-lubricated pebbles that clinked against each other as we wiped, then progressed to greasy, frothy landslides that filled up the bed. There were perfectly-piped shit rosettes that wouldn't have looked out of place on top of a chocolate cake, and curry-slurry cascades that snuck out of the disposable linings and poured out across the sheet. There was an interlude of corn, beautifully intact corn so well-preserved that you could tell it was chewed from the cob rather than sliced into niblets.

As I sloshed through that cleanup, trying not to breathe more than strictly necessary, I realized that this shit had been inside him for one hell of a long time. The smell had that intense death-rot odor you get when you've been hoarding that particular nugget for quite a while. That corn wasn't last week's veggie side at the cafeteria, dude. I bet you a dollar he gnawed that shit off the cob at his grandma's house for Christmas. 

The fecal journey continued with inspiring diversity. One delicately-jointed, bubble-textured oblong came out looking like a Baby Ruth bar. One delivery was thick and slushy, but contained crumbly elements that glued themselves to everything they touched and pilled up like a hoodie in the dryer.

We attempted to get him up to the bedside commode at one point, hoping to catch the bounty in a bucket rather than the bed, but as he prepared to sit down he suddenly decided that there was a better potty out in the hall somewhere, and took off running with his gown flapping behind him. Two steps into his flight, his sphincter lost control. Spatters and ribbons festooned the tile in a pseudo-Farsi calligraphic scrawl. The CNA and I caught him before he could open the room door; she guided him by the shoulders back to his plastic throne, and I cupped my hands under a washcloth to form a towel-cup that I clamped to his backside, catching the steaming runoff to prevent any more modern art.

After a while, he exhausted himself on the bucket, and we got him back into bed. Five minutes after that he had another coughing fit and ripped a gargantuan chunky fart right into his disposable bed-liner. I heard the expulsion lap up against his thighs like the bubbles popping in a pot of boiling oatmeal. The pulmonologist came up to ask me a question and started coughing at the smell.

Some days are just like this. I passed that guy off to night shift with sincere condolences and warnings.

It occurs to me that I would not want to eat anything honey-flavored while in the room with a smell like that. But this pt happily smacked away on his "honey straw" even while his gut was blasting out everything he'd eaten this year, not so much as blinking. You know what? Whatever makes him happy. That's what.

The only real upside is that, being developmentally delayed, he could be convinced that this shit was hilarious, and wasn't really offended when we acknowledged that his shit stank. Some people get really upset if you don't manage to keep a straight face as you clean up their poop; some people just get incredibly embarrassed and feel horrible, and my heart goes out to those people, because I can't take a dump if anyone in the building knows I'm taking a dump and I would rather pretend at all times that I don't actually have bowel movements. (This is probably a leftover of my upbringing somehow, but I don't care to examine it too closely.) 

You just gotta be really good at keeping your poker face strapped on. Gross wound? Learn to smile through it. Gallons of liquid shit? Reassure the pt that you've seen so much worse. (You have.) Crusty vadge plopping out cheese curds the size of thumb joints while you're trying to scrub the area for a catheter? Keep your face pleasantly neutral and talk about something else.

This job is allllll about winning people's confidence. It's much harder to care for someone whose guard is up, who distrusts you, or who feels awkward when you walk into the room. If they can relax and feel comfortable, if they can trust you, they have a much better experience and will tolerate a lot more of the pain and indignity that comes with a hospital stay, knowing that you're not doing this shit for fun either and that you won't judge them for anything that happens. 

A particularly weird aspect of this is the importance of not reacting to anything with shock, panic, or visible distress. Like if you stub your toe and they see you wince and hop around, they're going to be wondering: is she gonna hurt me by accident too? Is she really in control of the situation? Can she be distracted at a critical moment, and possibly let me die because she just jammed her thumb in a drawer? These aren't conscious assessments, they're just part of the natural human reaction to being powerless and needing a team member you can trust. So one of the reflexes I've cultivated as a nurse is keeping a straight face when I bang my elbow, stub my toe, or otherwise remind myself that my body is pretty vulnerable and these hospital rooms are fucking crowded. If I drop something on my foot, I'm gonna politely excuse myself to another room before I descend into hissing and cursing. 

I don't want my pts to ever feel like they have to comfort or protect me. I don't want to seem physically or professionally vulnerable to a person whose life may depend on my capability and strength. I want questions to be surface-level, where I can encourage my pts to articulate them and have them answered. I want to avoid situations in which my pts have to assess the situation without full access to relevant information, which means that even if my toe-stubbing happens because I'm focused on their cardiac output, I don't expect them to be able to explain my priorities of attention to themselves and decide that I must have been looking at something more important.

I am probably a fucking nutjob. I overthink things. I am paranoid and obsessive. This might make me a better nurse, or it just might make me a crazy person thinly disguised as a medical professional. Either way, I am probably the only person most people will ever meet who can make them feel safer just by smiling noncommittally as I wipe their ass. 

Three days off after that shift. My kid sister moves in this evening, and will probably absorb most of my time for a couple of days.

Thank you guys so much for the encouraging messages and stuff. I get really shy sometimes when people praise my writing and I have to sit in a quiet place and squeak and drink tea, and eventually I muster up enough resistance to reply en masse while turning red and occasionally pausing to mash my hands against my mouth. You are all way too nice to me.


  1. Dear Elise, I've never heard anyone describe the ICU experience so well. This should be required reading for anyone considering going into medicine. Also for residents and fellows with delusions of grandeur. 'Cause if they can't handle this kind of literal shit or be grateful to the nurses who do, they're not cut out for medicine, and for damn sure not in my hospital-


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