Friday, July 24, 2015

Week 7, Shift 1

Well, I definitely got the crazy little lady this morning, and no, my attempt at jinxing her didn’t work. But more on that in a bit.

My adorable pt with the screaming hearing aids had really bad sundowners last night, and spent all morning groggy and slow to communicate. Even after I put in her hearing aids, she mostly just lay in bed napping, drifting off mid-sentence every time I tried to have a conversation with her. Somebody had given her a bump of dilaudid last night for an episode of back pain, and she apparently processes opioids slower than I process an entire brick of cheddar cheese, so she was completely zorked most of the morning.

Her family came in and stood around the bed, morose, watching her mutter in her sleep. “She’s really gone downhill,” said her son. “Yesterday she was so bright and awake, and she was up in the chair for hours… Today she barely wakes up to say hello. What happened?”

I explained about the pain medicine and our plan to closely limit her opioid administration from here on out, and added that her labs were all improving and her vital signs were solid, and that I was recommending to the MD for her to be transferred to a unit with a lower level of acuity. The family was uneasy, and I don’t blame them—I was keeping a weather eye out for weirdness myself, because while I had a pretty good explanation for her behavior (or lack of behavior), any time family says their loved one is different, I pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught something that would have gone unrecognized—a heart attack, a stroke, a major status change—just because I pay attention when family is worried.

(Sometimes I have to completely ignore worried family, when their worry is pathological and they’re doing themselves and their families no favors… more on that later. And yet, if the family is worried, even if it’s just because they’re always worried, I stay at a higher level of worry all day. Not necessarily about the pt, especially if I can look at them and tell that they’re doing fine, but I have plenty of my own shit to worry about and if we’re having a party anyway, heeeey!)

In this case, I was definitely watching her closely, especially when family brought in some edible and drinkable treats to try and coax her into eating. I was concerned that, despite her passing her swallow eval earlier, she would (in her current groggy state) fall asleep while chewing and end up with a hamburger in her lung. I hovered by the bed while her daughter leaned over and bellowed in her ear: “MOM. DO YOU WANT SOME DIET DR. PEPPER.”

And man, her face lit up like Mardi Gras in Las Vegas. Her eyes popped wide open and she levered herself upright in bed like a vampire popping out of the coffin. “Do you have any?”

After that, she was still prone to drifting off, but now she had a vested interest in staying awake. Family? Pssshhh, you can see them anytime. Diet Dr. Pepper? Now that is worth feigning alertness.

Fortunately, she really wasn’t in need of a lot of care, and the doc agreed around 0900 to downgrade her acuity to telemetry. I say ‘fortunately’ because my other pt Martha*, the crazy lady from last night, demanded almost all of my time.

Her history of bipolar disorder has provided her with a history of lithium use, and last year she attempted suicide by taking all of her lithium pills at once. The ways in which people attempt to kill themselves just horrify me. Taking two bottles of Tylenol? Finishing off your Wellbutrin in a single go? Jesus, are you trying to make sure you suffer on your way out? I mean, I sincerely hate the idea that anyone has to deal with the utter bleakness of chronic depression and the spiral that leads down to suicide, and I wish to god nobody killed themselves at all, and I hate that our society makes mental illness such a hush-hush no-funding issue that people can reach that point of suffering without having the resources they need to escape… But the shit that people do to themselves trying to kill themselves, that shit is like an Eli Roth porno. Even handguns fail frequently enough; it’s not uncommon for a person to attempt suicide, fail, and have an entire lifetime of medical fallout to deal with… or six weeks of pure torture in the ICU before they finally manage to actually die.

And of those who succeed in slow motion… they all want to live by the time they die. It’s awful.

Please don’t fucking kill yourself. Entirely aside from the fact that you’ll miss all the movies of the next few decades, that you’ll miss the chance to fake your own death and escape to a South American country and become the mysterious foreigner who lives in the jungle, that you’ll leave behind a body that somebody has to clean up… you have a pretty significant chance of ending up in a nursing home, just conscious enough to feel pain and humiliation, for the rest of your life.

Give it another year. Do something different. Talk to somebody about it. Don’t end up on my unit with ARDS from inhaling your own vomit when the pills kick in. If the Huntington’s is closing in and you really gotta go before you turn into a slack-lipped veggie on a vent, plan that shit out and have your family by your bed. If you don’t think you could convince someone to sit by your bedside while you die, it’s not time for you to die yet.

Anyway, that’s a grim little side note. The point is, this lady took all her lithium pills, and after a major round of dialysis, she ended up with a seizure disorder, diabetes insipidus, and maybe about two-thirds of her original IQ. This time around, she’s in the hospital because a week ago she tripped and fell at home, broke most of her ribs on the left side, and ended up with a hemothorax—a big pool of blood in the space her left lung was trying to occupy—plus pneumonia from her immobility and from being unable to breathe deeply and cough without pain, plus dehydration from the DI, plus a UTI.

Diabetes insipidus is a totally different animal from what we usually refer to as ‘diabetes’. Diabetes mellitus—those of you with some base in languages may recognize the root of ‘mellitus’ to mean ‘honey’—is sugar diabetes, which I have ranted about at length here. Type 1 diabetes mellitus means all the insulin cells in your pancreas were devoured by your immune system in a bizarre childhood autocannibalistic orgy, and you probably need an insulin pump; Type 2 diabetes mellitus means your body is growing resistant to insulin and your pancreas is maybe not pumping out as much as you need, often because you have a genetic predisposition or (more likely) your fat cells are overstuffed and trying to tell you to lay off the cheesecake.

It’s called ‘mellitus’ because your kidneys are dumping sugar, and your piss turns sweet. Doctors used to have to taste their pts’ urine to see if they were diabetic. It’s never been a good career for the mentally well.

Diabetes insipidus, therefore, means that your urine is insipid instead of sweet—it’s bland and watery. Lucky doctor. The problem here is that, inside your braincase, your pituitary gland (yes, the gland responsible for dragging you through puberty) has become fucked up somehow. In addition to hairy-armpit hormones, your pituitary gland regulates your water balance, secreting a hormone called vasopressin to remind your body that it actually needs water to survive. (In higher doses, vasopressin also causes your vasculature, your blood vessels, to constrict and increase your blood pressure… thus the name ‘vasopressin’. We use a synthetic version of this regularly on the ICU to raise blood pressure in septic pts.) So if you have a pituitary tumor, or massive brain trauma, or certain types of toxicity like lithium… you will constantly gush gallons of dilute watery fifteenth-beer piss, even though you’re dehydrated and dying of thirst and could really, really use all that water you’re filling your Depends with.

So this woman was constantly in desperate need of a trip to the ladies’ room, which is hard to manage when you’re completely deranged from a urinary tract infection, your entire left chest is hamburger on the inside, and you aren’t firing on all cylinders to begin with. She couldn’t bring herself to use a bedpan, and initially she was too dizzy and sick to get up to a bedside commode, so she would try to hold it until she just couldn’t, then fill the bed with a liter of water-pee and start screaming. Nothing we said to her made any sense to her. She hit and kicked and screamed, and it took her daughter and a sitter to keep her in bed and safe and calm.

Her daughter looked familiar. I’d seen her last night in the hallway, but now that I was in the room with her, she looked really familiar. After the first ten minutes of introductions, I recognized her with a start—she’d been the caretaker for a pt I cared for at my last facility, and she’d been an absolute nightmare. A few delicate questions confirmed my suspicion, and she recognized me too.

She had been enormously controlling, extremely anxious, convinced that we were neglecting her ward even though her nurse could never even get out of the room. She would regularly decide that the pt needed something—a breathing treatment, a new medication, a very specific positioning, an aggressive round of nasotracheal suctioning—and she would insist on it until the doc either gave in or had a stern, invariably ugly talk with her about appropriate care. She was absolutely unable to manage her stress, and this led to her ward being absolutely punished with unnecessary and uncomfortable turns every time she got comfortable.

But this just meant I’d had time to establish a rapport and a set of boundaries with her, and thank living fuck, I was able to get those back into place pretty quickly. I promised to genuinely consider any request she made, but told her I wouldn’t sugarcoat anything or perform any kind of care that I felt endangered her mother, and that if she got stressed out I would stay in the room for fifteen minutes at a time while she went to the waiting room to collect herself.

It worked pretty well.

Then she fired the sitter. The new guy who’d come in for the morning shift is this super sweet CNA I’ve worked with several times, a tall black guy with a genuine smile and dimples to boot, who spent thirty minutes with me last time he floated to our floor while we scrubbed a massive Code Brown off the walls even though he could by rights have ducked out halfway through. He is a wonderful, compassionate human being whose bedside manner is gentle as a lamb and soothing as a fifth of whiskey, and within thirty minutes of his assuming sitter duty, the daughter fired him for being ‘intimidating’.

“My mom is kind of old-school,” she said, clutching her elbows and speaking in low tones, trying her damnedest not to sound racist as hell. “She gets really scared if there’s anyone… intimidating around.” Inside the room, my pt was holding the CNA’s hand and smiling at him while he asked her about her grandchildren.

I told her I would see what I could do, and dove into the chart. Turns out, this cute little old lady with the crazy thrashing etc had not received any pain medication during her stay besides her scheduled toradol, which seemed unrealistic to me considering that she had six broken ribs and regularly freaked out like somebody had filled her bed with bees. She had PRN dilaudid IV available, and I drew it up and headed into the room.

“Are you having pain,” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “I want to go home.”

“Are you hurting?” Sometimes it helps to ask again a different way. “Maybe just a little bit?”

“Yeeeeeah. But I want to go home. So I’m not hurting.”

“We’re gonna get you home as fast as I can,” I said, and pushed the dilaudid. Pts with dementia often have trouble recognizing and expressing pain, and sometimes they think that if they tell you they’re not hurting, they can go home faster. Sure enough, five minutes later she was sleeping like a baby, had peed another liter without freaking out, and had gone from shallow rapid breathing to deeper, regular breathing.

So I sent the CNA off to the charge nurse to be reassigned, and gave her round-the-clock dilaudid coverage. She woke up nicely between doses, no thrashing, coughed on command, and gradually improved to the point that she could get up to the bedside commode.

Pain control is a big deal. And it amazes me that, with all her WebMD recommendations for care, her daughter hadn’t seemed to pick up on her pain. She didn’t need a sitter for the rest of the day.

Her two other daughters dropped by that afternoon. One was even more anxious than the first, terrified of the hospital, terrified of her mother’s condition, not wanting to talk about any of it. The other was fairly laid-back, having worked for a nursing home for a long time, and was mostly stressed out because her sisters were stressed out.

The pt did have a seizure. It started with her eyes jerking to the left, which apparently is her characteristic onset symptom; her daughter called me in, and I gave her Ativan to break the seizure as it kicked in, so she ended up having a few seconds of genuine tonic-clonic seizing before lapsing into post-ictal grogginess.

About 1300, just after my hastily-shoveled lunch of microwave burrito and cottage cheese, the charge nurse cornered me. “I hate to do this,” she said, “but we have a new pt coming in and nobody to admit them. Can you give your tele lady to this other nurse, and admit?”

Charge just seems like a position where you have to constantly deliver bad news and ask people for huge favors. I will definitely want to train for charge someday, but I also dread the thought of having to tell someone that I’m screwing them over because their assignment is too easy and I need somebody to land a clusterfuck and you’re it.

So I gave report and handed off my cute little lady, who was chugging her fifth Diet Dr. Pepper, and took report from the emergency room on a frequent flier.

This poor guy has been in the hospital five times already this year, and god knows how many times last year. He has some kind of GI bleed, probably in his small intestine, which recurs regularly for no reason anybody can pin down—no history of alcohol, no NSAID use, no fucking idea. Last year he had what our GI docs call the “million-dollar workup,” a cascade of diagnostic tests culminating in a literal swallowed camera capsule that films your entire gut as it passes through. No results.

This time his hematocrit was really, really low. I gave him several blood products and wiped his ass a few times while he shit out the last of the blood, and his GI bleed was over—just a couple days of blood transfusion and crit checks, and he’d be back home with his mystery bleed, happy as you please. He’s been here so often that the docs ordered him a full meal plan as soon as his crit stabilized, recognizing his telltale signs of recovery. Usually GI bleeders have to wait a while to eat… we just know that this poor guy is done bleeding once he starts getting hungry, and there’s no use in keeping him ravenous all the way up to discharge.

We did an EGD though, because we kind of have to, because it would be shitty to miss a bleeding ulcer just because he’s never had one before, and have him perf his stomach and die. It was a five-minute affair and he was damn near awake for the whole thing—he said he was used to it by now. That is not a thing I can imagine getting used to. He had a beautiful pink happy stomach lining though. His breakfast of scrambled eggs was still intact and recognizable and made me extremely hungry. I really need to start bringing multiple freezer burritos per shift.

I got hiccups toward the end of shift. I used to get them all the time on nights, usually between three and four in the morning, big whooping hiccups that sounded like some kind of lost stork wandering the darkened hallways calling for its young. My coworkers used to make relentless fun of me. Well, guess what, these coworkers also make fun of me when I start yelling HOOP uncontrollably in the middle of shift.

I could close my mouth and kind of muffle them, but that hurts. So fuck you, I’m gonna contribute to noise pollution, and you can all suck it and/or wear earplugs.

I hope this doesn’t become a regular thing.

At 1500 shift change, the new charge nurse dropped by and poked her head into the room. The pt’s daughter gasped. “Oh my god, I didn’t know you worked here now!” Turns out, this particular charge nurse once directed the adult family care center where my pt’s mother spent her declining years, had known my pt since she was a teenager, and had held all three anxious daughters while they were all still in diapers.  There was a distinct change in the dynamic after that—they seemed to trust us more, now that their old friend was in charge, and I didn’t have to enforce boundaries quite so stringently.

It’s a small fucking world, my friends. I never met this charge nurse before I started working here, and now here I am, taking care of a pt she practically raised, whose daughter I knew from another facility as a pt caregiver. This isn’t a huge city/region (technically the two facilities are in different cities, part of the sprawl of the central metro), but I am always amazed at how often I run into nurses I know from other places, pts I took care of years ago, and people I have to pretend not to recognize lest I violate HIPAA or make shit awkward.

Been checking up on my abd guy. Yeah, he’s still alive. Why, how, I’m not sure. His hemorrhagic necrotizing pancreatitis and total kidney failure have reduced his quality of life to “constant torture when he’s not in a coma.” Lots of legal pushing later, and they’ve assigned him a guardian ad litem… who now has to jump through a million legal hoops and decide whether or not to let him just die.

It’s not an easy choice. He’s very far removed from anyone who could speak for him. His roommate, who only realized he was hospitalized because nobody was using the toilet paper for three days, says he has a daughter somewhere…. But he’s never said her name, just called her ‘my daughter’. He left no living will, no advance directive, nobody with a durable power of attorney.

His coworkers keep coming by to check on him. They’ve all shelled out to get a rental storage unit for his belongings; they show up in their work uniforms, still sweaty and obviously exhausted from their shifts, to stand by his bedside for a few moments and tell him what’s going on at work. We can’t tell if he understands any of it. He opens his eyes sometimes to painful stimuli.

They obviously care about him a lot, and to me this means something. Most people who suffer from major addictions don’t have a lot of people who care about them; they sever their ties, drive away their families, and are slowly devoured by whatever chemical owns them, alone. Even recovering addicts usually spend a little while with their only friends being fellow recovering addicts, if they’ve been addicted for some time. At least that’s what it feels like.

But it’s telling that this guy, despite being a profound alcoholic, separated from family and friends, struggling with addiction, is still someone that his coworkers care about. They’ve worked with him for a long time. Some of them know that he had big issues with alcohol, and have delicately made the awkward effort to inform his nurses so we can “make sure that gets taken care of too.” They really miss him, and that means something to me—even feeling isolated, even in the throes of addiction, even sweating on his deathbed… he (like many other addicts) is still loved. And they are so glad to see him get help that they’re holding out hope he’ll recover, even though he’s long past the point where his death can be more than delayed.

It breaks my heart. I wish he’d got help sooner. He would have been surrounded with love.

In the meantime, all I can really hope for him is that he dies soon, and quickly. Maybe somebody will show up for him that has some legal authority.

Fucking depressing, man. On a bright note, today one of the consulting MDs accidentally locked himself into the staff bathroom, jamming the doorknob somehow. While the environmental services guys scrambled to try and get him out, he kept up a steady litany of exhortations and pleas: “You guys have to hurry, I gotta get out of here. I took a power dump in here. You gotta get me out, guys. Take off the hinges…”

I’d laugh harder if I didn’t occasionally get locked in a room with a pt who’s shitting uncontrollably. The aftermath of a three-pounder is nothing you wanna breathe in a closed space.


  1. I'm so impressed that the abd guy is still alive! It's a testament to your unit's outstanding patient care. Did anyone ever work him up for methanol poisoning after all?

    My mom knows a huge number of other pharmacists, mostly other people she's worked with or who were in her graduating class (of something like 8 people back in 1981). I'm sure she also knows a ton of patients but tries not to say hi to them when she sees them. I had an incident at a thrift store down the street from work where one of my patients saw me and rushed up and started talking my ear off though... it was a delicate process to excuse myself, especially once she started bringing up her health. Yikes!

    1. I think they ran just-in-case tests, but if he'd suffered methanol poisoning, the proof was long gone by then, along with any chance to counteract its effects. For real though, I cannot BELIEVE that dude is still kicking. It's insane.

      And yeah, meeting pts in public is always massively awkward, triple bonus points if the pt still thinks of you as ~their nurse~ and wants to tell you about their bowel movements.

  2. Holy shit Elise, you made me laugh like a maniac with the hiccups and power dump stories. And Jesus I needed that laugh. Keep doing what you do!

    1. The world needs more power dump stories! And more hiccup stories... about other people's hiccups. (It happened to me again yesterday. An intensivist tried to cure me by jumping out from behind the laundry cart. It didn't work, but I let out a throat-ripping shriek that made the charge nurse bat her hands around her heat like she was being attacked by bees.)

    2. I am crying actual tears of laughter right now.

  3. My husband knows I read your blog but he does not have any interest in my re-telling of your magnificent tales, being of weak stomach. That said, I did read the last paragraphs of this out loud because poop stories are always funny. He chuckled, said "take a deep breath... now turn your head and cough!" and swooped away up the stairs to bed.

    And I started laughing again, which is not good because I have also pulled a muscle in my back and laughing (and sneezing) hurts. Damnit, Elise.

  4. Might want to edit the title and/or put a note at the top about the ordering mixup for people who will be reading through the entries in reverse chronological order later and won't see the next post until after being confused at this one.

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