Sunday, July 19, 2015

Week ???? Shift ???????????

Some things I forgot to mention last time:

At 1100, shortly after I received the abdomen pt, I called up the charge nurse and politely requested to have him made 1:1. I don't ask for this often, and pride myself on my ability to balance multiple high-acuity pts safely. But part of this ability involves my recognition of when the load is too heavy for safety-- anyone can pretend they have things under control right up until a pt codes-- and when I realized this pt had hourly insulin checks, constant potassium replacements from an electrolyte replacement protocol (the intensivist declined to start a potassium-containing IV fluid despite refractory K+ levels below 2.8, the cutoff point below which the heart starts to starve and freak out, on the grounds that his renal failure would cause his K+ to skyrocket eventually), q2h labs, and 200mL+ output every hour from his NG tube (thus the potassium loss: stomach juices contain a lot of K+)... I had also just started levophed to pull his blood pressure up, couldn't find peripheral pulses in his feet, and was calling the RT in frequently to handle his ventilator-bucking. Yeah, at this point I decided he wasn’t going to be compatible with the high-need lady next door on bipap, no matter how clean she was now.

I was pretty sure he’d code by mid-afternoon.

The charge nurse came in, looked around, and agreed with me. So after 1100 he was 1:1. This came in really handy when the GI surgeon took him down for that washout.

So for the next couple of days, he wore me out. His open abdomen wept constantly through the drains in the intestine-containment bag, and every thirty minutes he required a full dressing change just to control the flow. His insulin infusion had to be cranked up from one algorithm to the next, as higher and higher doses failed to control his wild hyperglycemia. Worse, as I finally caught up on his blood sugars the next morning, his anion gap stayed wide open—the acidosis continued, and although his potassium finally caught up and began to rise as his small bowel obstruction stopped backing four liters of stomach juices out of his NG tube every day, the problem was clearly not a sugar/insulin imbalance.

Anion gap acidosis has a number of possible sources, although insulin deficiency is probably the most common. A few of them were addressed in that nephrologist’s note I quoted the other day. Another occurred to me during my camping trip this weekend, as I was studying for the CCRN test I took today (AND FUCKING PASSED YESSSS I AM A CCRN NOW). This guy is an alcoholic, and had been sick for a little while, homebound. What if he got into some alcohol that wasn’t drinkable? Specifically, methanol? It would explain some other major things, like the encephalopathy and his eventual failure to maintain pupillary reflexes.

Man I got no idea. I haven’t actually taken care of a pt with methanol poisoning, so all my knowledge is book knowledge. Methanol, aka wood alcohol, is an alcohol much like ethanol (booze), except that it turns into formic acid in your body, destroys your eyesight permanently, causes brain swelling, and tends to result in horrible death. I’ll have to look that up when I get back to work on Saturday.

Anyway. He stayed very high-acuity for the next few days; I was 1:1 with him the next day, and the day after that I was first admit, but ended up not admitting because the only person who came up from the ER was a telemetry overflow. He was one of those pts who isn’t panic-level crazy, but whose workload nurses describe to each other as “steady.” Basically, there’s something to do at least once every ten minutes, some of these things taking as long as twenty or thirty minutes and requiring multiple RNs or the help of a CNA, and you spend very little time charting because you’re constantly scanning medications or taking blood sugars or turning or changing dressings or titrating drips.

In this case, about halfway through the second day, the intensivist ordered lactulose enemas to be given every four hours, in hopes of stimulating his bowel to move. I took extreme issue with this because I could SEE the guy’s intestines and they were obviously too swollen to twitch, let alone move stool effectively, but considering that his colon was relatively un-irritated per report of the GI surgeon and the enemas were only about 250mL volume (we often give 1L-2L enemas!), I figured it couldn’t hurt. And sure enough, after the second enema he dumped a decent handful of mucoid stool, although his small intestines were obviously still not moving.

How did we administer these enemas? The traditional way involves turning your pt on their left side, sticking a tube up their rectum, and draining a bag of fluid into their butt to get the shitslide cookin’. Turning this guy onto his left side would have been… tricky, so instead I pulled the rubber tube off the business end of a foley catheter, lubed it up a bit, jammed it up his butt via the “lift balls, grope for anus” method, and inflated the balloon with a syringe of saline. Then I mixed up the enema, drew it up into a giant Toomey syringe of the kind we use to instill fluids into a GI tube (it holds about 60mL at a time), and flushed it all through the rubber hose into his colon. Between flushes I clamped it off with a large hemostat, the kind we use to clamp chest tubes shut. An hour or two later he dumped the full enema, still clear, into the bed. Time to start over.

Turning was tricky. Any time we moved him, he would grimace and his blood pressure would skyrocket—even though he was heavily sedated and receiving a pain med drip, he was clearly having a lot of breakthrough pain. His blood pressure tended to run dangerously low whenever he wasn’t in pain, though. So I would dose him with a huge bolus of fentanyl, wait about two minutes for it to kick in, watch his blood pressure start to bomb (watching in real time through an arterial line), and then do all the turning and washing and dressing changing and whatnot.

Ventilated pts also get their teeth brushed or their mouths swabbed and suctioned once every two hours, usually right before we turn them so there isn’t a drool river when we’re moving them around every two hours. 

The whole time, we were hunting desperately for someone to make decisions on his behalf: a family member, a designated power of attorney, anybody. His kidneys weren’t pulling out of their tailspin, and the buildup of nitrogenous wastes in his body wasn’t doing him any favors. Before we made the huge step of initiating dialysis, though, knowing that this would be a long healing process with a huge amount of involved and intensive care, it would have been really nice to know if he’d have wanted it.

This being a weekend, and this fellow being a member of a specific healthcare group that has its own social workers and discharge nurses that aren’t available on weekends for whatever goddamn reason, I found myself doing most of the work of contact hunting. I called his job and, without being able to give them any details over the phone, asked if he had any next-of-kin numbers. None of them worked. I called his home phone, got his roommate, learned that he had a daughter he had only ever referred to as “my daughter;” received a phone call from a coworker of his who had heard he was out sick, and found out that he has a landlady who “might know somebody;” called the landlady and learned that he had family somewhere in a Middle Eastern country “who don’t speak any English and I don’t know their names;” and was finally suggested to contact a religious leader of his community, who might have access to lineage papers.

By the time I got to that point, it was Monday morning, and the social workers were back on the job. So I spent about an hour pushing them over the phone, giving them a full report of everything I’d done to seek contact, and signed off on his “call the family” duties.

Meanwhile, down the hallway, the drowned kid circled the drain for days. His lungs were torn to shreds by the lake water; his anoxic brain injury caused him to start seizing for hours at a time; his mother went completely insane before my eyes and descended from “horrified and grieving mother” to “crazy woman in filthy clothing laugh-sobbing in the end of the hallway all day and all night.” God, we all felt terrible for her. She threw a shoe at the palliative care people when they came by. 

He went into a rotoprone bed, as I think I said before, and coded in it. A rotoprone bed is no minor thing in ICU practice. It’s like a huge padded coffin/cradle into which a pt can be packed, then wrapped tightly in cushions and panels and straps, then rotated until their face is hanging downward so their lungs can drain. Once they’re proned, we open the back of the bed and let them lie there, gently swinging back and forth with their belly facing the floor, letting their lungs stretch and drain and slowly recover. It’s very effective when used early, and was originally marketed for H1N1 support, since young pts who survived the initial respiratory catastrophe of that strain would recover easily enough in a week or two.

Now we use it for ARDS, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can happen for many reasons ranging from pneumonia to aspiration to pancreatitis. In ARDS, the lungs become so inflamed that their tissues turn thin and stiff, they can’t exchange gas well, fluids weep into the air sacs, and even the blood vessels lose their pliancy and become hard and resistant to blood flow. 

We use a lot of things to treat ARDS. Paralytics can help reduce the pt’s inclination to fight the ventilator, and minimize their oxygen usage; Flolan (epoprostenol) is a ruinously expensive inhaled medication that dilates the blood vessels of the lungs to allow improved blood flow; chest physiotherapy can sometimes be used to help break up secretions and move fluids around; and, of course, antibiotics and steroids and protective settings on the ventilator to prevent lung damage. And PEEP.

Remember how a bipap mask adds a kick of pressurized air at the end of the breathing cycle to keep the airways (large and small) open? PEEP (positive end-expiratory pressure) is similar to that. Cranking up the pressure helps force fluid back into the veins, keeps the air sacs open, and increases the pressure gradient of air vs blood so that air exchanges more effectively across the membranes. Usually ventilation (CO2 shedding) is harder than oxygenation, but in ARDS pts often have oxygenation just as bad as their ventilation. 

I’ve seen ARDS fought effectively. I cared for a pt once who was very young, got a nasty pneumonia, spent days and days in the rotoprone bed, and was eventually transferred to the local children’s hospital to receive ECMO—extracorporeal membranous oxygenation, in which blood is drained from the body, oxygenated through a membrane, and pumped back into the body constantly. She ended up doing well, and sent us a letter about a year later to let us know that she had not only survived, she had recovered enough to walk across the stage at her graduation.

The drowned kid will not be so lucky. Even if his lungs manage to recover from the lake water problem, his brain is completely fucked from the continued hypoxia. We are, essentially, buying the family time to say goodbye.

Which is a victory, sometimes. If we define death as failure and any kind of life as success, then pretty soon our successes are often hollow—we have quite a few pts who end up suffering for a very long time and being shipped back and forth between the hospital and a long-term acute care facility—and our failures are nearly constant.

You have to look for other definitions of success and failure, here. Sometimes our victories are good deaths. Sometimes we work our asses off day and night to make sure a pt is comfortable as they’re dying. Sometimes we finally manage to talk the family into letting go; sometimes we struggle to win them the few days they need to come to terms with their loss. Sometimes we squeeze enough time to let the plane land and the taxi speed from the airport, so that the kids can be there when their father dies. Sometimes we wash our hands of a code and catch our breaths, and the corpse cools in the room while we go back over the entire crisis and realize that we did everything right and they died anyway. But it’s still a victory, just as all these others are victories: we did everything right.

But they died anyway.

And sometimes we practice our skills on a pt who has made every possible bad choice and is dying of their bad choices, knowing that our care is futile and the resources we spend are wasted, but knowing that when the next pt comes in needing that unusual procedure, we will be that much fresher in our practice. That’s a victory, if you squint.

And sometimes we fight tooth and nail to save them, and care about them, and care so deeply about their survival that when they die anyway we are all devastated and we go out and drink and wish we could have done anything, one more thing, to save them. Which, I don’t know, might not be a victory; but it feels like something more important than a defeat. It feels like a connection. It feels like we have successfully recovered our humanity, which we often hang on the break room wall next to the memo notice sheets and the spare stethoscopes, so that we can dig in a pt’s guts without cringing and accept verbal abuse without snapping and look death straight in the face without blanching. It’s inconvenient, but it’s easily lost, and even though it’s selfish we value those moments of realization that we aren’t as dead inside as we pretend to be.

Which is to say: when the drowned kid died, my last day before I went on that huge long camping trip and didn’t post for a while, we were all devastated. His mother cried like an animal, gagging and groaning and clawing at her arms, and we all twisted our mouths and ground our teeth and remembered that we were people and wished we weren’t.

Rachel went home again. Her younger child’s birthday is coming up.

That same day, the last day before camping, I sent my open abd guy down to have his belly incision revised. They will slowly close it until at last his intestines are all contained, giving him time for the swelling to diminish between each revision. Then, because he wasn’t expected back up before my end of shift, I took two more pts: a comfort care pt in his thirties with Huntington’s, who was starting to lose his ability to swallow his secretions and was choosing to go home to die rather than move forward with a tracheostomy, and an older fellow with severe hearing loss who had come in for a very mild GI bleed from an ulcer in his stomach.

The comfort care pt’s case was relentlessly sad. His young wife is pregnant; he is not expected to live to see the child. He declined to make a video for the baby, saying that he didn’t want his son to see him like this. His family are rollicking good-ol-boy country folk, and they all sat in his room picking on him affectionately and watching Pawn Stars. They were delightful; they had faced this monster directly, and chosen not to be destroyed by its inevitable rampage, and as a result they were wonderfully supportive and caring. They helped move his cramped arms and roll him gently when he needed to be repositioned; they joked that his stubble “looked like wanderin’ pubes.” They ate five boxes of Fruit Roll-Ups in the room (making me crave Fruit Roll-Ups), and tirelessly suctioned his mouth with a soft plastic tube so he wouldn’t choke.

We tried out atropine drops to dry up his mouth, and they worked fairly well, although he still needed some suctioning from time to time. He was just waiting for the hospice group to pick him up in the morning and bring him home, where he can spend the rest of his life in comfort, surrounded by family. He got the shittest deal on the table, but I think he’s choosing the best possible option with it.

The GI bleed old guy told me about gladiator diets (beans and porridge, with burned plants to provide magnesium?) and house paint (never just use flat white, it looks too bare!) and nail storage (lots of yogurt containers!). He was advanced from a clear liquid diet to a full liquid diet, and delighted in his tray of four different kinds of soup instead of “all that sweet stuff they’ve been trying to trick me into eating.” He called me darlin’ and ma’am and Nurse Elise. He was an absolute doll and I wish all my pts were like him. Plan was to send him home the next day.

The next day I left for my camping trip, and haven’t been back to work yet. The trip was wonderful—I moved into a hammock by Lake Crescent, out on the peninsula, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever camped—and then I came home, finished my studying, took my CCRN exam, slept for a full day, and went to Cardiology Summer School today (first of three Fridays spread throughout the summer, lectures by a popular nurse educator in the area). Tomorrow, I go back to work.

I did stop by and check on my open abd guy. He is still alive and seems to be doing well, though the dialysis nurse was in his room setting up shop when I poked my head in. I didn’t see his abdomen, though. Maybe it’s closed by now. I will check his chart tomorrow and see what all has been going on while I was eating hot dogs and smores at the lake.

And I had my ninety-day review at this facility (I worked there for three months as a traveler before hiring on full time). My manager said there have been absolutely no complaints about me, which makes me pretty giddy, but added that the charge nurses were surprised by how easily I fell asleep on my nap breaks and how often I spend my breaks napping.

I really don’t know what to say to that. I’m fucking exhausted all the time at work and I sleep like a dead rock every chance I get. I just kind of stammered something about being ex-night-shift and wandered away. I thought break naps were one of the crucial characteristics of the nursing profession in general? Maybe I’m just lazy. That is a very real possibility.

I wonder if I’ll get my abd guy back tomorrow. I guess I should head to bed soon, since I have to be up in six hours. Shit, I think I figured out why I nap on all my breaks.


  1. Hi Elise. I just want to say that you're an incredible writer and that I've spent the last couple of days poring over your posts. I can't seem to stop reading. As of now, I'm halfway through high school, and reading your accounts has strengthened my desire (and long-held dream) of becoming a nurse. So I'm studying hard and hoping I can be like you one day. Cheers!

    P.S- I'm on the verge of tears reading posts like this one. Don't ever stop writing, please. Your words are absolutely beautiful.

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