Sunday morning. It was still dark outside, but I forced myself out of bed. Got to go to work.
I was on-call this weekend, and had barely 5 hours of sleep last night. And even those hours of sleep were interrupted by telephone calls. I was so busy yesterday (Saturday) that I left for the hospital before the sunrise and returned home late at night, that I never saw the sun outside. I rounded on 48 patients in the hospital, 21 of them in the ICU. When I came home last night I felt deflated, depleted, and defeated.
But today is another day. Maybe it will be different.
I started my ICU rounds again before the sun peeked above the horizon. My first stop was a 70-something year old lady that was admitted a few hours ago with gastrointestinal bleeding. I was informed by my resident that the patient is “crashing.” The GI doctor had already scoped her and found a big bleeding ulcer. She had received 6 units of blood already but continued to bleed. We just cannot stabilize her.
Only a few minutes have lapsed after I examined the patient and talked with her family, when she suddenly lost her pulse. “Code blue” (hospital code used to indicate someone requiring emergency resuscitation) was called and we started doing CPR. At least more than 10 hospital personnel came to respond to the code, and packed the room. Nurses, medical residents, respiratory therapists took turn doing the cardiac compression. It was fast and furious.
After about 15 minutes of resuscitation effort, her weeping son who was standing outside the room, and who had witnessed everything that transpired, told me to stop the CPR. Patient subsequently expired.
This is not a good way to start my day.
After offering my condolences to the family, I continued to the next ICU room. Patient was a lady in her 60’s with colon cancer. The cancer had spread almost everywhere in her body despite the most aggressive therapy. In fact she even went to Mexico last month to try “alternative” medicine for cure. But the cancer still progressed.
She currently was admitted with increasing shortness of breath, and was in our ICU for two days now. After work-up, her CT scan of the chest showed hundreds of cannon ball-like lesions in the lungs consistent with diffuse metastasis of her cancer. I told the husband upfront that there was really nothing else we can offer except for comfort. The husband, after making a call to his sons, made the decision to make the patient “comfort care” (a medical care focused on relieving symptoms and allowing the patient to die peacefully) only.
This definitely is not a good day.
The next patient I saw was someone I have been taking care of for several months for an auto-immune disease that had affected her lungs. Her lung condition had limited her severely that she can hardly tolerate any activity. I placed her on high dose steroids and she improved. She was doing well, enough to go to at least 2 out-of-state vacations recently. Unfortunately, being on steroids, which suppresses the immune system, made her prone to infection.
She got admitted in our ICU three days ago with a severe infection and was in septic shock. After a flurry of tests, we suspected that she has systemic fungal infection. Despite all our efforts (antibiotics and all) she continued to “circle down the drain.” Multiple organs including her heart, lungs, kidneys, and bone marrow were failing. She was hooked to machines and medicines to keep her alive.
Her family, whom I came to know well, approached me after I examined the patient. They told me that she had expressed in the past that she would not want to “live” this way. In truth, they are just waiting for another family member to arrive and after that they would like to discontinue all life support. I told them that I will respect their wishes, and just to let me know when their family is ready.
This day is really becoming a bad day.
I moved on to my next one. Again, almost similar scenario. The patient had been in our ICU for more than two weeks now with respiratory failure that we have not determined the cause. We even performed a lung biopsy, but still no definitive diagnosis. After more than a week on the ventilator, he rallied and improved, and we were able to get him off the machine.
The patient remained in our ICU though as his condition remained tenuous. However, early this morning, he turned for the worse again, and we have to place him back on the ventilator.
The patient’s wife and son were eagerly waiting for me. After discussing with them the grave situation, they have decided as well, that the time had come to withdraw the support and transition to comfort care. We then took him off the ventilator. (He eventually died later that day.)
Not long after I left that room, I was called by the nurse that the other patient’s (the one with auto-immune disease) family were all here and they were ready. We discontinued all life support from the patient, and in few minutes, she was gone. The grieving family approached me once again, and thanked me for all my care. It is always humbling for me, when people are grateful despite the unfavorable outcome. The compassion we provide, sometimes is more important than the outcome.
I went on to see my next patient. He was a young man in his 30’s, whom we admitted last night after suffering a cardiac arrest. CPR was performed by his wife until the ambulance arrived. We placed him on “hypothermia protocol,” that is cooling the body temperature to 32 degrees C for 24 hours, to prevent further brain injury from low perfusion. He was chemically sedated and paralyzed, and was on mechanical ventilator.
After our initial work-up we found that his heart was dilated like a balloon, and was pumping very poorly. For such a young person, this was a horrible condition and carries a grim prognosis. His family was distraught, and was reasonably so. We got to give our best effort to help this man survive.
I looked at my list. Forty more patients to see. It will be a long arduous day.
I happened to glance at the window. It was already bright and sunny outside. The sun rays were being reflected on the glass windows of the nearby building. It is a beautiful spring day outside.
Life on this earth is a like a dew. It is so transient. But despite of all the deaths and the dying surrounding me, I still have hope. Hope that death is also transient. It is after all Easter morning.