Death Snatchers

During our ICU morning rounds, the medical residents were presenting the patients’ cases to me as I was taking over care from another attending physician.

One of the patients came in with fever and worsening shortness of breath. After work-up he was diagnosed with Legionnaire’s disease, a severe infection by a water-borne bacteria . He had complications with multi-organ failure, requiring mechanical ventilator and dialysis, among other life-sustaining support. After more than a week, he improved.

So as the resident was presenting his case with such bravado, he concluded with the statement, “we snatched him from the jaws of death,” with matching clawing action, like the arcade game of claw crane.

I kind of smiled with his presentation. I know he was half-joking, just to lift the morale of the ICU team. Taking care of very sick patients in the ICU where mortality is quite high despite of all the efforts, can be depressing.

I know this resident is a smart guy. In fact he is finishing his Internal Medicine residency with us in another month, and will be continuing his training in Hematology-Oncology Fellowship at Mayo Clinic this July. Maybe he’ll be “snatching” more patients from the jaws of death.

But there may be some truth in his statement, as we are literally snatching people out of the jaws of death. But are we really? Or are we just kidding ourselves?

That afternoon, there was a Code Blue (medical emergency) that was called overhead and my ICU team ran to respond to that call, which was a little ways out, as it was in the annexing building at the outpatient Cancer Center. The Intern (1st year resident), the most “inexperienced” of my team was the first one to arrive at the scene. He immediately took helm and directed the resuscitation efforts. Of course he was more than able and certified to do so.

By the way, even though some may say that residents (doctors-in-training) can be inexperienced, in a recent study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it reported that patients’ mortality rate is lower in teaching hospitals, than non-teaching hospitals.

Back to my ICU team, after more than half an hour of furious CPR, a stable heart rhythm was finally attained. The patient was then admitted to our ICU. I commended the Intern for doing a great job with such poise and calm, even in the midst of chaos during the Code Blue. Borrowing the words of my other resident, I told him in a jest that he “snatch” one out from the jaws of death.

I know from my experience, that even though CPR was “successful,” it was only temporary. Given the fact that this particular patient has advanced cancer, and was receiving chemotherapy when she had the cardiac arrest, tells me that the prognosis was poor.

I spoke with the patient’s son and explained to him the situation, that even though we were successful in reviving her mother, still the odds of her surviving through this was slim. But the son wanted “everything” done including doing more CPR if in case her heart stops again and does not want to hear about the poor outcome. But I understand, it is hard to let go.

The next morning, I learned that our cardiac arrest patient died. She died a few hours after I left for the night. So much of snatching people from the jaws of death.

Before we can start our ICU rounds that morning, my ICU team was called to the Emergency Department (ED) for a CPR in progress.

When I came to the resuscitation room in the ED, I saw a patient with the Lucas device on him (a machine that do the automated cardiac compression). I was told by the ED physician, that they were trying to resuscitate the man for about an hour now. He would temporary regain a heart beat, only to lose it again.

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Lucas device (photo from web)

They called me to assess if we should place the patient on Extra-Corporeal Life Support (ECLS), a “heart and lung” machine, as a temporizing measure to save him (see previous post). I suggested we call the cardiologist too.

Shortly thereafter the cardiologist arrived, and as soon as he walked in, the patient regained a stable heart rhythm again. So the Lucas device was shut off temporarily. After a brief conference with the cardiologist, we decided that the he would take the patient to the Cath Lab and see if he can open any blocked coronaries. Then we’ll decide if we need to hook the patient on ECLS.

Less than 10 minutes after we hashed our plan and as we were preparing to take the patient to the Cath Lab, the patient’s heart stopped again. We turned on the Lucas device once more. Our resuscitative efforts was now close to an hour and a half.

That’s when we all agreed, the cardiologist, the ED physician, and me, to call off the code. This patient was too far along from being snatched from the jaws of death.

We turned off the Lucas device, unhook him off the ventilator, and stopped all the intravenous medical drips that were keeping him “alive.” The ED physician then went out of the room to speak with the patient’s family, while me and my ICU team went to start our morning rounds and take care of our ICU patients.

It was grim start of our morning. Definitely my team was feeling down again.

Two hours later, I got a call from the ED. On the other line was the cardiologist, and I cannot believe what I was hearing. He was asking me to admit to the ICU the patient whom we pronounced dead earlier that morning!

Apparently after we unhooked the patient from all life-sustaining device, he regained a stable heart beat, and he started breathing spontaneously. They were waiting for him to die for the past two hours but he did not.

When I told my team that we were admitting “Lazarus,” which was what I called the patient, they thought I was just joking to lighten the mood. It took me a little more convincing for them to realize that I was telling them the truth.

That tells me enough of this “snatching people from the jaws of death.” Some of them can get out, even if we already dropped them. It just show who is really in charge. Definitely, it’s beyond us.

 

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Post Note: “Lazarus” eventually died 12 hours later.

 

 

Illusive Hope

During my last weekend call, one of the many admissions I had to the ICU was a man in his 70’s, who was found unresponsive in his home. Since he lives alone, he probably have been lying on the floor for a couple of days before he was found.

After work-up in the emergency room, it was determined that he had a large stroke. As he was very sick and unstable, we were consulted to admit him in our ICU.

The next day, after providing supportive measures, his vital signs stabilized and he became more responsive, and even following simple commands. Yet he still has significant neurologic deficits due to the devastating stroke.

The patient’s son who was the power-of-attorney, talked to me and showed me his father’s living will, which specifically detailed that in case he had an “irreversible condition,” he does not want to be on any form of life support including artificial nutrition, like tube feedings or even intravenous fluids.

I assessed that with the severity of the stroke, the likelihood of “good” recovery was doubtful. My projection was that he would never live independently again, would most likely be nursing home-bound, and definitely would not be the same person that they know. In addition, he could even get worse as the swelling of the brain increase. No question, I painted a grim scenario.

After hearing my assessment, the patient’s son and family, were ready to call hospice and just make the patient comfort cares. The son told me that his father, for sure would not like to live a life with such a poor quality as I have projected. Though I told them, that the neurologist whom I consulted have not seen the patient yet, and perhaps they should wait on what he has to say.

Not long after, the neurologist came. He extensively reviewed the CT scan of the head, and he made a careful and detailed neurological examination of the patient, as he tried to evoke even obscure reflexes that I can only read in the medical textbook. After his evaluation, the neurologist, the patient’s son, and me, went in a room for a conference.

The neurologist explained that with his estimation, even though the stroke was large, since it involved the non-dominant side of the brain and mostly the frontal lobe, he believes that the patient can still have a “meaningful” recovery. In addition, since the acute stroke was a few days ago, he thinks that the swelling was on its way down, and perhaps we were already past the worst phase. He backed this with his expert knowledge of brain anatomy and function.

Thus the neurologist believed that at best, though it may take months of rehabilitation, the patient can talk – though with a funny accent, walk – but with a limp that he even demonstrated, and maybe could even live independently later on. He definitely painted a more rosy picture than the gray picture that I have painted.

Hearing the neurologist’s opinion, it was obvious we have a “slight” difference of opinion. Perhaps slight was an understatement.

After considering the neurologist’s evaluation, the son and the family changed their mind and decided to defer calling hospice and instead support the patient as much as possible, including tube feedings and all.

To be honest, I was a bit perturbed that I gave such a bleak prognosis than what the other doctor gave. Have I given up on that patient too soon? Have I killed the embers of hope prematurely? Perhaps I have become so pessimistic in my view of things. Perhaps I have seen so many prolonged sufferings and bad outcomes despite our best intentions and efforts in my ICU experience. Perhaps I was just saving the family from the heartaches of clinging to unrealistic optimism. Or perhaps I become more cynical and have lost my faith in hope.

In my defense, maybe I just see the front end and the acute catastrophic courses of patients in the ICU, and have limited exposure to the success stories of patients’ wonderful recovery after prolonged and extensive rehabilitation.

But even though I felt betrayed by my negativism, I felt relieved that I have heard a differing opinion, and perhaps gave a chance to a life that we almost gave up on too soon. Even though I felt embarrassed and almost apologetic for my opinion, I was thankful that we gave hope a chance. Everybody deserves that chance.

The following day, when I rounded on our stroke patient, he was more obtunded and unresponsive. He now have labored breathing and had to be placed on a ventilator. I then requested a repeat CT scan of the head.

The CT scan showed what I was afraid would happen: a further extension of the stroke and more swelling, displacing the structures of the brain beyond the midline and even herniating down the brainstem. This was unquestionably a grave condition, and most likely fatal. No more differing opinions.

The family decided to transition to comfort cares, and the patient expired a day later.

I did not kill hope. It died.

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Destined Rest Stop

Returning home one evening after dropping off my daughter to her university, I came to this rest area. Since I was still several miles away from home, and needed to take a leak, so I use the rest stop.

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Rest Stop where I stopped

For the weary road traveler, rest stops are such an inviting place. Especially if they are beautiful, clean, and well maintained, like the one I used above. For people with hyperactive bladder, like me, rest stops are life-savers.

Many times we just stop to take a bathroom break. Though sometimes we take a rest for several minutes to stretch our legs or take a walk. While some take a longer break and even sleep for a few hours in their car or truck, before continuing on their long journey.

Not to brag, and since I have driven from America’s coast to coast, I believe rest stops here in Iowa are among the cleanest and well-maintained facilities. Of course I’ve also been to ones that are not worth a stop at all.

The world’s largest rest stop or truck stop is found here in Iowa along I-80. This stop has pretty much anything a road warrior needs. In addition to plenty of fast food restaurants, there is a movie theater, a laundromat, showers, a trucking museum, and a church that have service on Sundays.

Though rest stops are not meant to be our final destination. They are mere transient stops along the way. They are just there to provide us a respite from the weariness of our long travel. And that’s should be true as well in our life’s journey.

Few days ago, I learned from our batch that two of our classmates from medical school passed away. One died from a “lengthy illness” according to his obituary. While the other died suddenly from a ruptured brain aneurysm while he’s on a trip.

Of all circumstances, dying while on a break or a vacation, to me is just not right. Perhaps some will say, at least your last memories are of a happy occasion. But then again, is there really even a “good” time to die?

I am deeply saddened by these news. I guess me and my classmates and contemporaries are now in that age that we can get seriously ill and die. Though I would say, they were still too young to die.

The one who died suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm was a classmate of mine not just in medical school in the Philippines, but even since we were in pre-med. Besides being in the same classroom together since our teen years, we also played a few basketball games together, went to some outings together, and much more.

Then when we were both doing our post-graduate training here in the US, when I was applying for my subspecialty training, I even stayed in his home for a couple of days when I had an interview in Chicago, where he was still living at that time.

He worked in the US for several years, but he left a lucrative cardiology practice here, and went back to the Philippines last year, to practice back home and serve our own people. Perhaps he’s more nationalistic than I am. Or perhaps he just wanted to go home.

In one level or another, he did go home.

The last time I saw him was in Manila during our 25th graduation anniversary from University of Santo Tomas (UST) medical school, earlier this year. At one time, after a whole day event in UST, we, together with other friends went to a restaurant near Ortigas for a night-cap. Even though the place was probably less than 10 miles from the school, it took us almost 2 hours to get there due to horrible traffic. Who needs a rest stop, when we were already stopped all the time?

As I was riding with him in his car and we were stuck in Manila’s traffic, at least this gave us more time to catch up with each other’s lives. Never did I imagined, that will be the last time we’ll spend time together, and that will be our last shared trip.

Our life’s journey is so unpredictable. We plan for a long haul, but at times our travel is shortened. Way too shortened. Some of us will arrive at a rest stop. And it’s a permanent rest stop.

Rest in peace, my friends.

Guardians of the Galaxy: A Reminiscence

This is not a film review.

I know anybody can be a critic. Everybody has an opinion and everybody is entitled to one. You don’t have to be an expert to critique a movie. There are movies that we watched and discerned that they are good movies. Then there are those that we watched, and we felt duped and wanted our money back.

But there are films that we remember or even cherished, not because of the film itself, but because of the memories tied into them.

Maybe it was that animated movie that your whole family saw when you were young. Or maybe that romantic comedy that you saw with your crush on a date. Or perhaps that stupid action movie that you and your classmates cut class just to see it. Or maybe it was that boring drama that you watched after your girlfriend/boyfriend dumped you.

The film that I fondly remember as of recent is the “Guardians of the Galaxy.” (Spoiler alert, if you have not seen it yet.) I know a sequel is in the works and will be out by the middle of next year.

The reason I like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the personal events surrounding it.

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It was August 2014. I went home to the Philippines emergently to see my mother who got sick and was hospitalized. My sister sent me a message and told me that mom was gravely ill, and to come immediately if I want to see her alive.

Three days after I got the message, and after more than 24 hours of traveling, and about 8000 miles of airflight, and a ton of apprehension and jet lag, I got home.

When I came to the hospital, UERM university hospital in Quezon City, my mom came out of coma and actually was doing better. Maybe because she learned that I was coming home to see her. At least, that’s what I wanted to believe.

However, after few more days and more tests were done, it was found that her cancer from the colon, which was removed through surgery five years earlier, had come back. Now it had spread to her lungs and perhaps to other organs as well.

After evaluating all our options, we discussed with my mother asking her what she wanted to do. She firmly stated that she does not want to do any more therapy – no more surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. She decided to just wait for the inevitable to come, and she wanted to go home. “Home,” has different meanings in so many levels.

So that day we decided that as soon as she is stronger, hopefully in a couple of days, we will take her home and set up a kind of hospice-like arrangement until her days here on earth is through. It was a sad day of reckoning.

I was the bantay (watcher or guardian) that day of my mother. I know in the Philippines, it is a common practice that patients in the hospital have a bantay, to assist in every need, may it be a glass of water or help with the bedpan. Unlike in the US, a patient is mostly left alone in his/her room with just a call light to summon for help.

When my older sister came that evening to relieve me as the bantay, I really don’t want to go home, but I don’t want to stay in the hospital either, for I need to clear my head.

So I went to SM Sta. Mesa (Centerpoint) which was just a block away from UERM, to pass the time. I just want to escape from the sad reality that was happening right before my eyes.

After wandering for a while, I decided to watch a movie. The movie I watched was the “Guardians of the Galaxy.” If there would be a movie about the hospital bantays would they entitle it “Guardians of the Bedpan?”

I like sci-fi movies. So its not a surpirse that I chose to see the “Guardians.” Besides I don’t remember the other movies that were showing that time. Definitely I would not watch a drama or a depressing movie given the circumstances I was in.

I thought the concept and setting of the “Guardians” was so out of this world, that it was hardly believable. But then again, at that time and what I was going through, the farther from the reality, the better for me.

I like the featured songs of the 1970’s in that movie, music that I grew up with. I also like some of the characters of the movie. Especially Groot, the man-tree who has very unique powers, even though he can only say one line: “I am Groot!” And of course the star of the movie, Peter Quill, an unorthodox hero, who calls himself Star Lord.

But maybe it was background of the story that has a soft spot in my heart. Peter Quill lost his mother, and what remained was only her loving memory and the old songs her mother left him.

On the last scene, Peter reads an old letter from his mother, and then unwraps a gift from his mom, a cassette tape of oldies songs. As he listens to the nostalgic music, it puts him on a kind of trance. It placed me on a kind of trance as well, realizing the similarity to my own state of affairs.

I thought I was escaping, but somehow the painful reality sneaked in.

Last week was my mother’s death 2nd anniversary. It so happen that the movie the “Guardians of the Galaxy” was being shown on TV that night. I couldn’t help it. I had to watch it again.

Sure enough, it brought back memories.

(*photo taken from the web)

A Somber Celebration

Last week, we had a patient in the ICU who was unwell. Unwell, is perhaps an understatement.

He was of an advanced age though, as he was in his 80’s, and maybe has already lived a full life. Yet he was still active, lives independently with his wife, and was in relatively good health, until he got sick and got admitted to the hospital.

He came down with a bad bout of pneumonia. So bad that he went into respiratory failure and had to be placed on mechanical ventilator. This was complicated as well, as he suffered a mild heart attack too. Furthermore, he also developed brisk bleeding in his stomach, but fortunately we were able to stop that bleeding, when we did the gastroscopy.

After several days of intensive support, surprisingly he got better. He got better enough that we were able to take him off the ventilator. He was going to pull through this. So we thought.

But less than 24 hours later, he was placed back on mechanical ventilator. His blood pressure dropped as results of overwhelming infection. He went into congestive heart failure. His kidneys also started to fail. His condition got worse than ever.

We sat down with the patient’s family and discussed with them the dire situation. They decided that they would like to continue the aggressive support and hang on for two more days. I thought it was kind of odd to have so specific timeline in their request.

Why two days?

Two days later, as we’re going through our morning rounds, I was told by my staff that we will be having a party later that day. A birthday celebration right there, in the ICU.

I learned that the family of our elderly patient have called all the family members that can come, to be there and visit the patient. They brought balloons and a large birthday cake. They even brought in the patient’s dog to the ICU! But of course they have to get a permit and confirm all the vaccination records of the dog.

I also learned that the family was planning to take him off life support that same day. They would like to transition to full comfort care, and let nature take its course.

The ICU staff got a birthday card that they passed around and asked us all to sign it. Honestly, I was stumped on what to write on the card.

Do I write “Happy Birthday,” knowing that it may not be really a happy event? Or do I write “May you have more birthdays to come,” which I know would not be true at all? Or should I write “Have a good last birthday?” But that sounds morbid! Or do I write “May you have peace on your birthday,” which I think is very appropriate, but it is as if I’m foretelling death before it actually happen?

Never did I have so much difficulty in writing a simple greeting on a birthday card before.

When the family were ready, we lightened the sedation and have the patient wake up, so he will at least have the chance to witness his own birthday celebration.

The ICU staff came and crowded inside his room and sang “Happy Birthday.” Though I guess, many of us we’re feeling rather sad than happy while singing that song.

We then extubated the patient and took him off the ventilator. He was able to speak after that, though very weakly. The family gave him a piece of his birthday cake which he tasted, even if it was just the frosting.

After a while, he started to show signs of discomfort. He was obviously struggling even just to take a breath. So after the final embraces from the family and a pat to his dog, we gave him medications to relax him and made him more comfortable. He slept the rest of his birthday celebration.

He later slept on into the eternal night.

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P.S. I wrote on his birthday card, “May you have a meaningful birthday.”

 

Tortured Soul

She was a tortured soul.

In spite of all the medical interventions and having a supportive family, she still was always extremely depressed. It seems that she cannot get rid of her demons and the tormenting voices in her head. The desire to kill or hurt herself consumed her every day.

She has been on different anti-depressive medications and was regularly being followed by her psychiatrist. She even had several admissions to the inpatient psych unit. Yet nothing really alleviated her condition. For a person who is barely in her 30’s, she already had a fair share of misery.

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She has attempted suicide a number of times in the past. Though all of those times it was not serious, resulting no grave medical consequences. It was mostly cries for help.

But this time, it’s different.

Her family found her unresponsive in her room after presumably overdosing on a bunch of different pills. Emergency responders were called and upon their arrival, CPR was performed. They were able to establish a stable heart rhythm and patient was brought to the hospital where she was subsequently admitted to the ICU.

She laid there in our ICU, hooked to several monitors and life support. Her chest would rise and fall as the ventilator bellows air into her lungs.

Three days have passed since her admission, yet she remained unresponsive. In addition she had this intermittent jerking-like activity, which I believe was an ominous sign of severe anoxic brain injury. I called the neurologist to assist in her care.

Then few hours ago, something happened.

Her vital signs became more labile. The continuous EEG monitoring which the neurologist requested showed a significant change. The jerking-like activity have quit. Her pupils were now fixed and dilated.

My suspicion was that she now is brain-dead.

Brain death is a complete and irreversible loss of brain function. Unlike in a vegetative state which could have some autonomic or brain stem functions left, brain dead means cessation of all brain activity.

I updated her family of this recent development. Then I proceeded to do my confirmatory exam for brain death per protocol.

After my evaluation, I determined that all her neurologic functions were gone. I even performed an apnea test, which involves taking the patient off the ventilator for 8 full minutes, while providing oxygen through the endotracheal tube. If there was no respiratory motion for the entire time, and this is associated with an appropriate rise in the blood carbon dioxide level, then this is one verification that someone is indeed brain-dead.

The neurologist independently performed her evaluation as well, and also arrived at the same conclusion.

When one is declared brain-dead, it is an indicator of legal death. Different from a person who is in a continued vegetative state, who can be sustained on life support indefinitely (which is controversial in so many levels), a person who is declared brain-dead is officially dead. All life support should be discontinued. Even if the heart is still beating. No argument. No controversy.

I gathered the family and told them of my findings. They were obviously distraught, but accepted the news without any questions.

I also told them, that based on the patient’s driver’s license, she indicated that she was an organ donor. I asked the family if they would like to honor the patient’s wishes.

The family said, that they totally agree to donate the patient’s organs per her wishes. That despite of the patient’s several mistakes in her life, this may be the best decision she have ever made, according to them. And despite of her cloudy and troubled mind, she have decided on this selfless act.

I called the donor network.

I know that somewhere out there, another person will be set free from the shackles of dialysis as he or she would receive a long-awaited kidney. Another person will be given a new breath of life as he or she would receive a new set of lungs. And another person out there will be given a new lease of life, as he or she would receive a new heart.

All because of the gift of a tortured soul.

Life Can Be a Lonely Highway

A few weeks ago we embarked on an ambitious summer drive that took us from farmlands and prairies, to mountains and valleys, to deserted areas and busy metropolis, to rivers, waterfalls and ocean.

We started off from our home in Iowa and drove to Glacier National Park in Montana where we stayed for 3 days. Then we continued our trip to California where I attended 3 days of conference and my medical school’s grand reunion at Long Beach, but we passed by Yosemite National Park first, where we stayed for 2 days.

The sceneries that we passed have been so varied that it changed drastically: from barren lands of South Dakota to lush forests of Montana, from farm lands of Idaho to deserts of Nevada, from wilderness of Yosemite to concrete jungle of Metro Los Angeles.

It was the drive from Glacier National Park to Yosemite National Park that we passed through very lonesome country roads. Though I would take the lonely highways anytime than dealing with the heavy traffic of Los Angeles.

Passing through Nevada on our way to Yosemite, we passed Route 50, a transcontinental highway, which is also named as the “Loneliest Road in America.”

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Indeed it was a lonely road. You probably can set camp in the middle of the road and not be bothered by a passing car for hours. While we were driving through Route 50, I was afraid we will run out of gas and nobody will come to our rescue. Until we saw this….

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Right in the middle of nowhere, is a sort of an oasis. They have a bar, a restaurant, a small motel, and a gasoline station – all in one.

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Notice the sign posted in the motel? It said, “Route 50: The Loneliest Road in America.”

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They even have an old phone booth, which of course is now obsolete in this age of cellular phones.

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So we pulled up to this place and filled our gas tank. We also took the opportunity of taking a bathroom break. Though in reality, I wonder how many travelers in Route 50 when they felt the urge, just stopped and took a leak at the side of the road?

We also check out their small restaurant, and we found that they have plenty of supply of ice cream! Who knew?

Life they say is like a road trip. Sometimes the journey is exhilarating as we go through scenic byways. Sometimes it feels boring as we go through mundane yet major highways. Sometimes we feel we are not going anywhere as we are stuck in traffic. And sometimes we feel alone as we go through lonely roads. But there’s always surprises and unexpected turns.

In the last leg of our trip, after the medical conference and reunion, we also took time to visit our friends and family in California, including my wife’s mother who was staying in Los Angeles area.

Sadly to say,  my mother-in-law got sick and was hospitalized while we were there. Her condition quickly deteriorated and was even transferred to the ICU. So part of my vacation was visiting the ICU, not as an ICU physician but as a patient’s relative. I can’t seem to get away from the ICU.

Despite the medical efforts, my mother-in-law did not improved. She died shortly after a few days.

It was not the vacation we imagined. But at least we can comfort ourselves that we were there during her last moments and we’re able to say our goodbyes in person.

Our family is surely going through a lonely road right now. Yet, we can find solace that even in the loneliest road, there’s always an oasis, a refuge, or a sanctuary if you will, waiting for us where we can find rest.

Lastly, an important thought to remember, that even though it seems we are passing through a very lonely road, we are never alone.

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P.S. Nanay, thank you for the love and the memories. From you “favorite” son-in-law.

(*photos taken at Route 50, somewhere in Nevada)

 

 

 

Spinning Plates

When I was much younger, I had a fascination for juggling. I learned how to juggle on my own. I could juggle 3 tennis balls, or toy blocks, or even plastic bowling pins. Though I did not and would not try juggling chainsaws.

Juggling is an art. The more dangerous and challenging the feat, the more captivating it is.

Have you seen an act of spinning plates, where the juggler spins several plates on sticks? He goes from plate to plate to keep them spinning or else the plates drop to the floor and break.

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Three weeks ago I had one crazy weekend duty. I think it would fall as one of my busiest calls in the ICU in my recent memory. It was so busy that my Friday to Sunday, kind of blended to one very long day with only a few hours of sleep in between.

In one particular stretch of that call, hell broke loose.

I worked on a very sick young man in his 30’s, who was admitted to ICU room 3. I intubated him, placed him on ventilator, placed a large neck catheter for IV access, and started several medication drips on him, all in one rapid succession. I was in the midst of trying to stabilize him when another patient, a lady in room 18, went into cardiac arrest. “Code Blue”* was called.

I have to drop what I was doing on the first patient and ran to room 18. When I got there, the ICU resident was already running the code. After 10 or 15 minutes of CPR and fast paced intervention, we were able to resucitate her back. With her heart rhythm semi-stable, I ran back to room 5, and continued what I was doing.

Not too long after, the patient in room 18 went into cardiac arrest again. I ran back to that room once more. This time I beat my resident to the room and took charge of the Code Blue. My resident who eventually arrived told me that she got hung up in ICU room 16 who was also crashing. I saw another resident who responded to the the Code Blue, but I sent him to room 5, to continue on what I was working there.

After more than 10 minutes of CPR we got our patient in bed 18 going again. It was heartbreaking to see that while the CPR efforts were in progress, the family was just outside the room crying and wailing as we work furiously on their loved one.

After we got the patient’s heart beating again, I gathered her family to a nearby consultation room and discussed with them the dire situation. I told them that there was no guarantee that her heart would not stop again. But given of how sick she was, especially after successive cardiac arrest already, I knew her chances of walking out of the hospital was close to nil, and continuing to do the CPR would be an exercise of futility.

I was talking to the family, when I was called emergently to see room 16 who they were about to call Code Blue. This was the one my resident told me about earlier. We got the patient intubated and hooked to ventilator, started several IV medications and got him stabilized, at least for the time being.

After getting out of room 16, the family of room 18 approached me and told me that they have decided that if her heart stop again, to let her go peacefully.

Less than 30 minutes later, she died.

The patient in room 16 that we attended to also continued to circle down the drain. And despite our efforts, he also succumbed several hours later.

I finally was able to concentrate on room 5 when there was a lull in the chaos we were in. I decided to place him on extracorporeal life support, also known as ECLS** (see previous post about ECLS here), as he would not survive without it. The ECLS team was mobilized, and around 2 o’clock in the morning, the patient was off and running on ECLS.

I have not even mentioned the other 17 ICU patients under my care, but were not actively crashing during that time, nor the other 3 new ICU admissions that came during that span of 4 hours of absolute craziness. I even accepted another patient from an outlying hospital during that period, for whom I ordered our flight crew to fetch. Though the patient did not make it to our hospital, as he was so unstable and our helicopter crew was reluctant to fly him unless they stabilize him more for the flight. I heard he died shortly then.

Spinning plates? Seems like it, right? Sometimes I wonder if I could  keep up with this pace or would I like to continue doing this. Don’t get me wrong I do like my job. But I don’t like the awful stress and the awful reality that comes with it. For it is not just plates that are falling and breaking.

About the patient in room 5? He improved after we placed him on ECLS. He eventually was weaned off ECLS and ventilator after almost 2 weeks in the ICU. He went home from the hospital the other day, walking unassisted and off oxygen.

Success stories like him, though few and far between, keeps us going. After all, I believe it is still worth doing this.

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*Code Blue: an emergency situation announced in a hospital or institution in which a patient is in cardiopulmonary arrest, requiring a team of providers (sometimes called a ‘code team’) to rush to the specific location and begin immediate resuscitative efforts.

**ECLS: extracorporeal life support (ECLS) is an extracorporeal technique of providing both cardiac and respiratory support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to provide an adequate amount of gas exchange to sustain life. It is done by siphoning blood out of the body and artificially removing the carbon dioxide and giving oxygen to the blood by running it through a special machine.

Steak and Rye

It was late afternoon of New Year’s Eve, and I was rounding on our patients in the ICU. I came to one room and the patient was sitting upright in his bed. On his bedside table was a tray with a large piece of steak on a plate, a drinking glass, and a bottle of rye whisky. What? Is this a restaurant or hotel? Is this the new hospital food?

Most of our patients in the ICU are not awake enough to eat food, let alone have a solid meal like that. We provide nutrition through a tube in their nose that goes to their stomach and they feast on liquid feedings. Or if their gut is not working, we give them “gourmet” nutrition through their veins. In fact once patients can eat solid food, most of the time they graduate out of the ICU.

But what about this patient? A slab of steak? And is alcohol sanctioned by the hospital now? Here’s the story.

He presented to the hospital with worsening shortness of breath. After some imaging work-up, he was found to have a large tumor in his chest. I saw him several days ago when he was admitted in a regular room, not in the ICU. We were consulted for the lung mass and I scheduled him to have a bronchoscopy (a procedure putting a flexible scope to the lungs) and biopsy.

However before the scheduled procedure could be done, he suffered a cardiorespiratory arrest, got intubated, was hooked to a ventilator and was moved into the ICU.

Good thing was despite the circumstances, he improved enough that we got him off the ventilator. Yet we don’t have a tissue diagnosis to confirm that what he has is cancer, even though the signs indicated that it was malignant. But we needed to be sure.

So I proceeded with a bronchoscopy and got a biopsy, and finally established a diagnosis. It was lung cancer alright.

Unfortunately his condition got worse again. He again required ventilator support, though a non-invasive type, which is like a CPAP machine. I told him that the final pathology proved that it was cancer. And based on its extent, plus with his grave condition, he was an unlikely candidate for any surgery, or chemotherapy, or radiation to treat his cancer.

That’s when he decided that he wanted to go on his own terms. His own way. Like Frank Sinatra’s song, “I did it my way.”

He requested that we discontinue the non-invasive ventilator, even though he was struggling without it. He asked to have a New York steak and a bottle of rye whiskey for his last meal. So in between labored breath and heavy heaving, he chomped on his steak and sipped on his rye.

When I came to his room that afternoon, despite his terrible situation, he was even smiling while having his last supper.

After he had his meal, we transitioned him to full comfort care per his request. No more ventilators, nor machines, nor any more interventions. Only comfort medications. And while he was watching TV in his ICU bed, waiting for the ball to drop in New York’s Time Square, he quietly slipped into a blissful sleep.

Just before the old year ended, our patient went out peacefully into the eternal night. He exactly did it his way.

For us who made it through another year, may we find new aspirations, new hope, and renewed zeal for life, as we face this new year.

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When You Wish Upon A Star Wars

I entered the room and stood silently at the foot of his bed, watching him breathe. He was hooked to a small ventilator that is connected to a mask covering his face with straps around his head, that he looked like a jet fighter pilot. Beside the bed was his father and his mother who were obviously distraught, yet trying to hold off tears.

Luke* (not his real name) was one of our ICU patients. Even though he was only in his 20’s, he had his fair share of surgeries and hospitalizations than many patients in a geriatric floor combined.

He had a genetic disorder that prevents the development of various organ system. This affects the skeletal system giving them a peculiar look and stature, that some people coin the term FLK syndrome: Funny-Looking Kid. Though for me, there’s nothing funny at all. This disorder also causes heart defects, and can involve other organs like the lungs, liver, gastrointestinal tract, lymphatic and blood system. Even so some people with this genetic disorder could live to adulthood, some would succumb to this disease early in life.

Luke had a number of surgeries to fix his heart problem, and other procedures too many to recall. He had been treated in well-known hospitals like Mayo Clinic, for his disease. But despite of all the technology and medical interventions, his body continued to betray him.

For the last several months he had been in and out of the hospital, usually staying for several weeks at a time, including ICU stay. I have taken care of him a number of times in the past.

In spite of his illness, Luke tried to live his life as “normal” as possible. His family gave him the opportunities and the best care they could. His mother, who was a patient of mine too, had the genetic disorder as well, albeit with a milder manifestation, thus I knew the family well.

One thing I learned, was that Luke likes Star Wars, even though the first Star Wars movie came out more than a decade before he was born. Yeah, he was a fan of this movie genre, just like the rest of us, I guess.

In this last hospital admission, Luke came in with a lung infection causing respiratory failure, requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation. He came on Thanksgiving Day.

After several days in our ICU, we were able to extubate (take out the endotracheal tube) him, only to place him on a non-invasive positive pressure ventilator (NIPPV) with a face mask, as he cannot breathe on his own. This is like a CPAP machine. At least he can stay awake and not be sedated on the non-invasive ventilator, and he can speak as well. He can only tolerate a limited time off the NIPPV, and had to be hooked right back on it. He would not survive without it.

As I watched him with his “jet-fighter mask” with his bed as his vessel, what came to mind was that in a cruel twist of fate, this kid who likes Star Wars, now breathes like Darth Vader: whoooh….poooh, whoooh…..poooh, whoooh…..poooh. Every breath, there’s a gush of pressurized air coming out of the ventilator and through his mask.

After one holiday, another one is approaching. Christmas is just around the corner. And Luke remains in the hospital, ventilator-dependent, with no clear sight that he’ll get better. He knows it, and his family knows it. Luke’s days here on earth is numbered.

With wishful thinking, maybe he can linger a little longer to see the new Star Wars movie which he was looking forward to seeing for the longest time. But how? Him in the hospital? On a ventilator?

But wait, isn’t it Christmas season after all?

Wish granted!

After making elaborate arrangements and collaboration, Luke and his family will be going to a movie theater, to be accompanied by some medical staff, for a special private showing of the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” when it opens this weekend.

After that trip to the theater, Luke will be going home for Christmas with his family, on hospice care. No more hospitals. No more ventilators. No more pain.

Perhaps he could stay home until Christmas. But if not, Luke could soar into the heavens and once and for all, walk on stars. His final home.

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(*name intentionally changed for privacy)

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Update 12/22/15: after posting this story here, I learned that our patient was featured in the local news. See link here.