Bad Night

We’re sleeping in the hospital now. It started this year. Our calls are now in-house as the hospital wanted us to physically man the ICU 24/7. This is besides the resident-on-call who is already in the ICU. Sleeping in a call room of the hospital about once a week, makes me feel like I’m a resident or a doctor-in-training all over again. But I understand, the times are changing, the practice of medicine is changing, and the liability of this profession is changing. We have to adapt.

Few weeks ago, I walked in at 5 in the afternoon to take over the call for the night. The moment I walked in, I was called by my partner who was in charge of the ICU all day, to meet her in the cardiac catheterization lab (cath lab) so she can sign out to me the patients.

When I came down there, I found out that there were two patients currently in the cath lab that were both going to the ICU.

One was a man in his 40’s with severe pancreatitis and was having multi-organ failure, including severe respiratory failure that was not improving even if he’s on mechanical ventilator. So large-bore catheters were being inserted in his neck and groin, so we can place him on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation or ECMO (see previous post about ECMO).

The other patient in the cath lab was a man in his 70’s that had a cardiac arrest. He required prolonged resuscitation. The cardiologist was putting an Impella device in his heart, a device placed inside the left ventricle of the heart to help pump out blood. When that’s done, the patient would be transferred to the ICU. He was already on ventilator as well.


Impella device (photo from

Then my partner told me that there were two more patients already in the ICU that she was called to evaluate, but did not have the chance to see yet, as she was stuck in the cath lab for the last hour or so, assisting in this patient that require ECMO.

One patient in the ICU was a transfer from another hospital, he had fever with very low blood pressure. He also has advanced esophageal cancer and on chemotherapy. He has no immune system to fight the infection. After the initial work-up, he turned up to have Influenza A.

The other patient in the ICU to see was a trauma patient, who was in a vehicular accident. He had several broken ribs and a collapsed lung. The Trauma Team has admitted the patient, but they were having difficulty oxygenating him despite being on a ventilator, thus they were consulting us for assistance.

She also told me that we have 21 other patients in the ICU that were relatively stable at the moment, but can turn volatile anytime, besides the four new ones that needed my immediate attention.

Lastly, she said that she declared the patient in room 15 as clinically brain-dead, hence, legally dead. Patient was a young lady in her 20’s who overdosed on drugs, and unfortunately was not found immediately. When she was brought to the hospital, she was too far gone. The patient’s family agreed to have her organs donated, so she’s still on life support until they can harvest her organs. The Transplant Team wants us to do a bronchoscopy to assess if the lungs and airways were normal and appropriate for harvest.

Hearing the long laundry list, I thought to myself, this would be a long night. That’s not even considering more new patients that may come.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the Transplant Team asking me when could I do the bronchoscopy in room 15. I told them that I would take care of some more pressing issues, and when I get free, I’ll do it, but I already contacted the endoscopy nurse to come and set up for the scope. I thought, let me take care of the living first, before I deal with the dead. But I didn’t tell them that.

When I came up to the ICU, the patient from the cath lab who had a cardiac arrest and got the Impella device, also arrived in the ICU. I evaluated the patient, and it was obvious he was doing poorly. He was requiring 3 IV drips (1 drip is a poor sign already, let alone 3!) to keep his blood pressure up. This was despite the device in his heart to pump blood. He already looked dusky and gray.

I sat down with the patient’s family, and told them that the odds were not in our favor. I don’t believe he would survive the night. I also told the cardiologist that I felt bad for him as well, as all his efforts may be all for nought.

The patient died less than 2 hours after he came up from the cath lab.

While I was working on this patient, I got a call from the Emergency Department about a new patient that needed to come to the ICU. The patient was in her 80’s, with advanced dementia, and was from a nursing home. She was septic, perhaps from a urinary tract infection. I may think that she was not the best candidate to spend my limited time and resources at that time, but who am I to say who lives and who should not. A life is still a life. So I sent my resident to evaluate and admit the patient.

When the ECMO patient came up to the ICU from the cath lab, that was where I spent most of my time and effort. We even consulted Nephrology to start the patient on dialysis too. However, despite all intervention, with ECMO, dialysis, mechanical ventilator, and several IV medication drips, the patient continued to deteriorate. I felt like we’re just spinning our wheels without gaining any traction. I noticed that the patient’s heart rate and blood pressure were drifting down. Definitely an ominous sign.

I gathered the patient’s family and brought them at bedside to the patient. I honestly told them, there’s nothing else we could do.

The patient died 5 hours after he was hooked up on ECMO. I felt defeated and deflated with these events.

In between the deaths of my 2 patients, I was able to squeeze time to do the bronchoscopy on room 15. It looked healthy, so I relayed to the Transplant Team, they can perform their harvest.

After midnight my night quiet down a bit. I caught up and was able to see all the patients I needed to see. When I had some down time, I reflected on what I accomplished and those I failed to accomplish.

At least I was able to stabilize the elderly patient from the nursing home, right? She will get better from the infection, then she’ll go back to the nursing home in a few days, and spend the rest of  her existence in bed with very poor quality of life due to her advanced dementia. How about the patient with metastatic esophageal cancer? He’ll get better from the influenza. But he still have to deal with his cancer and more chemotherapy with bleak hope of a cure. And the sad list just goes on and on.

Nights like this, make me question if it’s really worth doing this. I got several more pages through the night, but I survived to see the morning.


A couple of weeks after that disheartening night-call, I received a letter. It was from the Organ Donor Network. They were thanking me for my effort in assisting to obtain donor organs for transplant. Because of this, they informed me that a young man was given a new lease in life as he received new lungs. There were other patients too that received “gifts of life” with their transplanted heart, kidneys, cornea and so on.

I then realized that even in patients who died under our care, we can make a difference. It still worth it after all.

(*photo of dawn, taken with an iPhone)