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.

plates

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 5. 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.

Frankenstein Medicine

For this week, I have been spending 8-9 hours a day inside the classroom and in the simulation laboratory trying to learn something new. Never too late to learn a new trick, even for an old dog. Though I admit I was almost half asleep in some of the lectures.

The hospital where I have affiliation with, will have a “new” intervention available as soon as next month. This treatment is called Extracorporeal Life Support (ECLS) or also known as Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). So they are training us doctors (critical care specialists, cardiologists and thoracic surgeons), as well as nurses, respiratory therapists and perfusionists, so we can have this life support system off and running.

In a simplistic way, ECLS entails placing large tubes to suck out the blood from the patient. Then having the blood run into a machine where it will be bathed with oxygen and then pumped back into the body. ‘Extra’ means outside, and ‘corporeal’ means relating to body, thus out-of-body life support.

Does this mean the patient will have out-of-body experience?

For patients, whether kids or adults, whose organs have failed for one reason or another, especially the heart or the lungs, can be placed on this life support system to sustain them and keep them alive and buy some time. The use of this intervention is not by all means the first line of treatment but rather of a last-ditch salvo. But it definitely has saved lives, and more and more advanced centers are offering it. Our hospital will be one of the first to provide it in our state.

ecmo

baby on ECLS (photo from the net)

ECLS is not really a new procedure. This has been done for several decades now. Except before, the intervention is only limited to short period of time, like several hours only. The main use of this before was in the operating room during cardiac surgery. They run the blood out of the patient’s body and through this machine, while the surgeon stop the beating heart and tinker on it. I can imagine the heart surgeon singing Sting’s “Be still my beating heart” while he operates. Then the machine is shut off once the heart is beating again.

Now ECLS is also being used outside the operating room, and people are placed on this life support while in the Intensive Care Unit. They can be on this for a few days, a few weeks, or sometimes even months – while their own body and organs recover, or while they wait for a new heart or a new lung, or both, or until “kingdom come.”

Of course the complexity of this intervention is beyond what I can explain here, not to mention the immense cost to the already burdened health care system and the sensitive ethical questions involve, like who to place or who not to place, or when to continue and when to stop. Are we playing God?

While we are doing the training, one of the trainee commented with a sinister smile, “we are Dr. Frankenstein.”

Is this as close as we get to Frankenstein medicine? I don’t think so. We have not created a monster. Yet.