I was sleeping on the stretcher early this morning and the rain was falling in sheets on the roof of the ambulance. The job they woke us up for, sometime before dawn, sounded like either nonsense or a complete mess: “FEMALE 80 DIFFBREATHER 3RD PARTY CALLER NOT ONSCENE.” that usually means someone somewhere doesn’t know what to do with their grandma so they call EMS and say she’s having trouble breathing and let us handle whatever family crisis was going down. Usually.
In this case though, the patient had called her daughter, gasped “I can’t breathe!” and hung up. The daughter was on the way but when we got there it was 4:30 am and no one was answering the door. We buzz, call dispatch for a callback, buzz some more, wait. Nothing. Finally, the daughter shows up, lets us in and there’s her mom, laying facedown on the kitchen floor. You can tell right away when a body’s a corpse. It’s not just that they’re not breathing, there’s something else; a total inanimate quality to a dead person that even the comatose don’t have. She was quite dead, but had been alive at least 15 minutes earlier, so we brought her into the front room (because there wasn’t enough space to work her up in the kitchen) and began CPR.
If you’re gonna work up a cardiac arrest, the thing you really need that’ll let you do your job is more hands. This is because CPR has to be going on throughout, and meanwhile you have to be starting IVs and intubating and pushing medications and all that, so really it takes at least 4 people to do it right, but preferably more. Since this job came over as a DIFFBREATHER and not an ARREST, it was just us. I come up on the radio to call for our backup, as I’m pumping up and down on this woman’s chest, and nothing happens. No staticy reply, no other units chattering. Nada. My partner tries too and gets nothing. One radio keeps shutting off and the other gets no signal whatsoever.
Mumbling and grumbling and still pumping up and down while my partner gives ventilations, I call the dispatcher, but of course, the number i have in my phone still goes to the Brooklyn desk, and for whatever stupid reason they won’t transfer me.
-i can give you the last four digits of the number you need, the dispatcher tells me helpfully.
How bout you go ahead and give me all ten?
-Oh, I don’t know them.
There was a pause then as a million unfathomable curses swung through my head.
Meanwhile, I’m panting, and the phone is cradled in my shoulder and I’m trying not to let it slip and fall onto the patient and the daughter is watching from the kitchen, trying not to burst into tears.
-But I can tell you the first six numbers are the same as the ones you just called for the Brooklyn board.
what. numbers. are. they?
-Oh! I don’t know. Whatever you called!
I think I growled at that point. Fortunately I had been repeating everything back to her throughout the whole conversation, including the last 4 digits that we needed, so my partner took out his phone and put everything together.
“We have a cardiac arrest and we need backup…”
In the meantime, I get busy with the IV, which involves doing a whole bunch of chest compressions, stopping to put on the tourniquet, a whole bunch of compressions, finding the vein, which is all the harder when someone doesn’t have blood pumping through them, compressions, swabbing the site with alcohol, mad compressions, tearing open the plastic wrappers on the saline lock and the syringe, pushing saline into the lock and unwrapping the catheter, mad compressions, and finally putting in the line, compressions, and securing it down with tape. Whew. Fortunately, backup showed up right around then so I was able to go head and push the first line of medications without stopping every five seconds.
Amidst all this, I’m trying to explain, without being too grim or falsely hopeful, to the daughter that her mother is in cardiac arrest and what exactly that means. I do this because all too often, people believe the crap they see on TV with dead folks popping back alive every time someone bounces on their chest for a few seconds. Without obliterating all hope, I want the family members to understand the gravity of what’s going on. It can get even messier when we’re forced to transport the patient, for one reason or another, and then people really believe they’re going to make it, when in reality they so rarely do. So, I’m panting away, holding the calmness in my voice, and the daughter is taking it really well, nods, seems to get it, although I do see the moment of painful realization flash across her face and for a second she looks like she’s going to break but then she pulls it all together.
I start running the cold fluids, part of the new hypothermia protocol we do for cardiac arrests patients now that lowers the core body temperature with a flush of near frozen saline to preserve the tissues. But when my partner goes to intubate he finds the airway full of pink, frothy sputum. The patient had been in pulmonary edema, a fluid overload in the lungs. Pumping more into her at this point will only aggravate the situation that caused her death so we discontinue and move on to the other medications.
At some point the daughter remembers there’s a Living Will that specifies the patient doens’t want to be resuscitated. Technically, we can only accept a true Do No Resuscitate order, but at this point we’ve already pushed all the first line meds and are ready to call the online telemetry doctors for a consult anyway, so I make the call, give the presentation and then let the doc know about the will.
The patient’s been flatline the whole time, hasn’t shown any change towards making a comeback and the will speaks for itself, so when the doctor asks if I’m comfortable pronouncing I tell him I am and he gives me a time of death.
And that’s that.
We extubate, pull out the IV, slide a sheet under her and heave her onto the daybed in an adjacent room. One of her cats comes out to see what all the fuss is about and then somberly walks away. We close her eyes, tuck her in and leave her be.
It takes a while for PD to show up, again because the job didn’t initially come over as a cardiac arrest, so I end up sitting at the kitchen table with the daughter, sipping water and chatting about life, death and cats. She’s calmed down a lot, made a quick peace with it, perhaps to grieve later. Her husband showed up and took on the grim task of alerting her estranged sisters about the death of their mother. Outside the rain is still coming down and the sun is just beginning to rise.