MEGACODE

Spoiler Alert: The patient in this post does not make it. I want to get that out of the way because there’s some ups and downs in how it plays out and I don’t want to put y’all through the emotional manipulation of wondering if she’ll get through or not.

We show up on a DIFF BREATHER call and find a 70 year old woman flat on her back with no pulse. She’s a dialysis patient and has pink frothy sputum lining her mouth so it’s a safe guess she went into fluid overload from kidney failure and her lungs filled up, effectively drowning her. A FDNY chief has decided by chance to show up on the job with us and she has one of the Medical Control doctors along with her, so we have a physician on scene along with the Fire Fighters helping out with CPR.
This turns out to be cool and works in our favor because the Doc is actually very laid back and not trying to run shit – we’re able to circumvent the annoying process of calling Online MedCon to get permission for certain medications. Sometimes, when too many authority figures and egos get on scene together there’s an inevitable clusterfuck to be managed, but fortunately that wasn’t the case here.

So we put our monitor on the patient to see what rhythm her heart’s in. What we see looks like a regular old heart rhythm, a little slow perhaps but basically could be a perfectly healthy person. Except she has no pulse. This is called Pulseless Electrical Activity and happens because sometimes the heart has a little life left in it, just enough for the electrical impulses to keep flickering away but they’re not getting capture with the actual musculature of the heart, so there’s no beat, no movement to speak of, just a parade of ghost complexes marching past the monitor screen.
So we start CPR, i set up the intubation kit while my partner prepares the IV and the Chief gets the woman’s basic information from her son. I’m trying a new technique with intubation, just a simple adjustment on how I grip the handle of the tool we use to open up a patient’s airway but it works like a charm: I can see straight down her throat and the two diagonal white lines of her vocal chords open up in front of my eyes, a perfect view. I slide the tube in, we confirm it’s in place by listening to her lung sounds and my partner gets the IV as the Chief comes back in to inform us the woman is a leukemia patient, besides the kidney failure.
We stop compressions, check a pulse and low behold, there it is, thumping away a little weakly but still: there. So we start setting up to transport her and are trying to check the blood pressure when she loses pulses again, we jump back into CPR, start pushing medications. When we stop the next time she’s in Ventricular Fibrillation. Commonly known as v-fib, this is when the ventricles are just jiggling away uselessly, not pumping blood, not doing much at all but sending crazy wavy lines on the monitor. I charge up the paddles, an alarming wail climbing in pitch till it’s a squeal, make sure everyone’s clear and then shock – the patient’s lifeless body jolts once and we start CPR again.
It happens again- four more times in fact, till we’re all looking back and forth at each other like “Really?!” because v-fib is not a rhythm that tends to stick around. When you shock your effectively jolting the heart with the intention of restarting and usually it’ll either come back as some living rhythm or just flatline out and that’s that.
We’ve already pushed four different medications into her, meds to stimulate her heart, meds to preserve her tissues, meds to balance her electrolytes, meds to keep her sugar levels up, and now we push another that reduces the irritability of her cardiac cells to keep them from fibrillating. When we check again it’s in an extremely rare form of v-fib called Torsades de Pointes (here’s another Torsades case i had with a happier ending) which is actually quite beautiful, a spiraling double helix kind of pattern on the monitor and gets a whole other medication to try to tame it back to something healthier.
Nothing works.
After we shock her five times the squiggle steadies out into flat with only occasional, large messy blips. This is called idioventricular and it’s the end. It means the ventricles have all but given up and are just sending a last, useless series of impulses out. We keep pumping the chest, keep squeezing oxygen into her, keep giving meds but finally the last squiggles pass by and the line is fully flat. At this point, the patient has been down over 45 minutes and we’ve given her every medication and treatment possible to keep her alive. It’s a moment when a medic has to understand that the time has come, our resources are exhausted, we pronounce the patient and begin the careful process of undoing the past hour of messy interventions, pulling out IVs and unsticking the shock pads, finally lifting her lifeless body onto the couch and making her look as peaceful and presentable as possible for the family.

CALM THE #%&*! DOWN

Seems the most common way for people to almost die is Acute Pulmonary Edema (APE). This, as I’ve blogged a lot about already,  is when the heart isn’t pumping adequately enough and fluid backs up into the lungs, essentially drowning the person inside herself. It can happen over the course of days, a gradually rising tide, or it can flashflood and kill someone in seconds, pink frothy sputum coming all the way up their airway and out their mouth. Usually folks show some signs as it’s approaching, something called othopnea which means they can’t lay all the way back without getting short of breath and is measured by how many pillows you can sleep comfortably with (six pillow orthopnea would be a very bad thing). Another sign is Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea – a fancy way of saying sudden late night breathlessness, (which now that I think about it sounds like a fancy way of saying something else altogether…)

Anyway, Congestive Heart Failure is the chronic condition that causes this, but it can come from a sudden heart attack or fluid overload from kidney failure or massive hypertension, among other things, but basically, it’ll kill you. By the way, i just made up the term “massive hypertension” do NOT use it if you want to impress people with your medical lingo.

When a body is starved of oxygen, there’s a period where it just goes batshit before it gets exhausted and starts giving up. So batshit could be described as a latesign, something foreshadowing total respiratory failure and then cardiac arrest. this is bad news because getting all worked up increases demand on an already taxed heart and makes it very difficult for us rescue folks to do complicated things to you like start IVs and put on oxygen masks. In fact, as I’ve said before, not tolerating an oxygen mask is almost always a sure sign someone’s about to go down the tubes (unless they just broke up with their girlfriend and they’re trying for attention). It means the body is SO confused, the brain is SOO starved of oxygen it can’t even figure out what it needs to get better any more.
This lady we had last week (betweeen the 2 arrests I blogged about previously) was already at that point when we got there.
She was also a fighter, so not only would she not tolerate the mask, she was throwing old lady punches every which way to keep us back. And here we are with needles in our hand trying to be like, “Ma’am…ma’am…we’re here to *ducks*…ma’am!” and my partner trying to get near enough to put the oxygen mask on…not happening.
Fortunately, her daughter happened to be an EMT so she got in close and tried to calm her with a mix of loving caresses and CalmTheFuckDownCoños. Grandma didn’t calm down but it distracted her long enough for me to grab her arm and put the IV in, but then of course she started flailing again, so I had to hold the arm still with everything i had to keep the catheter secure while I with one hand undid some tape and mummified that shit tight so it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Meanwhile, my partner wants to put her on CPAP, which is an even more intense kind of oxygen administration, basically a reverse vacuum cleaner strapped tight to your face, shoving air down your throat. It’s a lot to take even if you’re not panicking.
She’ll stab you before you get the first strap on, I mutter beneath her screeches.
that may be true, he says, putting the mask down.
Thing is, she does need it. Lack of oxygen is what’s making her crazy and CPAP is the best way to get her lots of oxygen fast. But not if she’s too busy tearing it off her face throwing it at us to get any good from it.
At this point, our IVs in but I’m really looking at this lady like she’s going down at any second, from the sheer amount of excitement her heart might damn well explode. Okay, not really, but it will continue to suck valuable resources from her body, and she can’t maintain for long.
We call for backup, on the premise that if she codes, we will need more hands to do it all right, and put some energy into calming her as we start setting up to get moving.
I think it must’ve been the daughter’s helping out, because slowly, gradually, the screaming and yelling subsides and we’re able to get close enough to give some medicine. That one thing, the calming down, sets of a chain reaction of events that basically guarantees our patient will get to the hospital without indrowning or even a tube down her throat. The medicine opens up her blood vessels some, dropping her blood pressure, relieving more burden from her heart. She finally lets us put the o2 mask on her, raising her oxygen levels and calming her down even more.  By the time the EMTs arrive she’s so quiet I actually have to check a pulse, but then she looks up at me, still with defiance and her eyes but mercifully calm, and takes a breath.
I put the daughter on keep-her-calm duty and we zip off to the hospital.