Strike One

Sorry to all for the long layoff. It's been unavoidable on the ICU, which has been a 'rich' learning environment to say the least.

We had a summer weekend night at the beginning of the month not too far outside the normal with fifteen or so traumas that came in, one of whom was a three hundered pound diabetic with hip fractures and rib fractures and a blood sugar of 850. She got blood in the truama bay because she was tachycardic and no pne could feel her pulses; after the resuscitation, she went to thr OR for an open femur. I was at the head of the bed in case there was an airway issue. In retrospect, it's hard to see the detail we could've caught to avoid amputating her leg three days later.

In the ICU, she kept failing to meet her resuscitation goals; too acidotic, not enough urine output, poor perfusion and cold extremities all around, remained intubated. She made all of us uneasy but we didn't quite know why, and we scratched our heads every morning and every afternoon and tinkered with her drips and fluids.

She gradually accrued orthopedic splints and rods sticking out of her leg and pelvis and arterial lines and venous lines and tubes, and on the morning of the third day the nurse said hey her foot looks dusky and it's really cold. The attending looked at it and agreed; she was going to the OR again and we told the ortho docs that the nureses were worried about her foot and that she had no pulse we could find but didn't call vascular specifically.

She came back four or five hours later and they said, you should call vascular, we can't find a pulse. By the time vascular came her foot had been cold for eight or nine hours and they, shocker, said nothing to do. An angio showed loss of the popliteal artery, which supplies the whole lower leg, just above the knee.

The amputation rate for injuries like this eight or more hours out is 86%. Even within six, the rate is about 20% if there is a femur injury. After we found out I remember sitting on the toilet in the room becuase it was the only place to sit and looking at her now purple toes sticking out of the splint. That may have been why she kept missing her goals all along. The reasons to miss the injury were legion, yet sitting there staring at her dead toes they all sounded like excuses.

That's the other part of the whole cost debate. Becuase of those purple toes I'll be more likely to order angios for the rest of my life, but not to somehow line my own pockets and not to avoid lawsuits. To avoid purple toes.



In the midst of the busiest call night in memory, I stand for twenty minutes, still, and watch the end of a baseball game.

I hold pressure to the wound that has soaked the bedsheet and is drying from the outside in. It soaked his shirt before he arrived. My hand protests and numbs after I wedge my elbow against the bed.

I have stacks of consults to finish. The pagers hum, heedless of each other, while I hold pressure, unable to answer. Traumas are stacked in rooms to go upstairs. Ribs, open legs, head injuries. Splintered livers. The detritus of a sticky summer night. Scanned, diagnosed, improved, ready to move.

I try to switch hands but position dictates my left is better, so I switch back. The chief had held pressure before me but she was too busy. Go get someone to do this, she said. This is what he needs. He needs a human being to hold pressure for thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes. From 9:25 to 9:55 PM on a weekend night in June, after the summer heat has arrived.

I ask for the med student first. He is too busy learning, I am told. My own staff tells me this, an attending who has taught me how to read EKGs, how to diagnose vertigo. My own staff who should be on my side except this month I am an interloper, I am a surgeon, I am an other, a 'consultant'. Get a tech.

I go and talk to the charge nurse, perhaps even more important than the staff physician. She is washing a bed. I do not take that as a good omen. I need help, I say. Someone needs to hold pressure on this poor man's wound, and right now the overnight chief of trauma surgery, the grand poobah of weekend nights, is holding pressure. She laughs a short laugh. We have no help, she says. They are too busy. She does not recognize my so-called authority. I am but a mendicant.

I return. I will hold it, I say to the chief. Perhaps you would like to argue our cause. She leaves, the curtain rustles. The nurse, who is giving an IV medication over the course of ten minutes, cannot leave her post, either. We are together. The patient is silent. He watches the game.

The bleeding stops. The bandage is taped. The patient is treated. Anyone could have held it there. The choice of who holds the gauze, though. That is how I know where power lies, and where it does not.

And what was gained? The patient was treated. A task was completed that the charge nurse, the staff doctor, the chief of surgery, and the medical student did not want to complete. Will this matter, I wonder. Will it matter that I did that task rather than order someone to do so? I could have, with my authority, so-called. But authority and power are not the same.

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