Author Question: Medically Induced Coma

Terry asks:

The information you sent me last time has been great for my story! One thing I forgot to ask though, and it is very important to the ending is this: When my character finally comes out of his coma I need to know two things:

1. He was put into a drug induced coma because of a head injury suffered in an automobile crash. Is it possible he can come out of that coma on his own? Like just open his eyes after about two weeks?

2.  When they finally take the breathing tube out of him how long will it take before he will be able to speak? I want him to be able to tell about what he went through in the coma from his perspective as soon as he can.

I thank you in advance for any and all info you can give me. I really appreciate your help. Your site is THE BEST for writers!!

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Terry!

Thanks for sending me your question.

In your first question it’s hard for me to tell if you mean is it possible for this patient to just wake up from a drug induced coma— like the drugs are still infusing? If that’s the case, then no. The medications would have to be stopped before the patient would have a chance of waking up. In fact, the type of medication on board often plays into whether or not a patient can be declared brain dead.

If a patient still has narcotic and/or sedative medications in their system they cannot be declared brain dead. So first, the medication(s) given has to wear off. Most often, these medications are given as continuous infusions and are weaned down slowly and not abruptly discontinued. If after that has happened then yes— a patient may just open his eyes.

More often, patients are slow to come about. The first time they open their eyes, it might only be for a brief period of time. They may have muscle movements first. Generally, the medical team knows they’re improving when they can respond purposefully to pain by first pulling away from the stimulus, then by trying to push the stimulus away, and then by opening their eyes and understanding and following commands. It’s usually a slow process– from days to weeks (and even months to years) depending on the type of head injury the person suffered.

In regards to your second question, how long before he can speak? If he is awake and able to speak then he should be able to speak right away if the brain injury did not affect the speech sensitive areas. Some patients are extubated (or taken off breathing machines) and they’re not fully alert and responding to commands, but may be breathing adequately enough that they no longer need a ventilator. Many of these patients do have a trach in place, though.

That being said, if your character is awake and alert, his voice will sound soft, hoarse, and strained. His throat will hurt. He may have some trouble swallowing. His voice won’t have the same strength right after the breathing tube comes out as it did before. It will take some time to return to normal. The shorter the intubation the more quickly the patient’s voice should return to normal.  However, he should be able to share his story.

Good luck!

Author Question: Directed Organ Donation– In a Suicidal Way

Susan Asks:

My character ends up killing himself in order to be a heart donor. Problem is how does he kill himself without damaging the heart? Also, there needs to be enough time for EMT’s to reach him before his heart stops. Therefore he needs to be brain dead only . . . Is it something he could plan or is it too far fetched? For instance, a shot to the head?

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Susan.

Very interesting if not morbid question you ask here. It sounds like what this character is trying to accomplish is some sort of directed organ donation upon his death. His demise would have to ensure brain death, but also ensure that paramedics arrive in time to at least establish a heartbeat and get him to the hospital. There is a narrow window for this to happen. The most common time frame given for brain death is lack of oxygen for four to six minutes after the heart stops beating.

This character would have to time his heartbeat stopping and then EMS arriving around four to six minutes after. I actually would probably not choose a gunshot wound to the head. There could be a couple of things problematic with this. EMS might not choose to treat if the wound looked particularly devastating. Also, if there were damage to the facial structures, particularly the airway itself, resuscitation to even get a heartbeat back would be challenging.

I think an injury caused from anoxia (or lack of oxygen) would be your best choice. Of those, I would think drowning, hanging, ingestion of sleeping pills and/or drugs (that wouldn’t cause heart damage), and possibly carbon monoxide exposure might be your best options in my opinion.  However, there is discussion in the literature whether or not it is wise to donate the organs from someone who died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Hope this helped and good luck with this story!

The History of Vaccines

Typically, historical novels are set before the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Historical medical questions can be some of the more difficult ones to answer because it’s challenging to find source material from the time.

However, when it comes to medicine, historical might be considered a time frame of more than ten to twenty years ago because of the rapidly evolving nature of the practice of medicine. One example of this would be CPR guidelines. Did you know CPR guidelines generally change every five years? To put it simply, the way we are doing CPR now is not the way it looked even ten years ago. Often times, what a writer might consider a contemporary medical question is truly a historical one.

I came across this resource called The History of Vaccines  which reviews what vaccines were available when.

For instance, diptheria vaccines began in 1926, tetanus in 1938, pertussis in the 1940’s, and polio vaccine was widely available around 1955. 

If you’re curious whether or not a character could have had the potential to be vaccinated against a certain disease, this source would be great to check out.

Author Question: Use of Tranquilizer Dart

Christian Asks:

I am writing a book about a 22 y/o male. I want him to be knocked out via tranquilizer dart. I was wondering a few things. Would it work? How long would it take to knock him out? Could he pull it out without falling asleep? If he was sweaty, would the dart still work?

Jordyn Says:

Hi Christian!  Thanks so much for sending me your question.

Yes, using a tranquilizer dart should work to knock your character out. How long would it take? It depends on the medication they use in the dart. You can specifically Google the specific medication you choose and how long before it takes effect intramuscularly which would be the route using a tranquilizer dart. As a generality, intramuscular medications can take 2-4 minutes (for these types of drug classes) to work so he could pull the dart out without falling to sleep.

Would the dart work if he was sweaty?  I don’t see a reason why not. I think whether or not the dart pierces the skin and muscle is a matter of velocity rather than how sweaty the skin surface is.

You can read two other posts here and here that I’ve also done on tranquilizer guns.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!

Author Question: How Do You Develop a Vaccine From Blood?

Ruby Asks:

I’m currently writing a sci-fi story where a pharmaceutical company has created something that could possibly cure any disease and behaves similar to a virus. Unfortunately, it falls into the wrong hands and is used to harm people. It is decided that a vaccine could help if developed from someone’s blood who carries antibodies to this substance.

Can a vaccine or antidote be made using a blood sample? Also, what would be the proper term for this? Is it a vaccine, antidote, or a serum?

Jordyn Says:

Hi Ruby! Thanks so much for sending me your question. This was pretty fun to research as I learned quite a few new things.

First, let’s define these three terms: vaccine, antidote, and serum.

A vaccine is a “preparation used as a preventive inoculation to confer immunity against a specific disease, usually employing an innocuous form of the disease agent, as killed or weakened bacteria or viruses, to stimulate antibody production”.

An antidote is a “medicine or remedy for counteracting the effects of a poison, disease, etc.”

Blood serum is the substance that remains after the blood forms a clot. Serum is the liquid that “blood cells move through”. It is used for the creation of antiserum. “Because blood serum contains antibodies as well, doctors can also use serum samples to develop what is called antiserum: essentially, blood serum containing resistances to specific illnesses and ailments. When transferred into a non-resistant patient’s bloodstream, antiserum allows that patient to gain resistance to illnesses they may have otherwise been vulnerable to.

A vaccine is usually considered to be a preventative– the person has never had the disease and they get inoculated to keep them from getting it. This would be diseases like measles and mumps.

An antidote usually reverses the effects of a medication or poison and not a biological agent. For instance, Narcan, given to reverse the effect of an opioid overdose could be considered an antidote. Medical people refer to these medications sometimes as reversal agents.

An “antiserum” would be the best term for you to use, as this is giving someone antibodies who is currently infected with the disease. For instance, Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola while providing medical aid in Liberia, was treated with antiserum.

So, ultimately, you would need to research how an antiserum is developed. Generally laboratory animals are used and then exsanguinated to be able to collect large quantities of antiserum. So– if you want this character to live– this may not be a good choice for your story. Though, you as the author could also use the death of this character to create conflict in your story, too.

For further articles on developing antiserum you can look here and here.

Best of luck!

Author Question: Bone Infection after Orthopedic Surgery

Sarah Asks:

My character was assaulted and, among other injuries, her right forearm was fractured severely. It was surgically repaired using pins.

My question is: Is it possible for her to develop osteomyelitis after a blunt-force trauma (that does not result in a fracture) two years after the original injury? If not, is there another scenario that could cause osteomyelitis after the fact like that? And what would be the immediate treatment plan following the second injury and osteomyelitis? Also, if left untreated for a period of time, could osteomyelitis become life-threatening?

Jordyn Says:

The first part of your question does not seem plausible to me. First, you imply that there isn’t a fracture associated with the second injury to this arm and the length of time doesn’t quite work. The arm should be fully healed two years post surgery to repair the fracture.

If this character were to develop osteomyelitis near the site where she received a blow by a blunt object, but that arm had been previously fractured two years prior, I don’t see the medical staff thinking these two things are related. They are just too far apart.

I don’t know of another scenario that could cause this to happen two years out– that the blunt force blow (that doesn’t break the skin or cause fracture) somehow ignites an osteomyelitis at a previous surgical site. If it did, I think it would be considered happenstance.

Ostemyelitis generally happens when bacteria gets to the bone through an open wound (open fractures are a great way to write this complication) or the infection to the bone is seeded from another area in or on the body (a septic joint for instance). The infection will generally develop within two weeks.  Even in the article linked in this paragraph, chronic osteomyelitis usually develops within two months. Nothing even close to two years.

The course of treatment for osteomyelitis would depend on what bacteria (or fungus) is causing the infection. Surgery could also be indicated.

Yes, any infection can become life threatening particularly if the bacteria or fungus gets into the bloodstream.

Hope this helps and good luck with this story!

Author Question: How Long for Toxicology Results?

Susan Asks:

If suicide is suspected due to the mental health of victim, and it appears alcohol and opioids were involved, how long will it take to get a toxicology report back after the autopsy?

Jordyn Says:

Usually results such as these through a medical examiner’s office are 4-6 weeks.

However, if the patient was a medical patient and seen in the emergency department, these tests likely would have been done and would be resulted fairly immediately. The family could request a copy of the chart through the medical records department which should be more readily available. Or, if being investigated, the police can go through the courts to obtain a copy as well.

At times, in the event of a patient death, the doctor may choose to disclose medical findings to next of kin to explain the death and might choose to give these results, but likely wouldn’t give a physical copy of the lab report in something sensitive of this nature. The doctor might choose to say something vague such as, “We suspect your loved one died due to respiratory failure that could have been induced by drugs in their system.” Or they could leave out the suspected drug component all together due to concern over legalities.

Hope this helps and best of luck with your story!