Pediatric CPR: When to Stop?

Nothing probably tugs at the heartstrings more than thinking about a child dying. It’s not the way things are supposed to happen. We expect life to follow the natural order of things— the old die first. Parents should never bury their children.

Sadly, we know this reality is not true. The pediatric nurse understands and confronts this reality more often than most. Particularly nurses who work critical care, ER, oncology, and hospice.

A reader of this blog posed this question to me: How long will a nurse or doctor perform chest compressions on a pediatric patient? Is forty-five minutes too long or would they try longer?

This is a tough question and not so easily answered. There are really no hard and fast rules as to when CPR should be stopped and it depends a lot on the reason for the code (if known) and what types of signs the patient is giving us. For instance, just because a patient doesn’t have a pulse, doesn’t mean they don’t have electrical activity in the heart muscle. Some causes of a code are reversible, but it takes time to do so. Hypothermia might be a good example of this.

I’ve worked in both adult and pediatric critical care. What I’ve found generally is providers will run pediatric codes longer than adult codes even when chances are small to get a pulse back. No one wants to see a kid die— health care providers are no different. Plus, culturally, we resist death at every turn even though it is the course each of us will journey to.

However, I did come across this article that begins to address this concern. If we can teach how to resuscitate patients— should we also not teach providers when it is reasonable and ethical to stop such efforts?

1. Are there clinical features present prior to the code that are predictive of poor survival? For instance, in the adult patient some of these from the article included pneumonia, metastatic cancer, and low blood pressure. For pediatric patients, kidney failure and use of a continuous infusion of epinephrine are mentioned.

In the emergency department setting, we want to know what the patient’s initial heart rhythm was. If there was no electrical activity in the heart (terms such as asystole, flat-line, ventricular standstill) then chances of getting back organized electrical activity AND contraction of the heart muscle are low.

2. Is the patient receiving high quality CPR? This might seem like a no brainer. Of course, if the patient codes in the hospital, they must be receiving excellent CPR. What research shows is that this is not true and it is a big drive of many institutions to simply improve the quality of CPR. If I can ease your mind, many hospitals are improving CPR basics through high fidelity code labs, more frequent CPR check-offs, mock codes, and computer based CPR training that measures effectiveness of CPR and coaches the participant on how to improve .

What are some CPR pitfalls? Initiating CPR in a timely manner. Compressing deep enough and at the right rate. Not over or under ventilating the patient (both can actually cause problems). CPR is what we call a high risk, low yield procedure— meaning we don’t do it very often, but when we do we have to do it right. What you don’t practice frequently you don’t become adept at. CPR is no different.

Considering this, we look at how long the patient’s down time was. This refers to the time when the patient’s heart stopped beating to the time they got CPR. Trouble is, this might be relatively hard to determine. When was the patient last seen? Is the patient cold to the touch? Are their pupils fixed and dilated?

The good news for the writer is there is a lot of leeway in this area as far as how long a medical team might “work” on a patient. Factors can be given for both short and long resuscitation times.

The most important part is getting those factors medically correct.

What about you? Have you written a resuscitation scene into a work of fiction?


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