This Is US: Jack’s Needless Death

This television episode caused more people to reach out to me over any other. This Is Us has been building up to Jack’s death for eighteen months. It needed to be big. It needed to be dramatic. Can you tell I’ve been watching the show? It was really none of those and medically— well, just weird to be honest.

If you haven’t watched the episode then don’t read this post because it will reveal his cause of death . . . like right now.

Jack’s ultimate demise? A heart attack called the widow maker caused by the stress of the fire.

Jack is in intense smoke and heat for several minutes. He emerges and is first checked by EMS. He is being given oxygen and a dressing to his arm for “2nd degree burns”. The EMS person says she can’t treat the burn and he is seemingly refusing transport, but she does encourage him to be seen. Also, giving oxygen is correct, but it is not the right type of mask. A note on burns. Burns will evolve over the next several days so you don’t really know how severe a burn will be for a while.

Jack does eventually go to the hospital to get his burns checked. The doctor is initially giving him instructions on burn care.  The doctor says, “I’d like your heart rate to come down.” and glances at the monitor— which doesn’t have any readings on it. No waveforms. No numbers. He then says, “There’s soot in your airway so we’ll have to run some tests. The swelling is minor.”

That’s about it. The doctor tells Jack he basically dodged a bullet and seems none too concerned about his potential airway damage.

Just as I mentioned above, airway burns from smoke inhalation are similar to skin burns in that they evolve over time. Smoke inhalation and the potential for upper airway swelling is taken very seriously. There is a nice overview here. At the very least, there should be discussion of admitting Jack to the hospital. As quoted from the article, “Studies have shown that initial evaluation is not a good predictor of the airway obstruction that may ensue later secondary to rapidly progressing edema.” If there is concern about significant injury to the airway then the patient is electively intubated until the airway injury heals. It’s VERY difficult to intubate someone with a lot of airway swelling.

Shortly after this consultation, Rebecca decides to make a phone call and get a candy bar from the vending machine. In that, perhaps under two-three minutes passage of time, Jack codes and dies. Even though she is just outside the ER nurses station, she never hears a code being called. Doesn’t see the commotion.

The doctor approaches her and says, “One of complications of smoke inhalation is that it puts a terrible stress on the lungs and therefore the heart. Your husband went into cardiac arrest. It was catastrophic and I’m afraid we lost him . . . Mrs. Pearson, your husband has died.”

After a few exchanges she goes to Jack’s room where there is a spotlight shining on his chest with a cursory ambu bag at the head of his bead . . . but no other equipment. I’m telling you in two minutes, a code has barely just begun and is never called so hastily . . . like ever. Later, explaining the event to Miguel, Rebecca says he had a widow maker’s heart attack.

The widow maker is a real term for a heart attack. It generally refers to occlusion of the left main coronary artery that feeds the left side of the heart. It is the same heart attack celebrity trainer Bob Harper had and survived. The reason the widow maker can be so devastating is that the left ventricle is the largest, strongest pumping chamber. If it dies . . . well, you’re hosed.

There would be no realistic way the doctors would know it was specifically this kind of heart attack as shown in the episode without an autopsy. Presumably, Jack went into one of the lethal heart rhythms, v-tach or v-fib, at the time of his code. In the time frame given on the show, the medical team would have barely started CPR and given the first line treatment which is electricity. A 12-lead ECG can be a strong diagnostic tool for this type of heart attack, but they never did one. Had they done that early on, they probably would have seen the changes.

Also, he would likely have some signs and symptoms. Chest pain. Nausea. Left arm pain. Sweating. Demonstrating these might make the scenario seem more believable. Having Rebecca witness the code would have been more dramatic.

Also, it would make more sense that he would suffer this cardiac event while he is actually under duress— such as during the rescue of the children and the dog.

The only way to truly know that this is the type of heart attack Jack suffered as presented in the show would be to conduct an autopsy.

This Is Us— thanks for killing off a beloved character in a totally lame way— at least from a medical standpoint.

9-1-1 S1/E3: Evaluation and Treatment of Overdoses

In Episode 3 of 9-1-1, the story opens with officer Athena Grant, played by Angela Bassett, finding her daughter unconscious from taking hydrocodone pills as seen in the trailer below. The daughter, who appears to be between twelve and fourteen, is whisked off to the hospital and admitted to the ICU in short order. One, did they treat this ingestion (or overdose) correctly? Two, would this type of ingestion warrant ICU admission?

It’s stated in the episode that the daughter took “six to seven” hydrocodone pills. Hydrocodone is a combination of acetaminophen (Tylenol) and a synthetic type of codeine. It comes in many different preparations with different amounts of acetaminophen and hydrocodone. Where do we start to evaluate whether or not the ingestion is worrisome?

1.  How is the patient? What signs and symptoms do they have?  The EMS crew in this situation is lucky. The mother knows exactly what the daughter took. She presents unresponsive with slow breathing. Number one treatment in this situation after assisting with her breathing? Give Narcan which this crew absolutely does not do. Narcan is a reversal agent for opioids. It can be given via a mist up the nose so you can generally reverse the sedative effects of the drug without even starting an IV. It is a life saving measure because it is the not breathing part that will kill you first. This is the medication they should have given first.

In absence of knowing exactly what the patient took, we can look at clusters of signs and symptoms called toxidromes which might point us in the right direction.

2. What did the patient take? When did they take it? How much did they take? Many drugs have multiple components and we have to evaluate EACH component and whether or not this could prove harmful to the patient. The opioid  (once reversed with Narcan) is probably the least concerning. The amount of acetaminophen ingested is our next priority and we would calculate how many milligrams per kilogram she took. We know for acetaminophen that when you start to get between 100-150mg/kg that there could be a potential for liver damage. There is a reversal drug for acetaminophen’s damaging effects on the liver called Mucomyst, but there is a window in which this can be given to be effective. Usually, a poison control center will help us manage these types of patients.

In this case, let’s say she took six pills of Lortab 7.5/500. From this we know that each pill has 500mg of acetaminophen. Assuming the average 12-14 y/o is about 100 lbs (converted to 45 kg) then she took about 66mg/kg of acetaminophen. A four hour Tylenol level (measured four hours after the ingestion) would be checked to ensure she wasn’t toxic, but in this case likely not.

3. Will this patient be admitted to the ICU? It might come as a surprise, but ingestions of medications are most often not admitted to the ICU. Most are managed and observed in the ER. In this case, the girl should have been given Narcan by EMS. We would continue to watch for the somnolent effects of the opioid and evaluate the risk of the acetaminophen.

Also, it’s generally protocol that an aspirin level is measured as well even if the patient denies taking any. We can’t always depend on the patient being truthful about what they took and aspirin can have very devastating effects as well. Other labs depend on the medication ingested and what parts of the body if affects. This patient would likely not be admitted to the ICU.

Also, if we get a toxic ingestion within an hour we can give activated charcoal (that literally looks like black sludge) that will bind the medication. This is not always done for several reasons. One is the risk of the charcoal ending up in a patient’s lungs during administration. Usually this is done under the recommendation of Poison Control.

4. Do we notify Child Protective Services? In this episode, Child Protective Services conducts a mental health exam on the teen. In the real world, this evaluation takes place through mental health providers not associated with the state. State involvement is generally reserved for what we would consider a risky home environment. A teen getting into their parents medicine cabinet for some pills would not fall into that category. What would? A two-year-old ingesting crack cocaine that was lying around the home. Each case is handled very individually, but this case presented in 9-1-1 would not rise to that level in my opinion.

As a side note, parents are not separated from their children during medical treatment. Can we please stop perpetuating this myth?

What do you think of 9-1-1?

Medical Review of Fox’s 9-1-1

I’m so happy to be back blogging! I hope everyone had a fantastic holiday season and is ready for a new year. Today is officially my 20th wedding anniversary! Can you believe that? I know I can’t. It’s crazy to think how much time has gone by.

Considering the occasion, I thought it would be best to write a positive (well, mostly positive) review of a new TV show— Fox’s series 9-1-1. I know . . . you can pop your eyeballs back in. This is truly a rare event considering much of this blog’s time is spent skewering medical inaccuracies in print, movies, and the small screen.

9-1-1 is a series devoted to dispatch, police, and fire calls. I’ve watched the first two episodes and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. Now, it does have some problems. Writing completely to stereotype would be the biggest.

Let’s look at what they did well.

1. The characters face consequences for their actions. I’ve said all along that it’s okay for medical people to do bad things in fiction, but there must also be consequences for their actions. The point of this are many. It increases the conflict in the story AND reflects real life. Too many times in fiction medical people are shown doing bad things without consequence. One firefighter is shown facing some serious repercussions for his poor (saying that lightly) choices.

2. There is respect for HIPAA and also how hard that is for medical people. HIPAA is the patient privacy law. Because of HIPAA, most of us who work on the front lines (EMS and emergency departments) rarely ever hear how our patients do after they leave our care. This is, flat out, not easy for any of us and it makes closure difficult.

3. Shows the problem of poor coping mechanisms. It is true that healthcare people do not always have the best coping mechanisms. Hello, to all the nursing units with the mandatory chocolate drawer. Some develop addictions  and can have bad co-dependent relationships. It was nice to see highlighted that the stress of this work does take an emotional toll.

4. Highlights the difficulty of work/life balance. Of course, all professionals face work/life balance issues, but I also feel like the nature of our work makes it hard to feel like you’re getting a break. If you’re taking care of a medically/terminally ill loved one at home, and then go to work doing the same thing— there can be little room to breathe.

5. Medical information was not distracting. The medical information was kept pretty light in the first two episodes and not too distracting. There were a few minor medical errors I’ll keep close to the vest for now.

Have you watched the new Fox show 9-1-1. What did you think?

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?

 

Author Question: Unconscious Teen Struck in Head by Baseball Bat

Ari Asks:

Hello and thank you for this blog. It’s a brilliant resource and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to reach out to a professional in this setting.

I have two scenarios in a novel I’m writing that I could use your help with.

First, a teenage boy is struck in the head with a baseball bat. He is knocked unconscious and falls into a coma. When he arrives in the ER, I would like some compelling dialogue between the first responders to convey his condition, rather than just typing it out in the slug lines. What are some of the measures that nurses and/or doctors would take in responding to this injury? Also, what type of jargon or verbiage would make this scene convincing to someone in the field?

Second, is the scenario where the doctor informs the parents of the same boy about his condition. In what setting would he/she do this? Or for that matter, who would be the person to inform the parents to begin with?

Thank you for taking the time to help writers do your profession justice.

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Ari. Thanks for reaching out and all your compliments regarding the blog. I’m glad you’ve found it helpful.

Typically, when a patient arrives to the ER via EMS, they give a report on their patient when they get to the assigned room. In this case, it might be something like this:

“This is John Doe, age 17, struck in the head with a baseball bat at 1600 today. Pt with immediate LOC (loss of consciousness). Was unconscious upon our arrival. Responds only to pain. We started an IV, drew labs, and started normal saline TKO (to keep vein open). His Glasgow Coma Score is eight (this is bad). Vitals signs are as follows: Heart rate 100. BP 124/62. Respirations 16. Pulse ox 100% on 100% non-rebreather. Parents are here. No chronic illnesses. No drug allergies.” 

The ER team will place him on a monitor, assess the status of his IV, and do a thorough physical exam of the patient including an extensive neurological exam. I would follow the link above and do some reading on the Glasgow Coma Scale and how it’s scored.

A Glasgow coma score of eight or less will likely lead to the patient being intubated because there is concern that he would not be able to maintain his airway.

Taking into consideration this patient’s mechanism of injury and the fact that he is unconscious, he would receive an expedited CT scan of his brain to look for injury— likely bleeding in this case.

Past this, it would be hard for me to talk to you about all the things the medical team would say. It’s your scene. If it is a compelling scene in the novel, I’d have a medical person review it.

Keep in mind the POV character you’re writing the scene from. If it comes from a medical person’s perspective, then the use of technical terms, etc is more warranted because they should sound like they know what they’re talking about. If the scene is from a lay person’s POV— then you can write more generally about the medical things being done.

Who informs the parents about their son’s condition? These days, parents are generally not separated from their child, even in instances where the child has lost their heartbeat. The parents likely followed the ambulance and would be updated upon arrival in the patient’s room. A nurse or a doctor can update the parents and give them the medical plan of care as outlined by the physician.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

Author Question: What Happens to the Child of an ER Patient?

Susan Asks:

I am wondering what happens when a mother is injured and her seven-year-old child is with her. The unconscious woman is discovered by a passer by who calls 911. She wakes up, an ambulance arrives and she is taken to the ER.

I assume the child who is fine would go with them if the police haven’t been called. The woman is from out of town and knows no one in the city so the child can’t be picked up by anyone. The mother has a concussion and is kept overnight for observation. I am most interested in learning what would happen with the child at the point that they arrive at the ER while the mother is being examined.

Jordyn Says:

From the EMS standpoint— yes, they would bring the child with the parent.  As far as in the ER, if the mother is awake, the child would be in the room with her. The ED staff can assist with care of the child until the mother is feeling like she can manage. A child this age could be given activities to keep them entertained (coloring, snacks, a movie, etc).

If the child needs more than that then a member of the staff (like an ED tech or volunteer) could provide some assistance until the mother is feeling better and able to care for the child on her own.

Also, a concussion is not a reason for admission to the hospital. Not even overnight observation. Concussion patients are generally not admitted— even with a loss of consciousness at the scene. Even a minor car accident with loss of consciousness does not require admission if everything else is okay.

You don’t specify her mechanism of injury in your question. For concussion we want to see them alert and oriented and that their concussion symptoms (headache, dizziness, nausea) improve or resolve. CT scanning is more common in the adult population for head injury so if that shows no bleeding then there’s really no reason for her to stay in the hospital. If you need her admitted, I can help you have the character meet admission criteria.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

Author Question: Pediatric Near-Drowning

Carol Asks:

I’m writing a scene that involves a child approximately eighteen-months-old. She was submerged for an unknown period of time (no more than a couple of minutes) on a beach after being struck by a rogue wave that knocked her down.

When found, she has a pulse, but is not breathing. Rescue breathing is started within thirty seconds of rescuers reaching her. She coughs up water shortly thereafter and is breathing on her own by the time the ambulance arrives.

This is the outcome I’ve written. Would this be correct?

A couple of days in the hospital for observation. She’s a princess so they insist on whatever tests CAN be done even if they normally wouldn’t be (X-ray, CT to check brain function.)

Neurologist tells the family that given the length of time in the water, how quickly she was given CPR, and the total length of time not breathing, she will likely suffer only minor cognitive issues at worse, and those may will not present until she starts school.

I’m presuming oxygen via nasal cannula or mask as well as an IV started in the ER.

This does not take place in the US, but I’m presuming standard procedure would be an investigation to find out how she ended up unattended long enough to make it to the waterfront. It’s truly an accident– the first time the child escaped from the house. Is this acceptable? Particularly if there was supporting video evidence?

Jordyn Says:

The scenario you have outlined is reasonable.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

This is a patient we would probably admit into the hospital– at least for a day. More depending on what happens in the first twenty-four hours would determine the need for a more lengthy stay.

For instance. as long as the child has an oxygen requirement with this type of mechanism, they can’t go home. Even if they have normal oxygen levels, any type of increased work of breathing would also probably keep them in the hospital until that resolved. However, if the child’s oxygen levels are normal and they exhibit no signs of respiratory distress for twenty-four hours then we might be hard pressed to keep them in the hospital. Remember, you have to be really sick to stay in the hospital these days.

Of course, with her position as princess, it could be easily foreseen that everyone operates with a greater degree of caution.

Chest x-ray would be reasonable and expected in this case. Paramedics starting an IV and oxygen, particularly in the case where the child received rescue breathing, also good. However, one of the first things that will happen when the child get’s to the hospital is that we will remove the oxygen to see where she settles out on room air. This would be an important piece for us to know. She’d be placed on an oxygen and heart monitor with frequent assessments of her breathing.

As far as doing other testing, particularly a CT scan to determine if there’s been any brain damage, I would argue against this. Now, do physicians “cave” sometimes to pressure by royalty. Of course— I’m sure this has happened. Just as here, if it were the president, some testing might be done that might not be necessary to “cover your . . . “.

Medically, however, if she never lost her pulse and was quickly revived, I think the risk of brain damage is extremely low. As long as your heart is beating, your brain is receiving some oxygen. Your blood does have a reserve volume of oxygen molecules on your blood cells for situations just as this. Children are very oxygen sensitive, and it doesn’t take long for them to lose their pulse in an oxygen deprived state. Knowing she still had a pulse when she was pulled from the water, especially considering her age, would mean to me that her down time was probably very little.

Also, the CT scan will likely not show any injury. Absence of injury also doesn’t mean she may not have learning difficulties in the future. So, I don’t think there’s much to be gained by that test— and the subsequent exposure to radiation which is something we balance a lot in pediatrics.

As far as the investigation, I think what you outline is reasonable, particularly if there is supporting video evidence of her slipping from the castle.

Thanks so much for your question. Good luck with your story!