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!

Author Question: Treatment of the Burn Patient

Jennie Asks:

What happens when someone gets burned? What do the EMT’s do on the scene? The story line involves the explosion of a crosswired electrical box.  Two individuals are burned.

First, the man who threw the switch is thrown onto the floor and sparks are showering down on him and his clothes.  He is pinned beneath a shelf that he knocked over.  The second man takes his jacket and tries to put out the flames while others pull the shelf off the man on the floor.  The second man’s arm and hand are burned trying to put out the fire, and keep the sparks from falling on the man on the floor.

I have the paramedics taking the first man to the hospital. I describe very little about his condition. However, the hero is attended by the heroine who is an EMT. His burns are secondary. Would he have to go to the hospital?  Get a tetanus shot if he needs one?

Jordyn Says:

The first distinction to make is that there are several different types of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers and their level of responsibility to this patient will be different. An emergency medical technician (EMT) generally provides basic first aid, CPR, can administer oxygen and can assist the patient in giving some of their own medications (like an asthma inhaler or nitroglycerin tablets.) A paramedic does more advanced medical procedures and gives drugs. The level of your provider will need to be clear in the medical care they can provide.

For EMT’s, in general, burn care is as follows:

1. Remove clothing from the burn that is non-adherent.

2. Remove any constricting items. For instance, if the burn is on the ring finger, you would try and take the ring off.

3. Cover burn with a cool, wet, clean dressing. This will help control pain.

If you have a paramedic responding— it is possible that an IV could be started and the patient could get an IV narcotic for pain (something like morphine or fentanyl.)

If the character is burned by the electrical current, this poses a whole new set of problems. I get the feeling he is burned by the electricity because you mention that he has been thrown back. Electrical burns typically have an entrance and an exit wound like the hand and foot. The electricity enters one part but has to exit somewhere.

The other problem with electrical burns is that your heart pumps based on an electrical conduction system. An electrical burn can injure the electrical conduction system of the heart and we will look very closely at whether or not the heart sustained injury. This could be evaluated initially by a 12-Lead ECG and lab work that measures muscle breakdown specific to the heart. The issue with electrical burns is that the damage is often unseen because the electricity will injure you internally but we can’t see it externally except and the entrance and exit sites.

The other thought was the extent of your patient’s burns and this would make a difference in their medical care. Burns are generally calculated based on the percentage of skin that is affected. You can find examples of these tables by clicking this link. Adults and kids are calculated differently.

Burns <15% body surface area (BSA) would get cool, moist compresses. However, burns > 15% would get dry, sterile dressings. The reason for this is that burn patients have lost their skin integrity. Your skin helps your body maintain its temperature. Some consider it the largest organ in the body. When you burn >15% and apply cool, wet dressings, this can pull enough heat away from the patient to cause them to become hypothermic. We actually have to help burn patients maintain their body temperature by cranking up the heat in the room or using other warming techniques.

Your patient will have to go to the hospital. Initial ED treatment would be IV placement, fluid resuscitation (there is a formula we use for this and is dependent on the burn percentage), pain medication (like morphine), and likely consulting with a burn center to help determine his course of treatment. Tetanus shot would be updated if he hasn’t had one in the last five years.

Did you know that paramedic protocols are relatively easy to find online? For instance, this link shows all of the Denver Metro Prehospital Protocols. Referencing these will be one of the best sources for researching what type of prehospital care your character would receive for their given ailment.

***This content originally posted December 10, 2010.***

Author Beware: The Right Patient Placement

Coming across inaccurate medical scenarios in books is common for me so to have one raise my ire enough to blog about it generally means a pretty big eye roll was involved when I read the passage.

Scenario: An elderly male dressed in sweats is found wandering the streets of New York in a confused state.

The author’s solution: The police take him to a nursing home.

Well, yea, just— no.

If police find an elderly male, let alone any confused individual, wandering the streets without any ID the first place that person is going is straight to the ER likely via ambulance.

The reason? One, is to make sure nothing medically is wrong. Chronic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the only reason the elderly people become confused. Something as simple as an electrolyte imbalance could be the cause. In any new onset confused state, other minor and major medical conditions need to be ruled out first. What might some of those be? Electrolyte imbalance. Brain Tumor. Stroke. Head Injury. Brain Bleed.

Secondly, there is not a nursing home in the United States that will take in an elderly person unknown to them without a medical evaluation first. Plus, do you know all that’s involved for nursing home admissions? A lot.

In this instance, if the patient is deemed to not have anything clearly medical (that could be fixed or treated) causing his confusion, then the hospital would involve the police and likely social services for placement.

But no drive by drop-offs at the nursing home.

Author Beware: Provider Scope of Practice (EMS)

Here I am, happily reading along one of my favorite mainstream suspense authors, when a glaring medical mistake takes me right out of the story. Bummer! Now I’m wondering how long it would have taken this well known author to make one phone call to determine if this situation was plausible or not.

The scenario: The hero in our story is injured but doesn’t want to be transported by EMS to the hospital. He’s got other important things to do– like catch a killer. Awesome. EMS has him sign a release form and he’s on his way BUT the EMS team has given him an oral dose of a narcotic and two to take in the future when the pain comes back.

Did you hear that? That was steam billowing out of my ears.

This is a very common mistake authors make— issues that deal with scope of practice. I’ve blogged about it several times. This post has links to several others that just deal with scope of practice.

In simple terms, scope of practice is what a health care provider can and cannot do. EVERY licensed health care provider (a nursing assistant, a nurse, an EMT, a paramedic, a physician, a physical therapist, a pharmacist) has a scope of practice that is governed by their licensing board– whoever that might be. These governing boards determine the rules of practice. If the licensee does something outside of these rules they can be brought up on disciplinary action and even potentially lose their license. Scope of practice rules can vary from state to state.

In short– it’s bad to operate outside your scope of practice.

For instance, this document gives a pretty detailed overview of the medical treatments different EMS professionals can do.

The first problem with the author’s scenario is that EMS professionals do not carry oral narcotics to give to patients. Only IV and those that can be administered nasally.

The second problem is that EMS professionals not only operate under scope of practice laws but also medical protocols which outline the things they can do in the field and under what conditions. In fact, here’s a whole document that lists the EMS protocols for one hospital in Colorado that would give a nice overview for what likely happens in the US. There will be differences state to state but you could reasonably generalize from this.

Essentially, a paramedic giving a patient (who is refusing medical treatment) three doses of an oral narcotic (which he doesn’t carry) is a serious violation of his scope of practice. Only a few medical roles can prescribe oral narcotics and dispensing oral narcotics is the role of a pharmacist.

Authors should take scope of practice as seriously as medical professionals do because though your book might be fiction– the public will take it as fact.

Murdering a Television Scene

The ABC drama, How to Get Away with Murder, is a series not for the faint of heart. The show centers around defense attorney Annalise Keating (great acting by Viola Davis by the way) and how murder victims keep popping up around her where she may or may not be involved.

The second season opens with an intense scene where Annalise has been shot in the chest and subsequent episodes deal with the events leading up to this one scene. Just who shot her and why did it happen?

Of course, this is a great time to do some medical analysis of her EMS rescue. What’s follows is a conversation between two medics who are taking her to the hospital.

Medic One: Starting a 16 Gauge IV. Lungs are clear. Need another blood set for a second IV and a BVM. Blood pressure 70/palp. Pulse is thready.

Medic Two: Feels tachycardic. I’m seeing some JVD. Might have to do a needle thoracostomy. Need to get ETT right away. Diminished respirations. Chest is clear. Equal breath sounds but respiratory effort decreasing.

Just what does all this medical mumbo jumbo mean and is it medically accurate? Well, kind of.

When dealing with a trauma patient, getting IV access is paramount. Usually two lines of a large bore gauge is necessary. A 16 Gauge is a large size. And working to get two lines in is accurate.

What does BP 70/palp mean? Likely, you’re used two seeing two numbers in regards to blood pressures. Something like 120/72. The top number is what’s referred to as your systolic number– or the pressure inside your arteries when your heart is contracting. The bottom number, or your diastolic number, is the pressure in your arteries when the heart is relaxing. To get both numbers, you have to be able to listen to the blood pressure by using a BP cuff and stethoscope at an artery point– usually at the antecubital space (the crook of your arm.) The first time you hear the heart beat– that’s the first number. The moment you can’t hear it anymore– that’s the bottom number.

In EMS, active resuscitation scenes are really loud and it’s hard to hear. There is  technique where you feel for the blood pressure but you only get one number– the systolic one. In this technique, you feel where the radial pulse is (at your wrist) and pump the cuff up until you can’t feel it anymore. As you let the air out of the BP cuff, you record the number where you first feel the pulse. In this case 70– which is low. But, that’s why there is only one number and the “palp” denotes it was felt or palpated.

Pulse being thready– means it feels thin and weak. Also appropriate for someone experiencing blood loss related to a gunshot wound. As does what the second medic begins to say– feels tachycardic which means the patient’s heart rate is increasing– which is also a sign of blood loss.

The main medical inaccuracy with this scene is the procedure one medic says they might need to do– a needle thoracostomy. Just what is that?

A needle thoracostomy is done to pull air from the chest that has caused a lung to deflate– here from a gunshot wound to the chest. It is a rescue measure– meaning it will buy you some time until the patient can get a chest tube placed in a hospital setting.

But note what the medics say over and over– her breath sounds are equal. These comments denote that her lungs are filling as they should. If one lung was “down” or deflated from the gunshot wound– the breath sounds should be unequal. Generally, you can’t hear breath sounds on the side of the chest where the lung is deflated– or there is very little air moving on that side.

The writer has also picked the wrong procedure. When one medic comments– “I’m seeing some JVD.”– this usually denotes an obstruction somewhere in the chest (like a deflated lung or blood collecting around the heart) and blood is having difficulty flowing as it should and so the blood is backing up into the veins. JVD= Jugular Venous Distention and is when the jugular vein is easily seen at the side of your neck because it is filling up with blood.

Since the medics state her breath sounds are “clear and equal” then we know the problem is not with her lungs but could be with her heart.

The rescue procedure for blood collecting around the heart is called “pericardiocentesis”.

Again, Hollywood, I am available for medical consultation. Let’s rescue our characters using the right procedures.

If you’re interested in seeing a video on needle decompression (the first) and/or pericardiocentesis (the second)– then watch the videos below. They aren’t gory.