Author Question: Small Town Care for Complex Medical Patient

Holly Asks:

In the very first chapter of the story I’m working on, the main character gets sent to hospital. The character in question is a sixteen-year-old female who has been missing for eleven years. She is found in the woods surrounding the town it’s set in and presents naked, severely malnourished, heavily pregnant, and with a gunshot wound to her leg. There are other superficial injuries that one might get when attempting to flee nude through dense woodland. The town and hospital are relatively small. The hospital has seventy-five doctors and forty-five nurses on staff and it’s in a fairly isolated location.

I’ve got a few questions:

1 – Would the hospital I’ve  described be able to treat a patient in this condition? What would be the basics of this treatment?

2 – Is there a procedure hospitals have in place for patients who act violent? My character hasn’t been around people for eleven years. She’s borderline feral and she attacks a doctor when she wakes up. Since she’s pregnant, I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to sedate her.

3 – Can doctors share information about patients with police officers? Since she’s a missing person and a minor, the police are going to be involved but I’m not sure how much doctors can share.

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Holly! Thanks so much for sending me your questions. These are complex ones for sure.

Question #1: Could a small town rural hospital be able to care for this patient? Maybe. One thing I want to clear up is your ratio of doctors to nurses. Usually, there are many more nurses in a given area than physicians so maybe adjust your numbers if you’re making a point about this in your novel.

When I first read your question, I thought the medical care aspects might be cared for by a rural hospital, but it was going to be a tough undertaking. This victimized teen is going to need, at a minimum, five services to be in place to stay in a rural hospital— a good general practitioner (to manage her overall care), a nutritionist (for the malnutrition), a surgeon (surgical evaluation of the gunshot wound), an OB/GYN (for the pregnancy), and a psychiatrist and/or psychologist (just because she’s been held hostage for eleven years.) Already that list is going to be tough and likely insurmountable for the area you mention.

What tilts the balance for me in saying she would have to go to a large, urban center are the psychiatric issues you mention in your second question.

Question #2: Yes, hospitals have procedures in place for violent patients, but the staff and mental health care specialists who will be required to manage her care are likely to be found at an urban center.

Violent patients are generally managed in a step-wise fashion. Can talking to them de-escalate their behavior? Is there something they’re requesting that we can give them to get them to calm down? Does she have some sort of object (like a stuffed toy) that giving her would help if it was safe for her to have?

If it’s more a fight response because of what she’s been through and she’s a danger to herself and others then she’d have to be restrained and placed under one on one observation. This type of patient can tax staffing resources which is another reason why transfer might be best.

Each drug is given a category related to its potential to harm a developing baby that is easily searchable via the internet. The categories go from Category A to Category D. Category A is deemed safest to D which has proven adverse reactions in humans. Just because a drug is listed as Category C or D doesn’t mean it might not be used. Several things would be taken into account— what we call risks versus benefits.

For instance, if she was late in her pregnancy, the doctors could risk it because the baby is fully developed. This is tough, though. Many physicians will err on the side of what’s safest for the pregnancy. However, you can’t leave a patient restrained forever and some form of psychiatric medication could be warranted here.

Question #3: Can doctors share information with police officers? Yes, they can. There is actually a special provision listed in HIPAA (the law that rules over patient privacy) that allows for this. Police officers mostly need to document what “serious bodily injury” the patient has suffered so they can determine what criminal charges to bring against a perpetrator.

The other thing to consider is the size of the local police department. Small towns may not even have their own police department but rely on the county sheriff’s office and/or state police to handle the investigation of this crime.

I actually think the best place for this teen would be the closest children’s hospital. Children’s hospitals have specialized teams in place to manage issues particularly around crimes against children. The caveat would be her pregnancy— for which she would likely deliver at an adult center.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!

Author Beware: Taking out Perfectly Good IVs

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog then you know I have kind of a love/hate relationship with James Patterson. Love his books (most of them), but I frequently take him to task for medial inaccuracies. I rarely call out an author in person or name their book because I like to mostly teach on medical topics, but I think James could use a medical consultant and I also think he has enough money to afford one– though I think these posts are not increasing my chances of working for him.

Anyway . . .

In one of his recent titles, Woman of God, the first part of the book highlights the main character serving as a physician in a war torn region.

Early in the novel, a young boy comes to their primitive hospital suffering from a bullet wound to the chest. During the surgery, which involved opening up the side of his chest, it is noted that the patient stops breathing and so the surgeon, a mentor of the main character, just gives up.

First of all, a patient receiving major surgery like this should be intubated and anesthetized. They do offer surgery, so must provide this to most of their patients. Earlier in the chapter, it is noted that the patient is being bagged and anesthetized patients can’t breathe on their own anyway— so why is a decision made to let him die when he stops breathing when, if properly cared for, he shouldn’t be breathing anyway?

However, this situation does not deter the main character and she continues his operation.

“The heart wasn’t beating, but I wasn’t letting that stop me. I sutured the tear in the lung, opened the pericardium, and began direct cardiac massage. And then, I felt it— the flutter of Nuru’s heart as it started to catch. Oh, God, thank you.

But what can a pump do when there’s no fuel in the tank? 

I had an idea, a desperate one. 

The IV drip was still in Nuru’s arm. I took the needle and inserted it directly into his ventricle. Blood was now filling his empty heart, priming the pump.”

Where to start, where to start.

First, it’s never noted that this patient is receiving blood. I think this is an add on by the author for effect. Secondly, remember IVs are not needles, but very small plastic catheters, that would not be able to puncture through the tough muscle of the heart.

Thirdly, and by far the most egregious, the physician takes out a perfectly good IV for a nonsensical reason! It is hard, really hard, to get IVs into sick kids— particularly those suffering from hemorrhagic shock like this boy is from a gunshot wound to the chest. That one, lonely IV you took out to puncture his heart (not a good idea either), you’re going to need back because this kid will still be sick. You’ll close his chest and then have to find more IV access. Giving fluids via a vein can rapidly fill the heart and it is insanity to take out a good IV to do what the text suggests.

Call me, James. Really. I’m not as expensive as you might think.

Author Question: Family Notification of Death

Themelina Asks:

I have read some of your posts and I am wondering if I could please have some help regarding a book I am writing. I have three scenes in my book that are in a hospital. The background story is that a girl gets notified that her mom and sister have been in a car crash. Her mom has died and her sister is currently in surgery. Is it right that a police officer comes to her house and lets her know or does something else happen?

After she finds out she faints, and hits her head. I don’t want to make this part sound too serious. However, I still want her to go to the hospital. So what floor would she go to? How long would she stay?

Lastly, the third scene is where the sisters see each other after surgery for the first time. She is paralyzed. How could she communicate with her?

Jordyn Says:

Thanks, Themelina, for sending me your questions.

Question #1: Who would notify the family of the death? I could see this happening a couple of ways. If the mother was declared dead at the scene of the car accident then the police would notify the family. If the mother is transported to the hospital and the hospital team declares her dead then it probably falls on the hospital team to notify the family.

We don’t generally like to give death notifications over the phone. I’m not saying it’s not ever done, but not preferred. We would likely call the family and ask them to proceed quickly, but safely, to the hospital. This might also be preferred because the sister is requiring surgery and except in the most extreme cases surgeons generally like consent before they operate. If there is not a parent to give consent (you don’t mention a father in your scenario) it could fall to the sister, if she is eighteen or over, to give consent for her sister’s surgery.

Question #2: People who pass out and hit their heads are rarely admitted to the hospital. I’m assuming you want this sister to suffer some form of concussion. She gets the awful news about her family, passes out, hitting her head in the process. If she wakes up rather quickly (a few minutes or less), is oriented to person, time and place, and doesn’t show neurological signs of a brain injury that might require surgery then she would get a physician evaluation, a few hours of monitoring to be sure her symptoms are improving, and then she would be discharged home. There would also be no need to wake her up through the night. This is a myth.

Question #3: You don’t specify in your question the level of the sister’s paralysis. Her ability to talk will depend on the level of paralysis. Patients paralyzed from the neck down are, at least for a while, on a ventilator. When a person has a trach, there are special adapters for the trach that allows people to talk. However, a trach is not placed at the beginning and it takes time for a person to learn to talk with the special valve. If she is on a breathing machine and can’t write (because her arms are paralyzed), but is awake and can understand questions then we use a system of eye blinking for responses. One blink for “yes”. Two blinks for “no”. And obviously more simply phrased questions.

Hope this helps and 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 Question: Medical Complications for Badly Broken Leg 1/2

Mareike Asks:

Greetings from Germany!

The character in question has several injuries, the most important of which is a severely broken leg (I’m talking cast all the way up to the hip). He got these injuries by being attacked and beaten up.

knee-1406964_1920I’m thinking open or compound fracture because then I can have him develop a bone infection. What I’m wondering is the order of things and how long it would take to develop what and how to recover, how long it takes, and so on.

I want him to either develop compartment syndrome and/or the above mentioned bone infection. From my understanding of the sources I’ve read, an infection can result from the treatment of the compartment syndrome, but not vice versa, so it would make sense to have that order, right? Those two are the main life/health threatening complications I could find while researching.

My ultimate goal is to write a story of recovery. Of the hardship, the struggle and pain, the setbacks. The physical therapy, the fear of whether or not he can go back to his old job.

Any resources you could point me towards when it comes to recovering from a very nasty break that might or might not require amputation or might lead to a disability would be greatly appreciated.

Jordyn Says:

Greetings from the USA! I’m going to give some thoughts on your question. I also consulted with a physical therapist since a large portion of your question deals with recovery and we rarely know what happens to patients in the long run.

I’ll give Tim’s thoughts on PT next post.

One thing I want to make clear is that treatment in the US is going to differ from medical treatment in Germany. If your novel is specific to Germany, then you really should run these thoughts by a medical person in your country. Some things should be similar, but some may also vary widely (like treatment of the actual fracture— use of fixators versus casting, etc.)

My first thought is it is really hard to get an open fracture of the leg from a beating. It’s not impossible, for sure, but we normally see injuries like this from mechanisms with a lot of velocity behind them— car accidents would be one example. So, sadly for your character, for this to ring medically true, I would probably add a weapon of some sort— like a metal pipe. And it’s more likely from repeated hits than just “one lucky” one.

The other thing is to understand the difference between compartment syndrome and the bone infection you mention which is called osteomyelitis. Compartment syndrome is a condition of swelling leading to a lack of blood supply. When you injure your body, it responds by swelling. Think of a sprained ankle.

Sometimes, this swelling can become so severe that is compresses on the blood vessels inside the extremity and either diminishes blood flow or cuts it off completely. This can be from just the injury, a cast or splint that is applied too tightly, or swelling after a cast was placed correctly.

Things begin to die when they don’t have blood supply. To alleviate the pressure, a fasciotomy is often done, which is a long cut through the skin and underlying tissue. It is a deep cut. If you Google pictures of a fasciotomy you’ll quickly get the idea. Not for the faint of heart. After this type of procedure, you have an open wound. Open wounds are always at risk for infection, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the bone would get infected.

Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. An open fracture (where the bone punches through the skin) can place a patient at risk for this type of infection. The dirtier the wound the more apt for infection. Wound infection does not develop immediately. Usually it takes 48-72 hours (24 hr at a minimum). Antibiotic therapy for osteomyelitis is extensive lasting 4-6 weeks. You can read an overview here.

Also, here is a link that deals with treatment of compartment syndrome.

With these injuries, coupled with the  added complications of compartment syndrome, fasciotomy, and/or osteomyelitis (or some other infection), your character is looking at 2-4 weeks in the hospital. He would likely go home on oral antibiotic therapy for his bone infection.

He’ll also need extensive rehab which Tim will highlight next post.

Author Question: Bullet Wound to the Chest

Gwyn Asks:

I’m writing a scene in which a cop is injured during a confrontation with a suspect.  I’d like to tell you about the scenario I have in mind and hopefully you can tell me how realistic it is.

ammunition-2004236_1920Cop, mid-thirties, in excellent health and physical condition is shot with a low caliber bullet from about 10 feet away.  The bullet hits his chest, goes through the lung and exits out the back.  He’s got colleagues nearby who administer basic first aid and the EMTs get there within 5 minutes.  Say about 15 minute drive to the hospital.  They radioed ahead so the hospital is expecting them and has an OR ready.

First of all, what are the chances of survival?.  Second of all, assuming survival, what are the chances (best case scenario) of full recovery – to the point he can return to active duty.  How long would the recovery time be, how soon would he get out of the hospital, and what complications — pneumonia, blood clots, etc should the doctors be worried about?

Finally, if a full recovery is highly unlikely, are there little changes I can make to the scenario to make it more likely?

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Gwyn! Thanks so much for sending me your question.

In short, this is a survivable injury.

You don’t specify in your question whether this police officer is shot in the right or left chest. Right chest would probably be preferred as there are less vital structures on the right side of the chest then the left.

ambulance1You give your victim immediate first aid and EMS responds quickly. Keep in mind that you’re going to need a paramedic to respond to give more advanced field procedures. A basic EMT is limited in what they can do— CPR, wound dressings, assisting the patient with some of their own medication administration. Depending on the state, some EMTs can start IVs, so if your novel is set in a specific location then I would research this for that area. Assuming he has a paramedic respond then he’ll get an IV, IV fluids, oxygen, and possibly pain medications. Of course, a set of vital signs and cardiac monitoring.

In an urban setting, a drive time of fifteen minutes to the hospital seems a little long. If a rural setting then you’re probably fine but you might need to adjust there as needed.

A bullet passing through the chest is likely going to puncture and deflate the lung. This character will need a chest tube to get the air out of his chest and reinflate the lung. A chest tube can be placed in the ER. This patient would get a CT scan of his chest. If the medical team isn’t worried about any other injuries than this patient may not even need to go to the OR.

A patient with a chest tube will need to be admitted into the hospital. How long it takes the lung to reinflate depends on the size of the pneumothorax or the degree to which the lung has collapsed. Generally, a patient’s chest tube is connected to a drainage box that uses suction to help the lung reinflate. Patients with this type of injury will get daily (or every other day) chest x-rays to see how the lung is expanding. After the lung is fully expanded, the suction is stopped, but the box remains in place. This is generally referred to as placing the chest tube to water seal.

If the lung stays expanded to water seal for one to two days then the medical team would feel good about removing the chest tube. Then the patient would be observed for another one to two days to make sure the lung stayed reexpanded.

Pending any complications, you’re looking at a hospitalization of 4-7 days. Pneumonia is probably your more likely complication. Having a tube in your chest hurts. Because of this, patients don’t want to take deep breaths. This can lead to the smaller air sacs in the lung staying collapsed and trapping bacteria which could lead to pneumonia.

If you add a complication like pneumonia, then you’re easily adding another one to two weeks that he’s out of commission.

If you just stick with a “simple” collapsed lung I would say he’d be out of work for about two weeks. He won’t be physically 100% of what he was before the injury but he should feel back to his physical baseline in about a month.

I would say he can work, but he’s going to have some physical limitations. It would be up to his department what his physical capacity needs to be before he can return to work. Half days at a desk job is not unreasonable for a few weeks.

He’d likely become short of breath during any exertional activity (like running after a bad guy). However, considering his physical shape, he should bounce back fairly quickly.

A nice overview can be found here.

Hope this helps and good luck with your novel!

Author Question: Complex Traumatic Injury

Rachel Asks:

I love your blog, and I have a fictional medical question for you.

motorcycle-654429_1280I have a young teen character in the near future (about 2075) who is a motocross racer. She has a horrible crash near the end of her freshman year of college and suffers a large injury – she has to stop school.

I want her to recover in 3-6 months, well enough to go to school, and show up full of plates and wires. I was thinking a severe shoulder fracture would do it, and assuming she got good enough PT, she could eventually race again (and even move onto a more demanding kind of racing.)

Is this a likely enough scenario? What would be a typical range of wires and plates to put in? I want a specific number for her to obsess about as she overcomes her fear of biking. Other injuries you could suggest? What about the recovery timeline? I need her off the bike for about 6-9 months, but some of that could be psychological, not physical recovery.

In this novel, there is some integrated AI technology. Obviously, the answer can incorporate speculative medical advances, but I’d like to know what is typical today so I can make them sound convincing.

Jordyn Says:

My first impression is that the shoulder may not be the best option if you want lots of plates and screws. You have to consider the bones that make up the shoulder and how those injuries would be treated. The scapula is very hard to fracture and likely wouldn’t be repaired that way. I’ve only actually seen one scapula fracture in my entire ICU/ER career in the span of almost 25 years. Collar bones we basically let heal on their own without surgical intervention. Even the upper arm— at least in kids— is not even splinted if you can believe that (most often)! Ligament repairs, labral tear, rotater cuff repairs, etc, could potentially take your time frame (with some complications) but would not involve a lot of plates and screws.

If you wanted to stick with an upper body injury— you could do amputation and then have your character learning to use a prosthetic which might tie in nicely with your integrated AI technology.

If you want to stick with a ton of plates and screws, alternative injuries could be a pelvic fracture or a complex upper or lower (or both) leg fracture. For instance, you could probably Google– x-rays of pelvic fractures repaired using plates and screws or x-rays of lower leg fractures repaired using plates and screws as references to come of with a specific number for her obsessive counting, etc.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!