Author Question: Gun Shot Wound/Severed Brachial Artery

Sandy Asks:

I am writing a scene where my heroine gets shot in the scuffle with the bad guy. If she’s shot in the brachial artery in her left arm, is it conceivable that she’d pass out and bleed a lot? Her firefighter hero is there and immediately rips off his shirt and balls it up to stop/slow the bleeding. He then uses a strip of fabric from another shirt to tie around that and then carries her to a waiting police car to get her to the hospital—in this case, an ER clinic.

How much danger is there of bleeding out? Is the pressure wrap enough? Can she survive? What would be the treatment? Surgery, I assume, and blood transfusions. Would she remain unconscious and for how long?

Jordyn Says:

Yes, it is conceivable that she would pass out and bleed a lot. The brachial artery will bleed briskly and quickly and without direct intervention she could bleed to death in a matter of minutes (3-6 min). I think both methods to control the bleeding need to happen quickly. The firefighter can direct a bystander to apply direct pressure while he fashions the tourniquet as he will have more experience. The tourniquet should be applied above the level of bleeding. After those two measures, I would have the firefighter continue direct pressure at the sight with a compression dressing. This will be better than continuing to hold direct pressure.

To your specific questions:

Without intervention, this character is in great danger of bleeding out. With immediate intervention, she should be all right.

I would do both the tourniquet and the pressure dressing.

Initial treatment by EMS would be to establish IV access very quickly and start supporting the fluid loss with IV fluids. A set of vital signs. Possibly oxygen if her heart rate is really elevated, her oxygen level is low, or she’s exhibiting any kind of distress.

Since she is being transported by a police car, these would then become the initial steps performed in the ER.

Upon arrival to the ER, labs will be drawn to check her blood counts. If low, then blood transfusion would be warranted. Repairing a severed artery will require surgery.

Whether or not the character goes unconscious depends on a lot of factors. A person can just pass out from looking at blood and the stress of being shot in addition to blood loss. If a person passes out from blood loss, they should regain consciousness as soon as their blood pressure is normalized either with IV fluids and/or blood transfusions.

You mention an “ER clinic”. I’m not quite sure what you mean by this, but a free standing ER, urgent care, or an “emergency” room outside a major hospital can have limitations in the type of care they can deliver. So, if it’s such a situation, the patient would need to be transferred to a larger hospital (for surgery, admission, etc).

Best of luck with this story!

Author Question: Gunshot Wound Near Clavicle

Sarah Asks:

In my novella, the main character is shot directly below the left clavicle by a sniper rifle. The bullet misses the bone, but would it have hit the subclavian artery or another artery? And if so, how long would it take for her to bleed out? She receives medical help from an off-duty paramedic within three to five minutes. Thanks!


Jordyn Says:

I reviewed a couple of anatomy pictures and the subclavian artery appears to sit higher and slightly above the clavicle or collar bone. When looking at anatomy photos, red indicates arteries (as they are taking oxygen rich blood away from your heart to the rest of your body) and blue indicates veins (bringing oxygen poor blood to your heart and lungs for more oxygen).

That being said, the left chest has all sorts of major veins and arteries. A bullet can always miss these structures— we all hear those rare stories, but I generally encourage authors to stick to the right chest for a more believable scenario if they want the character to live. Ultimately, it is your choice.

The subclavian vein, which is nestled under the artery, could definitely be nicked or severed by a gunshot wound to this area (either the right or left side). Central lines are often placed to the subclavian vein which is accessed just benenath the collar bone.

If the bullet hits the subclavian artery, the character would bleed out fairly immediately— in roughly under two minutes without any medical intervention. Your paramedic arriving in three to five minutes would likely be too late. Direct pressure to the area will help. It is hard to stem bleeding from an artery this size, but pressure could help delay the onset of death for another few minutes.

If the bullet hits the subclavian vein, the bleeding will still be brisk but could be more easily controlled with pressure than bleeding from an artery.

If you want an injury that will bleed, but would likely be survivable, I would pick the subclavian vein with people at the scene immediately applying direct pressure to the gunshot wound.

Hope this helps and best of luck with your story!

Author Question: Law Enforcement Shooting with Vest in Place

Carol Asks:

I have a cop who is involved in a shooting. She’s wearing a vest and is hit outside the vest’s protective area. I need her hospitalized long enough that the shooter (who she killed— they shot simultaneously, more or less) to have been claimed post autopsy. I can’t have her debilitated for months— just a week or two. Where would I shoot her? Hip? Leg seems hard to hit and shoulder does too. I don’t want her disabled, nor do I want a months long rehab.

Jordyn Says:

What I would recommend is a shot coming through the side, under the armpit, causing the lung to collapse. I would pick the right side over the left— there’s just a lot more vasculature on the left that could prove deadly/problematic. If her right arm was raised and she was say . . . turning into the shot . . .  it could leave her vulnerable.

She would have difficulty breathing. How difficult would depend on how quickly the pneumothorax (air moving into the chest and deflating the lung) expanded. She would be transported to the ER via ambulance and receive an IV, oxygen, and vital sign monitoring.

A chest tube would be placed, likely after a quick chest film, unless she is in significant distress to re-expand the lung. If in significant respiratory distress or cardiovascular compromise then she would get a rapid needle decompression to buy some time or some facilities will go straight to chest tube placement. For a “simple” pneumothorax she would be admitted into the hospital (regular floor— not ICU) and observed.

Generally, depending on the size of the pneumothroax, it’s a few days to get the lung to re-expand, a day or two with the tube to “water seal” to make sure it stays up without suction, and then the tube would be removed. Maybe one or two more days after that to make sure all was well.

If she’s young and healthy she should recuperate pretty quickly, but would still be winded, perhaps easily fatigued for another week or two.

Hope this fits your time frame.

Author Question: Gunshot Wound to the Chest

Virginia Asks:

I’m putting the final touches on a romantic suspense novel in which my hero is shot. The most important part of this is that he has to continue to function until he saves the day, then falls and has to be treated. The wound cannot be bad enough that he can’t pass the physical and qualify to become an FBI agent within a few weeks.

My fit male character (34 years old) is in a shootout. He’s shot with a 9mm handgun but the bullet ricochets, grazes his chest, and fractures a rib. He doesn’t notice initially. He begins to feel some pain after about five minutes. Then feels woozy and has a head rush. I want him to fall after the action is over, but be able to talk a little with some struggling.

He’s far from a hospital when he’s shot, but a military medic is there with his kit. The hero can be medevaced to a hospital on a military helicopter. What would the medic do in the field? I don’t want the bullet to penetrate the chest wall, but would the medic check for pneumothorax and if so how?

What would happen at the hospital? How long would he be hospitalized?

I’ve read and re-read about pneumothorax and hemopneumothorax, but think that might require too much recovery time and be too much for him to qualify and be able to pass the physical. I’ve done some research on pulmonary contusion but am a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities of the use of continuous positive airway pressure and high-frequency chest wall oscillation. And the long term recovery.

Since I really don’t know what would be best as a gunshot wound that my hero can recover from and pass a physical in a few weeks, I really need some guidance and specific information that can easily be explained in a romantic suspense novel. I’m hoping this “bullet grazes the rib” scenario is workable. If not, what should I consider instead?

Jordyn Says:

Thanks so much for sending me your question, Virginia.

I think the simplest thing to do is to have the bullet graze his chest. It could potentially hit the rib, break it, and ricochet away. Leaving a nasty gash with a broken rib underlying but nothing else injured. Generally, a fractured rib will heal in 4-6 weeks so he will have pain and limited movement until then. The worst pain will probably be in the first 1-2 weeks and then should taper off after that.

As far as the military medic assisting off duty. I think it’s fine if he has a small first aid kit that he could dress the wound with. He likely would not be carrying an oxygen tank, etc. So the dressing to control bleeding is necessary. Lots of emergency medical types might have a small kit in their car (I do), but not an oxygen tank or a way to deliver oxygen to the patient.

The military medic could check for a pneumothorax by listening to your hero’s breath sounds. Clear and equal breath sounds bilaterally generally indicate no pneumo (though a small one could still be present). It will hurt to take deep breaths if his rib is fractured.

If he’s transported by a military medevac then they could start oxygen, an IV, and give some IV fluids. Place him on a monitor to keep tabs on his heart rate, breathing, oxygen levels, and blood pressure.

In the hospital, he’ll get chest and belly films and possibly a CT of his chest and abdomen. If it seems like a fairly benign wound, the wound could just be irrigated with a lot of saline and sutured closed. He needs an updated tetanus shot if he hasn’t had one in over five years.

If his breathing is good and he suffers just one cracked rib, there is likely not enough injury criteria for him to be admitted into the hospital. He’d likely be observed in the ER for several hours to make sure everything is okay. He’d be sent home with a short course of narcotics (like three days) and instructed to take over the counter pain relievers to help with the pain as well. He should have limited activity but not be bedridden. He’d be encouraged to take deep breaths (usually at every commercial break if watching TV) to prevent lung complications because patients don’t like to breathe deep when they have a cracked rib.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!

The Use of Hypothermia Post Cardiac Arrest

Emily Asks:

I am playing around with one of my character’s being shot life threateningly, but of course it’s gotta be something he recovers from with time.

This character is in his late 20s and in good health before the incident takes place.

At first, I was toying around with the idea of making the gunshot wound similar to what Kate Beckett had in the show Castle at the end of season three. The trouble is, I do not know how medically realistic her wound was, as you have pointed out Castle’s medical inaccuracies before. If you have possibly seen the episodes in question, could you give me some feedback on the medical aspects of Beckett’s shooting?

In relation to this, her heart supposedly stopped twice during the whole ordeal. I have been researching induced comas, and while they seem to be used for patients having more of a direct injury to the head, in the case when a victim’s heart stopped twice and is resuscitated both times, would there be any reason to keep them in an induced coma for a time due to lack of oxygen to the brain?

Then, after researching, I am playing around with giving this guy a collapsed lung from the bullet, which is small caliber.

1. In what hypothetical cases would this kind of injury require immediate surgery?

2. Are there any complications that could be serious enough for the said character to have to go back into surgery at a later time?

3. My character happens to be a bass singer for an acapella band. Would a collapsed lung affect his career at all even after he made a full recovery?

Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my questions!

Jordyn Says:

Beckett’s Gunshot Wound:

I had to go back and find some videos that were related to this. Shockingly, I found this scene pretty medically accurate. I found one that showed her coding one time. Though I definitely could have missed some. The determination to put someone in therapeutic hypothermia or targeted temperature management (as now termed) related to their heart stopping is dependent on whether or not they wake up immediately after their code.

A patient that wakes up spontaneously and quickly after a pulse is restored has intact neurological function. Those that remain comatose have a concern for neurological injury related to oxygen loss to the brain during the resuscitation and therefore the medical team could choose to put the pt in a “hypothermic” state to try and prevent this neurological injury.

This is slightly different from a medically induced coma that patients with traumatic brain injury might be placed in to prevent brain swelling. The difference is actively cooling the patient. I have not seen the use of hypothermia in the traumatically brain injured population (though this does appear to be an area of study), but use of medically induced comas, yes.

There are definite guidelines that the American Heart Association has put out that outline this course of treatment. You can find one such article here.

If your character codes and doesn’t wake up– then this would be a reasonable course of action medically, but written under the guidelines in the article.

In regards to your specific questions.

1. It’s more likely than not that a gunshot wound to the chest would go to surgery, particularly if the patient presents with any abnormal vital signs especially low blood pressure. There’s just so much there that could be damaged. The heart. The lungs. The blood vessels.

2. Yes, there could be a number of scenarios where the character could require more surgery such as a blood vessel that’s leaking that’s not found the first time during surgery and continues to bleed. Infection– specifically some sort of abscess formation could be another reason, but that would take some time to develop.

3. I don’t personally foresee a problem with his acapella career after his lung is healed. It would take time to get to the point where he was. If you wanted to affect his career, a patient who is intubated (placed on a breathing machine) can develop vocal cord damage as a rare complication.

Best of luck with your story!

Author Question: Gunshot Wound to the Torso

Heather Asks:

If my hero gets shot in the torso, is there somewhere it can hit that won’t be fatal? It can be a “miraculous” miss, that kind of thing. He can be weakened and bleeding, but I just need him to stay conscious for maybe five to ten minutes after? Any ideas?

Jordyn Says:

Sure, there are always miracles.

In medicine we view the torso as including the chest and abdomen. Generally the diaphragm is the dividing line between the two. So the chest is everything above the diaphragm and the abdomen is everything below it.

Gunshot wounds to the chest not hitting anything is tough. Think about everything that’s there. The heart, lungs, major vessels and arteries. Can a bullet pass through and miss everything— or hit something less minor and just cause bleeding? Sure. Anything is possible. I would recommend staying away from the left side of the chest for the wound— just so much there. The right chest and lower might be more believable because it’s just the lung sitting there. There are major blood vessels that underline each rib so nicking one of those could cause the bleeding you want. Hit outside or inside enough and you could miss the lung.

Abdominal wounds could go either way. A lot to hit in the belly as well, but also good odds for missing. If he’s wearing a bullet proof vest, you could have the bullet enter through his side and low– just under the lung and diaphragm. Problem is you have highly vascular organs on either side– the liver on the right and the spleen on the left. So, I’d aim below that as well or merely have them be grazing wounds to these organs. This could also cause significant, but survivable bleeding.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

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!