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: Pediatric Fall From Skateboard

Carol Asks:

A four-year-old falls off a moving skateboard onto a driveway (no helmet, or pads.) Someone was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do.

This is what I’m proposing happens to this child.

Result: Greenstick fracture in one of the bones of the forearm and possible concussion?

Treatment: Cast in ER and keep overnight for observation? Possible sedatives or stronger meds (like codeine) for pain that may make her sleepy?

Follow: Specialist?

Jordyn Says:

Thanks, Carol, for sending me your question.

I’ll answer in the same way you sent your scenario to me with my opinion.

Result: Yes, greenstick fracture is good. You can hit the link for further information. However, we don’t use this term (as least not in Colorado.) We say “buckle fracture” as in the bone buckles or squishes a little. Bones in this age group are very pliable. This is a very common fracture in kids. The fracture is not a line crack through the bone. Concussion, yes. And you’re right– this kid needs a helmet on!

Treatment:

Splint in the ER. Casting is rare in the emergency department. The difference between the two is a splint only has hardening material on one side and is secured in place by an ace wrap. This leaves space for the injury to swell and can limit the potential for developing compartment syndrome— though that would be rare for this type of fracture. Casting has circumferential hardening material— usually something like fiberglass sheeting that hardens. Also, some providers are just placing a removable type wrist splint on these fractures since they are very stable and the child will usually self limit activities until the pain goes away.

I’m going to assume your child/character has a mild concussion. No loss of consciousness. No amnesia. Maybe a headache, nausea, dizziness, etc. We would not give any sedative or narcotics to this patient— for the concussion nor for the fracture.

Ibuprofen is the preferred drug of choice for the fracture and even for the headache that might be associated with the concussion. Some providers are against ibuprofen in concussion because of a concern for increased bleeding (ibuprofen makes platelets less sticky), but that’s with multiple dosing. We give Ibuprofen often to kids with head injuries and they do fine. Acetaminophen can be given for headache and it will help with pain from the fracture, but it will do little to help the swelling of the fracture. This is why ibuprofen is preferred for broken bones because it helps with both pain and swelling.

Assuming this child has a normal neuro exam and is at their normal neurological baseline (meaning, they are acting as they normally do at home)— then they would be sent home. There is no reason to obs this kid overnight.

Follow up: With orthopedics in 7-10 days for reevaluation of the fracture with cast placement. Cast would be on for 4-6 weeks.

Hope this help and good luck with this story.

Traumatic Brain Injuries: Initial Treatment

Last post, I have a primer on traumatic brain injuries (TBI) that you can find here. Today, I thought I’d give an overview of the treatment guidelines.

Remember, the basis of treating TBI is manipulation of the three components within the skull: the brain, the blood, or the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Additionally, sometimes a portion of the skull is removed.

1. Manipulating Brain Tissue.

Removing brain tissue is an option and may be done to tissue that has died. Recovery of the patient is dramatically influenced by what part of the brain was removed.

Another management strategy is to put the brain at rest by placing the patient in a medically induced coma. Medication is used to heavily sedate the patient. Typically, the patient is on continuous EEG monitoring to ensure a minimal amount of brain activity is present. The purpose of the coma is to reduce the metabolic demands of the brain in hopes of keeping swelling down and allowing the brain time to heal.

Additionally a diuretic, either hypertonic saline or Mannitol, can be given to draw water out of swollen brain cells.

2. Manipulating Blood Flow.

This can entail a couple of areas. Remove blood that has collected in the brain. Sometimes when the brain is injured, blood vessels within the brain are ripped open. Two types of bleeding can occur between the brain and the skull: a subdural or epidural hematoma. A subdural hematoma occurs from veins. An epidural hematoma occurs from an artery. Depending on the size of the hematoma, a neurosurgeon may choose to operate and remove it. Sometimes bleeding occurs within brain tissue. This type of bleeding can be small and more diffuse. Although a risk for the patient it may not be an option to surgically remove it.

Another way to change blood flow is to manipulate the size of the blood vessels inside the patient’s head. This can be done by increasing the rate of the patient’s breathing on the ventilator thereby decreasing their blood level of carbon dioxide. When this level is lower, the blood vessels inside the patient’s brain shrink in diameter. This therapy is controversial and if done, only a mild drop in carbon dioxide levels is the goal.

Lastly, the blood pressure can be manipulated. A certain blood pressure or blood flow to the brain must be maintained in order to keep the brain alive. This is called the cerebral perfusion pressure (CPP) and is calculated by using the patient’s blood pressure and their intracranial pressure (ICP). Reducing the blood pressure is an option but you must maintain the cerebral perfusion pressure as well. This can be a challenging balancing act.

3. Manipulating Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF)

A drain is placed to remove excess cerebrospinal fluid.

4. Removing a Portion of the Skull.

This is a viable option for management of brain swelling. A portion of the skull is removed (hemicraniectomy) to allow the brain room to swell. The portion of the skull that is removed is preserved by freezing so that is can be reattached at a later point once the swelling has eased.

Have you had a character in your novel with a traumatic brain injury? If so, what type and why did you choose it?

***Reposted from January 19, 2011.***

Traumatic Brain Injuries: A Primer

The brain is our most complex organ and perhaps the most difficult to help heal. The biggest challenge is its protective covering: the skull. Management of acute traumatic brain injury, or TBI, typically involves manipulating the three components within the skull: the brain, the blood, and the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

What is the purpose of each of these components? The brain is the body’s supercomputer. The blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to feed the cells or neurons. The CSF nourishes the brain, helps remove waste products, and keeps the brain buoyant.

What happens when something is significantly injured? It swells. Think about a time you saw someone with a really bad sprained ankle. What happened? It blew up like a balloon. The same thing happens to the brain with a traumatic injury. It swells.

Unlike an ankle, brain swelling is inhibited by the skull but the pressure inside the head can continue to rise if swelling is unchecked. Too much pressure inside the skull (it can’t move) and blood flow diminishes, thereby starving cells of oxygen, which then swell more.

We can measure the pressure inside your skull, or intracranial pressure (ICP), by placing a sensor into a ventricle (a ventriculostomy).  A normal ICP is 7-15mmHg. Cerebral edema can be insidious as swelling peaks 48-72 hours post injury. A patient can initially present following commands. Then in 2-3 days, develop cerebral edema to the point of herniation (which means brain contents shifting) and die.

What happens when a patient develops significant cerebral edema and ICP pressures skyrocket?

First bad thing: Blood flow is reduced. The brain is very sensitive to blood flow and greedy for oxygen. If there is diminished blood flow, neurons (brain cells) begin to die. If there is no blood flow, the brain will die. You may have heard the term brain death. This is determined by several factors but the definitive one is by taking the patient to radiology and doing a brain flow study. Roughly, a dye is injected into the blood and x-rays are taken. If there is no blood flow, the patient is declared brain dead.

Second bad thing: Brain contents shift into areas where they’re not supposed to be. This is called herniation. When neurons are compressed, they don’t function properly and will begin to die as well. When brain cells die, machines and medications have to take over their function to keep the patient alive.

Unfortunately, if brain death has occurred, the medical team will start discussing withdrawal of care with the family.

***Content reposted from January, 12, 2011.***

Historical Medical Question: Head Injury 1870s

April Asks:

skull-476740_1920I have a question regarding medicine in the 1870’s.  What would brain/cranial surgery consist of then?

I’ve tried to find some information on this type of operation from this time period, but have had very little luck so far.  In a quick scenario, there’s been a serious buggy accident, and the heroine of the novel has bleeding on the brain. I know one proposed procedure for this was to actually drill a hole into the skull to let out the influx of blood. Was this happening and being practiced in the 1870’s? Also, what would the medical instruments of the day have been to achieve such a surgery?

Jordyn Says:

This could definitely be a set up for a craniotomy (drilling a hole into the skull or creating a burr hole) to be used to relieve pressure within the cranium. The procedure would have been called trephining and was definitely used during your time period. Two resources for the procedure can be found here and here.