Author Question: Emergency Care of the Suicidal Patient

Riannon Asks:

I’d really appreciate your help in answering some questions. I’ve Googled as much as possible, and I just can’t seem to find answers for some things.

At one point in a play I’m writing, a character attempts suicide. His goal is not actually to die, but he does go through the process. What happens is that he’s very drunk and it’s a combination of probably alcohol poisoning and a lot of pills, something relatively accessible lying around the house, but potentially lethal in a high dose and then he calls 911 right afterwards.

So my questions are:
1. Would he be allowed to have visitors the next day? Essential for plot reasons.
2. Would visitors have to be family members or something or would friends/acquaintances be able to fudge their way in?
3. Before someone visits a patient, is the patient told that they’re coming and who they are? (I have very little knowledge of how hospitals work.)
4. How screwed up would he be physically?
5. Would he have to be committed to psych, and if so, when?
6. What could he have overdosed on?

Jordyn Says:

Hi Riannon!

Thanks so much for sending me your questions.

1. Would he be allowed visitors the next day? Depends on where he is at in the process. I’ll give you the process a patient goes through at our hospital, but you might need to adapt it if your play is located in a specific town, state, etc.

When a patient comes in with a suicide attempt, they are placed on 1:1 observation. The patient must be “medically cleared” before they can participate in a mental health evaluation. What that means is that they are no longer in danger medically from what they ingested AND that they are clear mentally to participate in the process. For instance, our patients would have to be below the legal limit for alcohol in order to participate. During the time of medical clearance and during the mental health evaluation (as for pediatrics parents are involved in the process) the patient is allowed to have visitors. A limited number. We try to keep it to two at a time and generally only immediate family.

If the patient is deemed to be a danger to themselves and does not voluntarily consent to treatment, then they are placed on an M1-Hold. This will have different names in different areas, but it is a legal document where the patient is involuntarily committed to a mental health institution for stabilization for about three days. Most mental health facilities will strictly limit visitors and may not let anyone visit during the initial 24-48 hours. Depends on the facility.

2. Could family/friends fudge their way in? I think I’ve mostly answered this above. If the patient is at a mental health hospital probably not without inside help. These are generally locked facilities that will keep a close eye on who is coming and going.

3. Is the patient notified of visitors? I can give you the ER answer and that is it depends. If the patient is unconscious then probably not. If the patient is conscious then we do want to inform the patient of who is there, but we would likely keep it to immediate family. We don’t want to inflame an already volatile situation so if the patient would become harmful to themselves or others then visitors are restricted. Pediatric patients will sometimes try and not have their parents visit, but parents are part of the process, so we encourage them to be at the bedside as long as the patient can be safe.

4. How screwed up would he be physically? Depends on a lot of factors. What he took. How much he took. And how long before he sought medical care.

5. Would he be committed to psych? If so, when? Yes, in this instance, he would be committed involuntarily if he did not agree to a voluntary admission. This would happen once he’s medically stable and after his mental health evaluation. Sometimes, patients may not be medically cleared for 12-24 hours (sometimes longer depending on the drug’s half life). Then we have to wait for an available mental health counselor which can take an additional 3-6 hours. Then waiting for placement could be another 3-24 hours. It can be a very lengthy process. Mental health beds are not that easy to find at times. Patients are held in the ER until they have a bed placement. It is also a requirement of our hospital that patients be transported by ambulance to their mental health facility and generally family members are not allowed to ride in the ambulance with them. This is a safety concern for the EMS crew.

6. What could he have overdosed on? This is really up to you as the author. Any drug can be toxic given in enough quantities and alcohol ingestion on top of that can make things much worse. Some of the more common medications most people have at home that can become easily toxic, in my opinion, would be acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

Hope this helps and best of luck with your novel!

Author Question: Treatment of Teen Suicide Victim (1/2)

Pink Asks:

Hi there! I’m so glad I’ve found your site and thanks for taking the time to read this. Ok, here goes.

I’m writing about a fifteen-year-old boy who is being abused physically and sexually by his father. One day at school, he tries to commit suicide by slitting his wrists. He becomes scared by the amount of blood, so he leaves the restroom to try to find help. He is found by his teacher and passes out. Now, I know with any kind of suicide attempt, the police are always contacted, and given the all clear for the paramedics.

Jordyn: I think it would depend on the city, county, school district (and whether or not there was a school resource officer) as to the level of police involvement if he just really needs medical attention. I would advise that if this is written about a real place you ensure they have co police response because a paramedic team would be able to handle this call.

Pink: What will the ED staff do to stabilize a patient who has slit their wrists? Is surgery necessary if the wound is pretty deep?

Jordyn: We always look at airway, breathing, and circulation first. If the patient is talking to us then we can quickly check off the first two as at least functional for the time being. As far as circulation the priority is to stop all active bleeding first by direct pressure. Also, does the patient exhibit any vital sign measurements that show he’s suffering from blood loss—which in this case could be increased heart rate, low blood pressure, and also low oxygen levels.

After that, the medical priority for this patient is to further control the bleeding and determine how much blood he’s already lost. Direct pressure is the method used to control the bleeding. Blood work would be done to look at his blood counts to see if he needs any blood replacement. Next would be to look at if he damaged any arteries, tendons, ligaments or nerves during the attempt. Generally, an exam of the function of the fingers can reveal if there is a concern there. For instance, do his fingers have full range of motion? Do any fingers have areas of numbness? Arterial bleeding is very distinct so it’s usually obvious if an artery has been severed. If he has damaged anything that would limit the function of his hand then he would need follow-up evaluation by a hand surgeon for surgery. If there is no damage to the structures as listed, there is a possibility the wound could be closed in the ER as a simple laceration repair.

Pink: Upon discharge, what will the patient be given to take home for treatment of their wound (the slit wrist)?

Jordyn: If the patient gets a simple laceration repair (merely closing the skin even if it takes a lot of stitches) then pain could be managed at home with over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol or ibuprofen. If the patient requires surgery, a short course of a narcotic may be given for pain control,    but we also have to look at other factors to determine if this would be wise for the patient (are they a current drug addict or is there continued concern for suicide attempt). If the patient has surgery, then it is up to the surgeon to determine the patient’s home pain relief.

Pink: If a nurse or doctor notices any bruises on the patient’s body, can they examine an unconscious patient?

Jordyn: Yes, an unconscious patient’s skin can be externally examined. In fact, it is often protocol to do so because we are looking for clues as to why the person is unconscious.

Well continue this discussion next post.