Author Question: Surgery for Shrapnel to the Abdomen

Naomi Asks:

My protagonist is a surgical resident at large hospital, and I want to write a scene where she is in the OR treating a piece of shrapnel entering the patient’s large intestine with no exit wound.

It took quite a long time to get the patient any sort of medical attention and he has multiple myeloma. I’ve read from my research that myeloma can cause increase inflammation and compression of blood vessels causing coagulation and lessening internal bleeding.

A few questions:

I want to know the chance of my character surviving the surgery. I’m aware since there was no exit wound, and the piece of shrapnel didn’t hit any vital organs, that it would be high chance. However, since he received medical attention rather late (perhaps between half an hour and an hour) I want to know the chance of him actually surviving.

What would be the role of the surgical resident in this scenario? I don’t necessarily just want her to be cleaning up, but I want this to be as accurate as possible.

How long will it take to recover from this surgery?

Are they any complications that could happen during the surgery? If so, please list the major ones.

Jordyn Says:

For this question, I went to one of the best OR types I know . . . my friend Kim Zweygardt who works as a Certified Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA).

Kim Says:

First of all, let’s talk about length of time.

If the shrapnel missed all vital organs and major blood vessels, the length of time to treatment is minor. Are you talking from time of injury? If so, it takes some time for EMS to get to the scene, stabilize the patient, and get to the ER. It takes time in the ER for the nurses to start IVs, for the ER doctor to assess the patient, and get lab and radiology studies to diagnose. It takes time for the surgery to be scheduled and the OR crew to set up for the case.

In a large teaching hospital, is there an OR open or do they have to wait? If the patient isn’t bleeding out, it’s urgent but not life and death. It’s unlikely for the patient to be in the OR from time of injury in half an hour or even an hour.  For instance, in a stat C-section with the patient and crew in house, it’s supposed to be decision to incision within thirty minutes and it’s sometimes difficult to hit that timeline. It takes time to transfer the patient and get the OR ready so I wouldn’t be concerned with that time affecting the outcome in this scenario.

Chances of surviving the operation? It’s kind of a misunderstanding that lots of people die in the OR! Your chances of surviving something is very good in the OR because everything and everybody is there to help you survive— all ways to stop bleeding, medications to resuscitate, etc.

The biggest risk is if the shrapnel was close to major blood vessels that could be nicked by the sharpness during removal.  Most likely scenario is if it’s embedded in the bowel then they would just resect the bowel. In other words, remove the piece of bowel damaged along with the shrapnel. That’s normally done using a special stapler and then reconnected.

It’s possible depending on damage that they’d do a temporary colostomy. Let the bowel heal and go back later to reconnect it.

Biggest worry is infection. Normally when you resect the bowel you do a bowel prep so the colon is empty of stool. The shrapnel itself is dirty but having to resect an unprepped colon— risk of infection is very high and serious enough to cause death. But it’s not an immediate thing. They’d put him on antibiotics but within 24-48 hours he’d have symptoms if infected.

Role of the resident— depends on how advanced they are in their training. If early in residency, assisting. Holding retractors. If more advanced they could do most of the case. In all cases, if an attending surgeon is there, the resident will be left to close the surgical wound, write the orders for post op, and follow up on the patient in the ICU or PACU (Post Anesthesia Care Unit). What they wouldn’t do is clean things up! That is left to the nurses and techs.

His recovery time? If no infection then three to five days if healthy and their bowels are moving to where they can eat, drink, go to the bathroom, etc. With infection recovery time could be weeks or even a month or more.

Hope this helped and best of luck with your story!
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Kimberly Zweygardt is a Christ follower, wife, mother, writer, blogger, dramatist, worship leader, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, a fused glass artist and a taker of naps. Her writings have been featured in Rural Roads Magazine, The Rocking Chair Reader, and Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living Series on Heart Disease. She is the author of Stories From the Well and Ashes to Beauty, The Real Cinderella Story and was featured in Stories of Remarkable Women of Faith. She lives in Northwest Kansas with her husband where their nest is empty but their lives are full. For more information: www.kimzweygardt.com.

The Good Doctor is Bad Medicine Part 3/3

This is the third part of a series examining the medical aspects of ABC’s new medical drama called The Good Doctor which highlights the struggles of autistic surgical resident Shaun Murphy. You can read Part I and Part II by following the links.

Episode 2 has so many issues it’s taking me two posts just to cover it.

The other issue in Episode 2 is the care of a young girl with abdominal pain. Everyone but Dr. Murphy thinks this belly pain is caused by the girl’s parents’ divorce.

Issue #1: Ordering proper medical tests. One of the easiest things I feel like a medical show can get right is ordering the proper tests. Any medical consultant worth their salt should be able to assist the writing staff in this. For this patient, a child suffering abdominal pain, he orders a D-dimer, lactate, and amylase. Together, these tests make little sense. A D-dimer is used to look at blood coagulation. A lactate at how acidic the blood is. A lactate isn’t crazy, but a more applicable test for this girl would be what’s called a BMP or CMP— both of which are metabolic panels that look at the function of several organs in the abdomen. An amylase is okay as well— but drawn with other tests that make more sense. How about just a plain x-ray of her abdomen while we’re at it?

Issue #2: Going to a patient’s house. Despite the inappropriately ordered, fairly normal lab tests, the results bother Dr. Murphy so much that he goes to the patient’s house and insists on examining her. I cannot emphasize how much this would be frowned upon and I have personally never seen this happen. How would this be handled? First, simply a phone call to the family and request they come back to the hospital for further studies. If the situation is deemed serious enough, and the family cannot be reached by phone, involving law enforcement to help would likely be the next step.

Issue #3: Not calling an ambulance. When the girl is checked on, she is unresponsive and has vomited in her bed. Instead of calling an ambulance, Dr. Murphy insists that they take her by car. In an urban setting (in absence of a mass casualty situation), this is highly irresponsible. EMS response is generally very good and medical care can be started more quickly than driving a patient to the hospital. The episode proves my point when the girl becomes clinically more sick on the drive to the hospital and Dr. Murphy starts CPR. If EMS had been called to the house, this could have been prevented.

Issue #4: When to start CPR? In pediatrics, generally CPR is not started until the heart rate is under 60 beats per minutes. In this case, Dr. Murphy starts CPR for a weak, thready pulse. Looking up American Heart Association guidelines for pediatric CPR would be an easy way to figure out when CPR would be indicated.

Issue #5: Inaccurate medical portrayal of shock. When the 10 y/o girl arrives to the hospital, Dr. Murphy states, “Patient is a ten-year-old female with hypovolemic shock and bradycardia.” Hypovolemic shock is shock related to fluid losses, but seemingly this patient has vomited one time. Really not enough to set in shock in the older child. Also, the body’s response to hypovolemia is to increase the heart rate. The patient should be tachycardic. A pediatric patient can become bradycardic, or have very slow heart rate, in relation to shock, but it is a very late sign and I don’t think the medical history given on this girl is enough to warrant a code.

Issue #6: A surgical resident taking a patient to the OR. Keep in mind, Dr. Murphy is like on day #2 of the first year of his surgical rotation, yet he orders an OR, takes the patient to surgery, and is only interrupted by his attending when he’s about to make his first incision. Just no, no, no.

I think overall The Good Doctor has good intentions in looking at how people with special needs can operate in certain professions. However, don’t look at the first two episodes as any representation of good and accurate medical care.

There is always a way to maintain tension and conflict while still being medically accurate.