I Broke Rule # 1
When an intubated patient gets wild in CT, I forget rule # 1 and learn a valuable lesson.
“We just intubated him a few minutes ago. He was a restrained driver in a partial rollover. There were several witnesses who saw him driving erratically. They thought he might have passed out because his van went through a red light, barely missing a few cars, before sideswiping a pole and rolling onto the passenger’s side in a ditch. He climbed out on his own and sat down by the van before EMS got there. They found him generally functional and breathing okay, but he seemed weak and disoriented. There are no obvious signs of trauma. He was confused and really drowsy on arrival. Dr. Benton was concerned about his ability to maintain his airway, so we intubated him. We used 100 of succinylcholine and 20 of etomidate. I just started fentanyl at 200 mics and propofol at 10 mics for sedation.”
It’s 9:16 p.m. Angie is halfway through her 3p-3a shift, and I’m here to cover her for her 30-minute lunch break. I glance at the monitor which shows a sinus tach at 112. RT is checking the vent settings. O2 sat is 100%. Skin color is good. The BP on the monitor is 212/118. “Has he been hypertensive? Is that BP before or after you intubated him?”
“Yes, he has. That BP was before. It’s cycling every 10 minutes. It’s starting again right now.”
While the cuff inflates, I ask, “What have you got for IV sites?”
“There’s an EMS 18 in his left AC, and I put a 20 in his right hand. Labs have been sent. Dr. Benton wants the CT brain ASAP. I already called, and they can take him now.”
I’m not surprised when the BP comes in at 108/74. That would be a good reading for most patients, but not for a guy who was nearly double that number a few minutes ago. Propofol is notorious for dropping BP, but it hasn’t been running long enough to have much impact yet. According to the literature, the succs-etomidate combo isn’t supposed to cause a precipitous drop in BP. Etomidate is generally touted as having little impact on hemodynamic stability, but I’ve seen this kind of a drop in multiple cases through the years. I’ve researched it several times, finding little support for my suspicion that etomidate has a bigger impact on BP than the literature suggests, especially when it’s administered as a rapid-push bolus.
Angie is clearly concerned by the big BP drop. She offers to postpone her break, but Mr. Granger is her only patient and it won’t get any better this. I’ll be one on one with him in CT with RT there to manage the vent. There is one liter of NS running wide open which should help prop up the BP, but I cut the rates in half on both drips as we head down the hall to radiology just in case. I cycle the cuff once more just before moving Mr. Granger over to the CT table. He’s down to 88/52 with nearly 300 ml of NS already infused. I stop both drips, hoping to stem the plunging BP and get the CT done quickly. It takes about one minute to position the vent, IV lines, and staff to slide the patient smoothly onto the CT table.
Suddenly, without any warning, in less than a second, Mr. Granger sits straight up and lunges off the CT table away from the ER stretcher toward the open floor on the far side. Fortunately, the radiology tech is a big guy, about 6’ 3”and 260 lbs. He catches the upper torso and muscles Mr. Granger back onto the table where four of us wrestle him down. Interspersed between our communication with each other, we take turns telling him to “relax” and “hold still.” His BP is up to 112/78, and his HR is up to 136 during the agitation.
We lost the right hand IV site during the lunge, and I move the propofol to the distal port on the NS line, running it up to 30 mics to shut him down. Three or four minutes later, Mr. Granger slips back into a calm, unresponsive state, but his BP drops off rapidly as the agitation subsides. Some patients can handle much higher doses of propofol. Apparently, he can’t. His BP is back down to 84/60 with half the NS bolus infused. I drop the rate to 5 mics. We strap him to the table and try for the CT, but he starts thrashing again before we can finish the study. The cycle of too little sedation and ensuing agitation plays out one more time before I call the charge nurse asking for either a different sedative or something else to support the BP. She’s there in a few minutes with 100 micrograms of phenylephrine, a short acting vasopressor that gets us through the CT. The tech announces that there’s no obvious bleed, and we head back to the ER with the phenylephrine wearing off, the propofol cut to 5 mics, and a 79/54 BP.
As we park the stretcher in the trauma bay, Mr. Granger starts thrashing and tries to sit up. RT grabs his right arm and I grab his left. In a moment of exasperation, I get right in front of his face. “Mr. Granger, you’re in the hospital. We’re trying to help you. Stop fighting us. Do you understand me?”
He makes clear eye contact. He nods. His body relaxes.
Are you kidding me? After what we just went through, is this suddenly going to be this easy? The words are screaming in my head as I stare back at him. “Can you cooperate with us?”
He nods again.
Wow. . . I ask several more yes-no questions, and he responds by nodding and shaking his head, clarifying his current ability to understand and cooperate. I shut off the sedation and have RT wait with Mr. Granger while I get Dr. Benton back in to reassess him. He goes through his own list of yes-no questions for several minutes, also reaching the conclusion that Mr. Granger is alert, oriented, and his brain is functioning just fine.
Mr. Granger’s labs roll in showing hemoconcentration, elevated BUN and creatinine levels consistent with dehydration, but no other significant abnormalities. We extubate him, and he explains that he’s been up since 04:00 working in the heat. He’s had only two small bottles of water and nothing to eat all day. He remembers feeling exhausted before passing out at the wheel and wrecking his van less than a mile from his house. His family at the bedside confirms his story, adding that he seems normal now.
We run in another liter of NS and give him some juice and crackers. He ambulates with mild soreness and turns down an offer to be admitted for observation. Remarkably, less than one hour from the knock-down drag-out wrestling match in CT, Mr. Granger is discharged and walks out of the ER with his wife and daughter.
I can’t help smiling as he leaves, but inwardly I chastise myself for forgetting my own rule number one: Communicate. In the excitement following the lunge in CT, we tried to manage and control Mr. Granger. In the heat of the battle, I ordered him to hold still. I never really tried to communicate with him. I can only wonder how much easier it might have been if I had gotten in his face and talked to him while we were in CT like I did when we got back to the ER. I know better of course, but this time I got it wrong. Communicate first. Resort to managing if communication and cooperation fail.
A few weeks later, I find myself in a similar situation, covering another RN and taking a newly intubated patient for a CT thorax on the way to ICU. Same doc, same drugs, and we start down the same hypotensive pathway. This guy is 420 lbs. His massive girth leaves us less than an inch of clearance to get him through the CT donut hole. He starts stirring and fidgeting. This time I do what I should have done with Mr. Granger. I get in his face, confirm his ability cooperate, and talk him through the CT without sedation. It goes shockingly well.
It’s always a temptation to just control intubated patients. I admit that I usually don’t want them trying to communicate. I want them sedated for convenience if not simply for therapeutic reasons. When lives are at stake and patients are persistently uncooperative, disoriented, combative or hostile, we may have no choice but to control them. And we are good at control when it becomes the last resort. But these two encounters strongly reinforce my conviction about rule number 1: Communicate. When plan A fails, and we’re forced to re-evaluate, it’s not always bad. There’s also a brand new opportunity to communicate, to get cooperation, and possibly a much better outcome.Last edit by Brian S. on Jul 12, '17
About RobbiRN, RN Pro
I'm a nurse, author, dancer, traveler, and a lover of the beach.
Joined: Dec '16; Posts: 132; Likes: 687
ER RN; from FL , US
Specialty: 24 year(s) of experience in ERJul 11, '17Brings back memories!
I got my vent pts in/out of CT like a military op.The planning always helped.
Had a couple of dislodged tubes and R main stem intubations that we had to fix!
Our CT team always had a couple of "big brothers"that you could count on if the pts were very disoriented but like you said, communication was key!Jul 12, '17What a great reminder! Sometimes we get so busy that we just try to do things to patients instead of acting as a cooperative effort (that's the way I would want it if it was me as the patient, but in the heat of the moment it's easy to forget).
It's silly, but sometimes we forget patients may still be able to cooperate even if they are intubated and full of IV lines. And for some reason we sometimes forget that just because they are unable to speak, there is nothing wrong with their hearing.
It must be the patients that have been confused and uncooperative in the past have set the benchmark in our minds, and in our effort to protect their lives we may not give every patient the opportunity to prove the clarity of their mind.
Although I've had patients too that seem AAO and cooperative - then they either tongue out their ET tube, or extubate themselves while smiling and looking you right in the eye as soon as you release their hand.
Sometimes too you just jump into a wild ride already in progress, and it's all you can do to keep up.Last edit by 3ringnursing on Jul 12, '17Jul 12, '17I have to admit that I've been burned a few times by patients I chose to trust. Fortunately, the only one who extubated himself probably shouldn't have been intubated in the first place, and he was easier to manage with the tube out. The vast majority of the time my trust has been rewarded, and I try to err on the side of expecting the best of my patients and coworkers. But, yes, sometimes it's just a wild ride, and we fly on instinct.Jul 15, '17Communicate, communicate, communicate..the first rule we all forget in the heat of a struggle!!
I had a 21 year old drug overdose/ auto accident pt/ in a coma for two months in LTC, not expected to recover, who had dozens of treatments/suctioning/messy dsg changes plus he was on isolation...took an hour or more, a couple times a shift plus quick in and outs. As a rule coma pts creep me out, sorry! I hate the silence. I explained what I was doing, why I was doing it and how his wounds looked etc etc. Especially this one because he was so young. I always said 'Nurse Marylou" at your service today.'.. I chatted constantly, asking questions he couldn't answer, why he did drugs, college too hard, bored etc. lectured him on the danger of drug abuse. Told him what the weather was and the headlines, world and local news, politics etc., what I had planned for the week and even sang when I ran out of small talk. He did come out of his coma! Told his Mom that "Nurse Marylou" was the only one who always talked to him like he was a real person. I admitted that I did it for myself because I hated the silence...and she said..so did he! How sad. Communication is key!! Lesson learned.Jul 15, '17I was given a Rehab patient and told he was disoriented. By talking to him I found out he ony had expressive aphasia and could spell out words by pointing to an alphabet chart.
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