Saturday, May 08, 2010

There but for...

Tonight is my (hopefully) last ever 30-hour in-hospital call. It's strange to think that another phase of my training is drawing to a close and that I'm on the brink of being allowed to practice medicine all on my own. The day started off with the usual parade of inpatient tasks: checking in on patients, reviewing lab results and x-rays, rounding with the attending, note writing. It was a calm day. I was in our resident lounge studying, in fact, and had just dozed off on the comfy sofa when my pager went off.
"Of course," I said, maybe just in my head, maybe out loud. I called back the number and that's when things got a little crazy. Sit tight with me for this story, see, I'm still processing what went on and actually thought sitting down to write about it might help me in some way.
So, I returned the call and was made aware that there was a potentially very sick pediatric patient in the emergency room. The call actually came from a nurse in our pediatric ICU, who was checking with me to get more information about a patient they had heard might be getting admitted to the unit. At that point, I actually hadn't heard anything, but told her I'd look into it by calling the ER.
When the clerk answered the phone in the ER and I identified myself as the pediatric resident on call, she laid out a story: a toddler had been brought in by his parents and he had been immediately put in a room and there was a chance he was going to be intubated and possibly coded, and the ER docs thought maybe he had perforated his bowel. She told me he might be going to the operating room, that the surgeons had been notified.
I called back the ICU and gave them the info, then told them I was going to go to the ER myself to see what was happening.
Walking into the 25+ room/bed emergency department, there was no question as to which of the rooms the toddler was in. There was a crowd of people at the door, a flurry of activity coming in and out of the room. I found another resident, who was working in the ER, and she told me a quick story about the patient. By the time I got to his room, he had been intubated and because they had a very difficult time getting IV access on him, they'd had to place IO lines (IO = intraosseous, something we can do for kids where we put a pretty big needle into the bone in the lower leg so we can give vital medications, fluids, etc). An x-ray was being taken to see of the breathing tube was properly positioned, to try and see if there was a problem in the abdominal cavity, and to see if both of his lungs were inflated. The x-ray showed that he'd possibly had one of his lungs collapse, so the ER doctors and surgery resident prepared to place a tube in his chest to evacuate the air. During this time, the boy's heart began to slow down to a rate that requires us to start chest compressions. We were officially in a full blown code blue.
What happened for the next 25 minutes was a demonstration of what physicians and nurses do to work together to save lives. For a few moments every now and then the room would get a little more tense and on edge, but for the most part what I saw happen was a coordinated effort to bring this boy back from the brink, rescue him from death.
Breath was pumped into his lungs, three of us alternated turns to compress his chest to try and pump his heart for him so blood could flow through his body, needles were stuck into his belly, his chest to suck out air that shouldn't be there and might be compressing vital organs, time was watched to let us know when doses of medications could be given, and all the while the boy was motionless on the bed.
At about the midpoint of the efforts the parents were brought into the room. They saw their boy, they saw a room full of doctors and nurses working to save him. They were too upset to stay in the room, and stepped just outside into the hallway, mom sobbing, dad crying.
There was a moment when his heart began beating again. It showed up on the screen, a flicker of activity, a steady rhythm but not the kind that can actually keep someone alive - but just enough that we felt a weak pulse. A shock of electricity was delivered in the hope that it would "reset" the electrical system of the heart so it would beat properly and strongly on its own. For a minute or two, it did, We could take a break from the chest compressions, but several of us had our eyes on that monitor, watching the heart rhythm to make sure it behaved.
Of course, it didn't.
We went back to compressing the chest. More medications were given. More needles placed. I'm sure more prayers or requests for divine intervention were made.
It gets to a point, though, where everyone in the room starts making eye contact with one another. We all begin glancing around, then glancing back up at the clock. In our minds, thinking, "It's been ___ minutes since we started compressions." We start doing the calculations. Start remembering the basic science. "Brain damage sets in after only 3-4 minutes without fresh oxygen." "Chances of meaningful recovery after severe anoxic brain injury are less than 1%." We know. We don't want to know, but we know. We don't want it to be true.
But, it is. It's enough. We've gotten to the point where we say, "this is all we can do."  It's enough. But when it's a child, the words "we've done enough" seem inadequate. When a child was playing happily this morning and suddenly fell sick this afternoon, and now we are looking at his little body in front of us, how can we feel that we've done enough?
Through the past four years of training, I have seen plenty of patients die. I have been a part of several code blue situations. I have stuck needles and tubes in people. I have done chest compressions. I have squeezed oxygen into their lungs. I have seen most of those people ultimately pronounced dead - either pronounced dead for the cessation of the code, or dying hours to days later after having been hooked up to life support following the resuscitation efforts. Some of those codes and ultimately those deaths came expectedly. Death creeping up, closer and closer, all of us doctors knowing the end was near, unable to convince the patient or the family that a code would fail. Then when the page comes "Code Blue, room ___," we look at our pagers and think, "Of course." Some codes are expected because of a person's age. Are we really that surprised when a 96 year old's heart stops beating? Is it that shocking when a patient with cancer affecting every part of their body succumbs to infection or organ failure?
What I've never done, though, is gone through a code on a child and seen that child die.
I've been a part of a small handful of pediatric code blues. Fortunately, they rarely happen. There are the resuscitations we do one our patients in the neonatal ICU, those babies born 4 months early, who come into the world needing us to basically replace what their mother's womb was doing for them. Those still fall into that "not surprising" category, though. Just like it isn't surprising when a 96 year old heart stops, so it isn't surprising when a 25 week preemie's lungs aren't working.
I've seen a couple of toddlers come in with near drownings, but they ended up getting intubated and going home, seemingly unscathed, within a week each - although I have to say at least one of those kids shocked the heck out of me to have done so well.
This boy, though, was an out of the blue, totally unpredictable, tragic story. He was a healthy toddler. He was a little under the weather yesterday, threw up a few times. Was drinking Pedialyte okay today.
Then, mom and dad noticed he didn't look right. Noticed his belly seemed to be "getting bigger and bigger" then his breathing started getting fast and shallow and he stopped acting alert. They were driving to the hospital as fast as they could, carried their little boy in, handed him over to the team in the ER.
The ER doctors and nurses, the pediatricians, the surgeons all convened on the room, on the boy.
Help him.
Fix him.
Save him.
We tried.
In the end, it wasn't enough. When we say, "that's enough," we know it isn't the "enough" that got the job done.  The enough of "let him go." The enough of "now we need to leave this body alone."
It's the enough of mercy.
We decide we have reached that point. We ask the family to come back in, we keep working. We keep watching the monitors, keep squeezing air into his lungs, keep putting medications into his body. Tonight, I was the one to keep compressing his chest to keep the blood flowing.
The parents come in.
The boy is very sick. He was very sick when you brought him here. You did all you could do. we've done everything we can do. The body has been though a lot. We have been doing all we can do for all this time, are still doing all we can do. We recommend that we stop. We are telling you, "your son is dead."
All that time, while the parents were standing in the room, hearing this news, being told their child's fate was decided, I was pushing on that boys chest. I found myself pushing harder, pushing with all my energy, as if I could elicit the right charge from my body to travel down my arms, into my hands, through his chest and into his heart. Start again, This is your last chance, dammit, if you don't start beating again for us now then you're done. Please, start beating, something. Now...please. Hurry. This is it...
I noticed my vigor increasing, became momentarily singularly focused on trying to get that damn heart to beat again. Then I noticed the hands of the other doctor's and nurses slowing down, drawing back from the boy. Stop the medications. Stop bagging in the oxygen.
Stop compressions.
That's it.
A moment ago, we were keeping you alive. Or at least, "alive."
Now you are dead.
He is dead.
Your son is dead.
Slowly the room cleared out. You don't realize how crowded the room was until people start leaving it.
We removed what we could of medical equipment from his body. Wrapped him in blankets, asked mom and dad if they would like to hold their son.
Mom gathered him in her arms, sobbing over him, rocking him. Saying his name, saying "No."
The other pediatricians and I stayed in the room. Funny how suddenly you look around and everyone who had been so committed to working on keeping him alive leave once there is nothing else medically to be done. We gave them space, tried to comfort them.
It wasn't for about five minutes that when mom looked at her boy in her arms, touched her hand to his forehead and said (in Spanish), "I don't believe it. I can't believe it."
I felt the wave hitting me.
I walked as subtly and quickly as I could out of the room.
The whole time I'd been telling myself, "don't think it. Don't think it."
Then I thought it.
This could be Henry.
Same age.
Same size.
Same thick eyelashes.
If this could be Henry, why wasn't it Henry? How was this boy the one unlucky to be taken from his mother? Or more appropriately, how was this mother chosen as the one to lose her son?
Why not me?
These are thoughts that if you start to let your mind run free with will make you crazy. Make you questions everything "right" and "wrong" in the world. Make you unable to ever let your child or anyone else you love out of your sight. Except these parents didn't let their boy out of their sight, he was with them. He just got really really sick really really fast.
I'm not a religious person, but how many times can you hear the phrase, "there but for the grace of God go I" run through your head? Answer: too many.
So many times that the question becomes nonsensical. Becomes too unbelievable, almost comical.
There but for the "grace" of God go I.
There but for the grace of "God" go I.
(I'm not looking for a religious debate or inspiration here, please)

After the other family members, a chaplain, a social worker all arrived to the ER to the side of the parents, we left. I couldn't get Tommy on the phone fast enough.
"Bring me Henry," I told him. I told him briefly what had happened, told him "I need to hug my boy."
They came to the hospital. I pulled Henry from his car seat. squeezed him tight, tighter. Never tight enough.
There but for the grace of God go I.

Getting to this part of the story, where my work and my life become intersecting with one another makes me eyes well up again. Here I have to put up the mental wall. "You can't let yourself think that way."
So, I have to stop here before my mind goes too close to that wall, before I test those waters and see what happens when the Pandora's box is opened.

Squeeze your babies if you have them. If you don't have them yet, squeeze them every day when you do have them. They are the most overwhelming joyous and heartbreaking thing that will every happen  to you. My heart breaks every day with love for Henry, and just when I think it can't break anymore, it does and heals itself a size bigger than it was the day before. It's the scariest most vulnerable kind of love I've ever felt, and knowing it could be taken away, like that - just like that- is too much for me to even keep thinking about right now.