Faces and Futility

The patient, previously a John Doe, is now known. Family now present, when before there was none. A spouse, siblings, and young kids all around. Despite seventy-two hours in the ICU, his lungs have failed, his heart has failed, his liver has failed, his kidneys have failed. Too unstable for dialysis, his potassium level climbs higher and higher, despite attempts to slow down and mitigate its lethal effectCardiac arrest is no longer an “if” but a “when”, having reached medical futility.

Kids at the bedside, so young. Unaware. Watching. The face of their dad distorted by tubes in his mouth, IV tubing tugging on his neck, eyes yellow from jaundice, skin all swollen and puffy from edema. Family tension between his siblings and his wife percolates, as his heartbeat becomes more erratic and slow.

In the hallway outside his room, I have a hurried discussion with his wife. She is overwhelmed. Burdened by feelings of guilt competing with anger. Her sadness and despair are palpable. Their last words, their last fight, was days ago, before he was found in a locked motel room, with alcohol around him. Inside him. Poisoning him.

His heart stops while we are talking. We go into his room.

Kids at the bedside, so young. Unaware. Watching. The face of their dad distorted by tubes in his mouth, IV tubing tugging on his neck, eyes yellow from jaundice, skin all swollen and puffy from edema. His heartbeat no longer erratic and slow, because it is no longer beating. This outcome was already determined hours ago.

Compressions will not lower his potassium. IV’s have been pouring adrenaline non-stop into his heart and veins. All to no avail.

I tell the wife to hold his hand and say goodbye. We are not doing compressions. She does not argue.

Is it assent or consent? Medical futility? All of the above?

She holds his hand. She yells. She cries.

Kids at the bedside, so young. Unaware. Watching.

Years pass. I no longer see his face, distorted by tubes in his mouth, IV tubing tugging on his neck, eyes yellow from jaundice, skin all swollen and puffy from edema.

I still see their faces. The kids. They have not left me. I doubt they ever will.

 

10 Tips For New Interns For Surviving and Thriving in the Intensive Care Unit

July is just around the corner. For hospitals it’s a dynamic time. A changing of the guard. Graduating residents moving on and new interns, fresh out of medical school with their clean and crisp long white coats, moving in. Out with the old, in with the new. The ICU rotation for medicine residents and medical students is stressful under the best of circumstances but always an additional challenge early in July. I remember as a resident, trying to glean from my peers who had already completed their ICU rotation, picking their brains for tips and tricks on how to survive and succeed. But often what we are looking for is not what we need the most. Acid base disorders and ventilator management seemed so daunting. But in hindsight, learning how to manage and treat specific diseases and conditions was not the hard part. Learning how to survive, mentally and physically, the rigors of the ICU and growing as a physician were much bigger challenges. Read more

His Voice

I pause in front of the door. On the other side, you all wait. A spouse, sons and daughters, sometimes with their own small children in tow. Today it’s your husband and father you have come for. Yesterday it was someone else’s mother. You have come from near and far, across the street and the country. Your weary eyes are unable to mask your sadness. Over the past week, you have witnessed a steady stream of nurses, residents, phlebotomists and x-ray techs file in and out of his room.  Your dad has withstood a barrage of insults to his body.  Radiation to his chest for daily x-rays. Needles piercing skin and veins for IVs and blood draws. Catheters inserted in his neck, his groin and his bladder. Still you hold on to a cautious optimism, clinging to hope. But family meetings usually imply things are not going well, and today is no exception. Taking a deep breath, I open the door and walk inside, leaving for now, the rest of the world behind.  Read more