The experience of a cardiac arrest is something of a mark of distinction among new paramedics. It is a notch on the belt, a necessary experience. Between preceptees, the conversation almost always centers around talk of tubes, code opportunities seized and missed. Preceptors hold their students for weeks and weeks, the ALS calls building up beneath them, full in all else but lacking the fundamental experience of a cardiac arrest. My preceptor was the same way. We need a code, we need a code.
Last week we got two.
My fellow preceptees are jealous. Two codes, two tubes, two opportunities to sample the experience and start to develop my technique. I get asked about it all the time. People clap me on the back and smile, shake my hand and punch my 9-lettered rocker, welcoming me to the brotherhood. I smile back, laugh and joke about the experience.
Thinking back about the calls though, all I remember are the mistakes.
The first code was a man in his fifties, collapsed in front of his coworkers in a large, cubicle-filled room. When we got there a first responder had already shocked the man twice with no effect, CPR was in progress. He lay there still: one eye half open the other closed, ashen gray and dead. I hesitated for a few seconds, taking in the scene. I wondered where I should go first, where I should put the big red bag and set down the monitor. Everyone was watching us, heads and curious eyes popping above the cubicle walls. The room filled with hushed silence, broken only by the rhythmic counting of first-responder CPR.
My experienced paramedic partners nudged me on, filling in the gaps as we performed each task. We got him on the monitor and saw V-Fib, shocked once with no effect and then got the line. I was opening the intubation kit when we shocked for the second time, finding the rhythm changed and organized. Fingers to the carotid find a bounding pulse as sighs of relief and clapping fill the room.
What a feeling that was.
Still more work yet though. I assemble the intubation equipment, and it seems to take forever. Stylet into the tube, find a blade, white, tight, bright, get the ETCO2 ready, the tube holder, 10cc syringe, and my stethoscope. My partners are pushing lidocane and atropine for a bradycardic post-arrest rhythm. I take a deep breath and roll the head forward into the sniffing position, insert the blade and see what I can find. The man takes a long, deep breath as his mouth is illuminated, and I watch as each muscle and flap of tissue rattles in the wind. I follow the blade backwards, into the retreating dark and underneath the floppy epiglottis. Chords cry out to me as big and white and bold as ever. I pass the tube, inflate the cuff, and send in a bagful of air. Moist condensation on the tube followed by good lung sounds and a beautiful ETCO2 waveform in the 50's.
It was at this point during my last code that my work ended. It was during my internship ride-time, and I was satisfied to simply have gotten the tube. Today, though, there was so much left to be done. The man was lying there on the ground surrounded by the debris of a halfway worked code. Wrappers and papers, EKG pads and bits of tape. Wires and tubes ran in every direction.
Together we organized the mess. We got the board under him and strapped him down, figured out an exit strategy and kept watchful eyes on the monitor. I recruited a woman who identified herself as a nurse to bag the patient, gave her careful instructions on how to mind the tube. We all worked together, struggling and groaning to get the man on the stretcher and into the ambulance. Tubes and wires cross and recross into an impossible tangle.
My preceptee asks me what I would like to do next, and I fumble for words. I've never been here before. "More leads" I say, thinking that we should watch the rhythm through a 3-lead ECG rather than the coarse paddle view. "How many more," he asks me, smiling as he probes. A light goes on above my head. Aha! Post arrest 12 lead! He nods and smiles some more. "Anything else?" Again the routine.
He nudges me through the rest of the patient's treatment. Puts me on the spot and with gentle hints I remember what it is that we are supposed to do. Lidocane is hung and I figure out the drip rate. I push versed as the man begins to buck the tube. I patch to the hospital as I attempt to catch my breath. I wonder if I would be able to do all of this if my preceptor wasnt there to remind me.
In the ED we get claps on the back and handshakes of approval. Everyone is happy to see a code-save, and the credit goes directly to my partner and I. I feel undeserving.
The second code was in a nursing home, a large woman found pulseless and aepnic by a surprised nurse just after lunchtime. Again, my partner and I arrived to find work had already been done. Another paramedic was working on the line as frightened nurses tried in vain to pump CPR into the huge body bouncing on the facility bed. They were bagging, too, and the patient's belly was huge. I glance at the monitor quickly only to see CPR noise, and the first paramedic on scene informs me that the rhythm is asystole.
I think of nothing other than the intubation. Again I assemble my equipment quietly at the patient's side, paying singular attention to the list of tasks that precede passing the tube. I hear the medic at the IV site announce that he got a line as I continue to ready my equipment. Gathering up all of my things, I ask the nurses to stand aside as I snap the laryngoscope open. The woman is huge and I wonder how tough the tube will be. I got the last one though, I think. I shouldnt have a problem with this one either. Hands on both sides of the head as I roll forward into the sniffing position.
A voice from the other side of the patient. "I guess I'll just go ahead and push epi and atropine then, huh."
I look up quickly, ebarrassed. "Oh, yeah," I reply. "One milligram of each please." The medic shakes his head as he goes for the drugs that he has already made ready.
Into the mouth I go with the blade. The tongue is huge and I fight it to the left, lifting and pressing forward as I try to avoid the teeth and raise mounds of tissue. The light at the end of my blade seems to smother and snuff amongst the wet masses inside. I find the epiglottis, though. Lifting as hard as I can with one hand, I am only able to see a peek of the chords. I reach for the tube and try to pass it into the spot. The tube obscures my limited view as I pass it through. My partner asks if I am in and I dont know. A bagful of air through tube and we get nothing back. No noise in the lungs, no fog in the tube, no reading on the end-tidal CO2. Gurgling in the belly.
I curse as I pull the tube back out. "One more try," I say. Nobody is doing anything as I struggle. They all watch, waiting for instructions from me that never come. Frustrated with the tube I am oblivious of everything else.
In with the blade I go again. The position of the blade is much better this time and I see the cords immediately. The tube goes in smoothly and everything checks out well. ETCO2 hovers at 10. I have no idea where I put the laryngoscope after that moment. It might as well have vanished out of my hand.
I am now aware of everything else that needs to get done, and I give feeble instructions to my partners who follow through and fill in my gaps. Everything is a mess. Worse than last time, this code is bigger, messier, heavier, longer, and more futile. I ask someone to maintain compressions as the new ACLS suggests, but it is impossible as we are moving around corners and through hallways lined with wheelchairs. Nothing seems to go right, and I'm not helping.
We do CPR on the way to the hospital, pushing another tube of epinephrine in every few minutes. I tally the number of tubes we push on a scrap of paper. The rhythm never changes even once.
In the emergency room we wipe sweat from our foreheads and give a breathless report of the futile code. The hospital staff makes a cursory effort, and the patient is pronounced dead a few minutes later.
I've gone over these patients hundreds of times in my mind, wishing that I had another chance to run through the calls. The mistakes are so obvious to me now, so plain that they stand out clearly as they nag and pester. I need to control the scene instead of focusing on the tube. I need to look at the big picture instead of zeroing in on a detail. I need to better delegate tasks and assume a leadership role. I need to remember what it is that I am supposed to do, what priority it takes, and how to practically get it done.
I realize I am new to this, but I wonder how many newbie mistakes are acceptable. I feel embarrassed for what I've missed, guilty for the things I could have done better. I need to do these calls over again.
I've made a list of things that I want to focus on next time. Hopefully I get the chance at least once more, before this precepting support structure is yanked out from beneath me and I am left alone to stand or fall. I fear that I cannot yet support my own weight, and yet the time is soon approaching that it will be required of me.
To my patients and coworkers, their families and myself: I promise that next time will be better.