It was our third dispatch for chest pain that morning, and when I heard the call I rolled my eyes anticipating more of the same. The first two were "nothing" chest pains, pleuritic at best and nonexistent at worst, my partner and I were both sick of carrying these people from their third floor apartments without elevators, huffing and puffing as our visible, exasperated breaths lingered in the winter air.
It made it worse to find that the 12 lead ECGs read normal, that the chest pains were reproducible on palpation and respiration, and that there has been a productive cough for a week and a half. Still, these people insisted that they could not walk. They complained of shortness of breath, that they felt nauseous and weakened to the point of exhaustion. They were sick, probably, but not as sick as they (or I) seemed to hope. Sometimes I wonder if these patient's wouldn't share a high five with me if the ECG paper would spit out a few millimeters of ST elevations for once. ...Throw us both a bone, make it all worth it.
Walking into this patient's apartment to find him writhing in bed and clutching his chest did nothing for our attitudes. This was a common presentation, learned perhaps from a cheesy medical soap opera or dramatized movie scene, the complaints of pain were over the top in almost comical fashion, unreal in both magnitude and character. Real heart attacks don't look like this.
Keeping that caveat in mind as we are supposed to, we asked the routine questions in a routinely respectful and interested manner. Tell us the story, what the pain feels like and where it goes. Tell us if you have ever felt this before, when it started and what you were doing at the time. The questions flowed in an almost mindless manner, automatic in their practiced repetition. I listened as the answers tumbled down and collected into their respective categories, and the "not a heart attack" bin was getting full.
There was time to do an ECG while the firefighters helped set up the stair chair (it was the third floor again), so I started to attach the stickers. On the man's chest was a CABG scar, which raised an eyebrow, but we carried on:
I let out a groan. My least favorite kind of ECG: just inconclusive enough that it probably means nothing, just abnormal enough that it can't be ignored. The 12 lead ECG is one of the most objective examinations we can perform, purported to be the gold standard in isolation of cardiac injury. Still, this one waffled.
I gave the guy oxygen, nitro, and asprin, then carried him down the 2 flights of stairs with the help of fire and police officers. The trip to the hospital was uneventful as the patient described to me the remainder of his story. The nitro hadn't changed his pain at all. I performed a more detailed assessment without significant finding, started an IV, and noted stable vital signs in my chart. Routine as can be, I had a good portion of my run-form written before we arrived at the hospital.
The doctor looked at my pink ECG strip carefully, and then back at the patient, to the monitor, and again to my ECG strip. He looked VERY interested. Concerned, even.
I watched him with interest and a bit of fear. I wonder what it was that he saw, whether I missed something or perhaps there was a change. I followed his eyes from the strip to the monitor and to the patient, looking for something. ...I couldn't pick it out.
He dropped the paper to the floor and asked the nurse what we had for IV access, his white coat flowing back in the wind as he walked briskly to the medication cabinet. He handed to the vials to the nurse, designating dosages of each. When they changed hands I got a glimpse of their labels: Lopressor and Cardizem. He wanted them both pushed, and right away.
Hushed silence as the nurse drew up the medications.
The nurse pinched my line and pressed the drugs into the IV. The doctor nodded when it was done, staring at the ECG monitor. Still confused, I bent over to pick up my dropped ECG strip.
The man let out a weird sounding grunt, and I could see from my bent position his legs jolt upwards from their rest on the hospital bed. I stood up to see the man with a funny look on his face, at the same time intrigued and releived. The monitor was moving much more slowly now, capturing a normal sinus rhythm at 70. The doctor was smiling.
"What the...?" I started to mumble under my breath, not fully understanding what happened exactly. The doctor heard me as he walked around the stretcher, and pointed at my strip.
"It was two to one AV-flutter," he said. "Look at the rate. Do you see any P waves?"
Still off balance, I stammered about the first-degree block, and that I thought the P waves were buried because the interval was so long.
"It's a tricky one," he said, "but the proof is in the pudding. Look at him now!"
He smiled and left the room.
I stood in the same spot for a moment, staring intently at the ECG strip. It still didn't look like a flutter to me, it wasn't even that fast, I thought I could pick out some (not fluttering) atrial activity, and anyways the patient was stable...
I take pride and special interest in ECGs, but this time I just didn't see it. I tried to look harder, but was interrupted.
It was the patient from his bed.
"You did a good job."