I admitted a patient from the ER one night over the holidays. The ER called with a CT scan showing diffuse pneumatosis, and the most obvious portal venous air I’ve seen so far. The patient himself looked far better than the scan, and was amazingly comfortable, considering that he had a heart rate of 140 and was already in acute renal failure. He was so comfortable that it was very difficult to persuade either my attending, or the patient, that he needed emergency surgery. (“Pain out of proportion to exam, Alice. You can’t tell me he has ischemic bowel and no pain.” I insisted, so we didn’t really lose any time, but it was a little disconcerting.)

As for the patient, that was the worst conversation I have ever had to have. Telling a family that someone died is easier. Telling a man who’s chatting happily that he’s almost certainly going to be dead within 24 hours is nearly impossible, either to find the words, or to convince the patient. I had to not only convince him that matters were this serious, but also discuss the option of surgery – his only chance of survival, but a very slim one, with a significant chance of a long ICU stay and major morbidities, if he did survive. (Some might say that with that CT scan, we shouldn’t operate. 1) You can see pneumatosis and portal venous air from a bad bowel obstruction, which can be salvageable. 2) He was relatively young, and with few comorbidities. We never did figure out what caused his ischemia.)

In between talking to him, I was calling the chief and the attending and the OR and the ICU, getting iv fluids and antibiotics running, and moving him to preop holding. Not much time. No sooner had I settled him in preop, with a nurse to watch, and the attending about to walk in, than the trauma pager started going off with multiple gunshot wounds, so I had to leave him. Three hours and several traumas later, I found him and the chief resident in the ICU. The operation had been completely unsuccessful; there was absolutely nothing to be done. His body was shutting down, and there was barely time to have the family at the bedside before he died.

I felt awful afterwards. Not just because it was the holidays, and we had lost a previously healthy man suddenly, but because I had spent half an hour talking to him about his death, and had never talked about what would happen to him after death. I had watched somebody dying, and had never even mentioned God or heaven or hell. Which meant that I did him exactly no good at all. He died, as I knew he would, and had to face eternity, and I hadn’t even mentioned it.

Yesterday one of the PACU nurses came up to me. (At night PACU and preop are staffed by the same nurses.) “Remember that man with the ischemic bowel who died? I went to the funeral home. I had to tell his family something he told me that night. He said, ‘I’m not worried about this, because I’m putting it in God’s hands. He took care of me when I had surgery 30 years ago, and he’s taking care of me now. If he wants me to live, I will; and if not, it’s all right. If I don’t make it through surgery, tell my family I’ll see them in heaven.’ ” I started crying in the middle of PACU. He’s safe, after all. I didn’t do anything I should have, but he knew better than me. Next time, I won’t make the same mistake.

(As for the nurse, I have a whole new respect for her, going out of her way to comfort not only the family, but also the other caregivers.)

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