Live from Prospect St: The Big Crunch (conclusion)

Continued from part 1 and part 2

 

In the end, all three patients receive spinal immobilization. You transport both pediatric patients to Bullitt Medical Center; the P12 assumes care of the mother and transports her to the same destination. No significant injuries are found upon follow-up assessments; however, when the P12 checks Samantha’s blood glucose, they find it to be 32 mg/dL. They administer D50, normalizing her sugar, which improves her level of consciousness; however, she remains confused and becomes somewhat combative. She does endorse substantial alcohol ingestion, is somewhat unclear on drug use, and continues to deny a history of diabetes.

After transferring care, both crews fill out state-mandated documentation to report child abuse, with regard to the mother driving two young children while under the influence and without appropriate car seats or other restraints. You write your documentation with extra caution, aware that it may eventually be used in a court of law.

 

Discussion

This was a case where no patient was highly acute, but operational issues required some attention and medical confounders obscured the assessment.

 

General considerations for MVAs

With any significant MVA (or MVC for “motor vehicle collision,” since the DoT takes the position that nothing is truly accidental), there are several factors we should consider:

  • Scene safety. Wherever the scene may be, it’s generally at or near a roadway, and it’s a location that’s already proven itself accident-prone. In this case, we were situated in a truck yard somewhat off the main road. If it were a busier area, and we were first to arrive, we would want to park the ambulance to shield the scene from traffic, and request fire apparatus (for more blocking) and police (for traffic control). We should also consider the presence of chemicals or other hazardous material in an industrial area, which was not a problem here.
  • Extrication. The time to request additional resources is early. Heavy extrication, where vehicle frames need to be bent or cut, is usually performed by fire department ladder trucks or dedicated rescue apparatus; in this case, the driver’s door was dented and needed to be popped open (technically “confinement” rather than “entrapment”), and it was handled prior to our arrival.
  • Cause. Some accidents happen for obvious reasons, such as inattention. Sometimes they’re due to conditions, such as weather or visibility, which is a good clue that such conditions probably persist and might endanger you as well; protect the scene and be cautious during extrication and transport. Sometimes, accidents have a medical cause, which was the case here.
  • Damage. We are clinicians, not mechanics, but vehicle damage can provide clues to injury type and severity. Modern vehicles often develop horrific-looking body damage while yielding minor personal injury; automotive safety science has become quite advanced, and a large part of a car’s protection comes from intentionally crumpling to absorb impact. If occupants are restrained, the vehicle can easily eat up a large amount of shock without anyone suffering significant harm. In this case, we saw a front-left impact at seemingly moderate speed, so we anticipate a head-on type injury pattern with some lateral energy. Damage to the driver’s-side lower dashboard area, plus minor knee injury, suggested a “down and under” rather than “up and over” direction of movement, which is typical for a restrained driver; the windshield was also missing any apparent point-of-impact, which supports this. With the seatbelt and airbag, we were not too suspicious of frontal head injury, but we did look for evidence of lateral head impact against the window or side-wall; we found no obvious head trauma or internal vehicle damage. There was likewise no signs of internal impact from the children in the rear, although we remain suspicious of pelvic or abdominal trauma, since they were wearing lap belts without any torso restraints.
  • Number of patients. Life was made easier by the truck driver, who was obviously unharmed and decided to elope from the scene prior to our arrival. Samantha was making vague reference to her brother, but it seemed that he was coming to meet her and was not an occupant. It is somewhat bad form to forget about people, so it’s good to try and confirm these things, and the first-in responders (the fire department in this case) can help.

 

Assessment

Just like in most cases, the majority of essential information was communicated in the first few seconds on scene.

Our eyeball exam from twenty feet was enough for an initial assessment on the kids. The Pediatric Assessment Triangle is a model for identifying pediatric life threats that focuses on obvious, big-payoff findings rather than details (like specific vital signs) which can be tough to measure. The three components are:

  • General appearance. This is overall impression and rough neurological status. Are they conscious? If so, sluggish, alert, groggy, engaged with their surroundings, tracking with their eyes? Is there any muscle tone or are they limp? Are they crying? If so, are they consolable? Do they look sick or well?
  • Work of breathing. This is respiratory assessment. Is the child struggling to breathe? Are they tripoding or assuming a sniffing position to maintain an airway? Is there accessory muscle use, pursed-lip breathing, nasal flaring, chest retractions? Are grossly adventitious breath sounds audible (i.e. wheezing, stridor, grunting, snoring)?
  • Circulation. This is general circulatory status. Is skin pink and warm? Is there clear cyanosis, pallor, mottling? Obvious bleeding?

From the first moments on scene, we were able to observe that the pediatric patients were: conscious, crying loudly (therefore with a patent airway and adequate breathing), generally unhappy but not acutely distressed, without obvious bleeding or other trauma, and with normal skin signs. That’s plenty for the initial triage — a more full assessment will come later, but it’s unlikely that we’ll uncover any true life threats.

How about mom? We initially notice no obvious issues except for an altered mental status, which may be masking other problems (such as pain or neurological deficits). We also don’t know the cause of the AMS. Is there alcohol involved? Probably: she directly endorsed this. Drugs? Perhaps: vehemently denying drug use is not uncommon in drug users, and there were purpura consistent with needle “track marks” on her arm. But even if present, neither of those precludes a concomitant traumatic head injury; drunk and high people can bump their head too. And we were reminded of the first rule of EMS: everybody is diabetic. Although the circumstances didn’t necessarily suggest hypoglycemia as the most likely cause, it fit the presentation, and all drunk patients are somewhat at risk for this complication. If she’d stayed in our care, glucometry would have been wise during transport.

Is spinal immobilization needed? Local protocol comes into play. The children are probably low risk. The mechanism as a whole is potentially risky, due to the possibility of side-on energy transfer and head injury, but generally is not too alarming and the assessment findings are fairly reassuring. In the case of the mother, she is the classic example of a poor reporter who cannot reliably describe neck or back pain or participate in a neurological exam; most selective immobilization protocols (such as NEXUS or the Canadian C-spine rule) would advise immobilization in such cases. In this instance, due to equipment shortcomings, one child was immobilized via KED and the other two patients immobilized to long boards, with towel rolls used liberally. The children were liberated almost immediately after arrival at the ED, after a clinical exam by the pediatric emergency physician. The mother began fighting her board after she was roused with D50.

 

Transport and documentation

This case highlighted the need for intelligent patient assessment to guide transport destinations. Although low-acuity pediatric patients can sometimes be assessed in an adult ED, it depends on the receiving physician’s level of comfort, so in many cases they’ll prefer to transfer them to a specialty center (and any time a patient has to be transferred from where we brought them, we’ve failed them somewhat).

In a similar vein, acute patients needing surgical intervention should always be delivered to trauma centers. Does mom need a trauma center? Since we’re unable to rule out a traumatic cause for her mental status, it’s probably wise, although perhaps not essential. Do the kids need a pediatric trauma center? Probably not; they are, by all appearances, doing fine. Finally, although we could transport parent and kids to different hospitals, it would be distressing to everyone and create logistical headaches (involving consent, billing, and other concerns), so Bullitt Medical Center (an adult trauma center as well as a pediatric ED, although not a pediatric trauma center) is a sensible destination. (Since it’s a larger hospital, it’s also more capable of sustaining the “hit” of receiving three patients simultaneously than a small community ED.) Since the mother is a more challenging patient, it makes sense for the paramedics to take her while our BLS unit acts as a bus for the kids.

As for documentation, depending on state law we may be required to report all instances of child abuse to protective agencies. (In this particular region, reporting is mandated for any child or elder abuse.) If so, local procedures should be followed; although the hospital will most likely perform such reporting as well, in many states this does not absolve EMS of its own responsibilities.

When documenting the call, be aware that charges may be pursued against the mother for neglect, driving under the influence, or other offenses. These may hinge upon your documented findings, such as altered mental status, lack of appropriate child restraints, or statements about substance use. Depending on local laws for mandated reporters, you may be required to report these findings directly to police, or you may actually be prohibited from doing so by HIPAA laws; in either case, however, they should be noted in your report.

Live from Prospect St: The Big Crunch (part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Since the two children appear generally intact, you ask your partner to evaluate them more fully while you head for the sedan to find the driver. Anticipating three transports, two stable and one potentially critical, you ask your dispatch to continue the P12, and also to ensure that police are en route (they are).

Arriving at the sedan, you find a middle-aged woman in the driver’s seat, alert. She is pink and warm, perhaps more diaphoretic than you’d expect for the ambient temperature, and does not initially notice as you kneel beside her. A firefighter is holding C-spine immobilization from the back seat.

When you greet her and pat her on the shoulder, she gives no response, but with more vigorous stimulation she looks over and acknowledges you distractedly. With multiple attempts and some yelling, you’re able to get answers to a few questions, but she is slow, tangential, and often ignores you outright. She gives her name as Samantha, but cannot or will not provide her last name; she is unable to describe the events that led to the collision; and she gives no medical history or current medications. She does state several times that she’s fine and would like to leave. When asked about her passengers, she mumbles “my kids” and mentions her brother several times. She endorses pain when asked explicitly, but does not specify where. She agrees that she drank “a little” alcohol; when asked about any drug use, she denies it vehemently.

Physically, she appears generally unremarkable. She is breathing somewhat shallowly but effectively, and her radial pulse is around 100 and slightly weak. Her seatbelt is not in place, but it’s unclear whether it was removed at some point. No gross trauma is apparent upon her head, face, or neck, and she does not complain or grimace upon palpation. She is uncooperative with a neurological exam, but demonstrates spontaneous movement of all four extremities. Her pupils are equal and seem appropriately small on this moderately bright day. Chest rise is generally equal and her abdomen is supple; no bruising consistent with seatbelt injury is visible. Her left knee is abraded and somewhat swollen. A sprinkling of dark blotches and streaks are noted on her left ventral arm in the antecubital region. Both frontal airbags are deployed; the windshield is cracked, but lacks a “starred” point of impact; and the plastic dashboard in the driver’s knee area is damaged and cracked. No blood or other damage is visible in the interior compartment. There are no child seats.

Your partner comes over. “The kids seem fine, just upset. One’s complaining of some abdominal pain, but it looks okay. They’re little troopers. Fire says they were wearing regular lap belts with the shoulder strap tucked behind them.”

When you wonder aloud whether there are more patients, he says, “There was nobody else in the car when fire arrived. The truck driver gave a statement to the police about how she was swerving across the road and plowed into him, but then he eloped.” He looks over your shoulder. “Oh, and the P12 is pulling up now.”

 

What is your treatment plan for these three patients? What are their respective priorities, any points of concern, and how could you shed additional light on their status?

Who will transport which patient, and to which destinations?

What special considerations should be made during documentation?

 

The conclusion is here

Mastering BLS Ventilation: Core Techniques

Continued from Mastering BLS Ventilation: Introduction and Mastering BLS Ventilation: Hardware

Now that we understand the goals and the basic tools, let’s talk about the most important techniques for optimizing airway management and providing BLS ventilation to apneic patients.

 

Hand Technique

How do you hold a BVM to the patient’s face?

As a rule, we’re taught something called the “EC clamp.” It looks like this:

In theory, this lets us press the mask against the patient’s face (using the “C” of our thumb and forefinger) while pulling the jaw forward (using the “E” of our other fingers behind the mandible), and still leaves one hand free to squeeze the bag.

In theory.

In reality, this is tricky at best. Partly it’s because we’re trying to seal the edges of a circle by pressing on only one side, which usually results in a leak from the other side. Partly it’s because pulling the jaw forward like this — a highly necessary action — takes a fair amount of force, and we’re in a poor position to grip from. It also doesn’t help that, if no OPA is present, this method usually squeezes the mouth shut, leaving only the nasal passage for an airway.

One useful tip: positioning the bag directly opposite your EC hand and pulling it downward can help seal off the most common point for leaks.

Does the EC technique work? It can work. And it’s fast and versatile to apply, so it’s a reasonable place to start. However, if you find that it’s not working, don’t be too surprised. You would be wise to practice the hell out of it on mannequins (or ideally in an OR or similar setting), but not everyone has that opportunity. What’s the alternative?

Use two hands. The inelegant nature of the EC clamp has been widely recognized for years, despite the fact that many of us in emergency medicine pretend otherwise. In fact, if you flip open your EMT textbook or the handouts from your last CPR class, you will notice that one-person BVM use is strongly discouraged. (In my Limmer textbook, it’s last in preference after the two-person BVM and even the pocket mask.) In the field, this is ignored, because we adopt the attitude that any EMT should be able to sit at the patient’s head and “handle the airway” without help. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crummy technique, and many of the patients who are “bagged” this way only survive because they didn’t need much help to begin with.

What does work reliably is placing both hands on the mask, thumbs toward the feet and fingers behind the jaw. This way you have a hand on both sides and can easily obtain a seal (and if there is a leak it’s readily located), while also providing a strong bilateral grip to protract the jaw. You can sustain this position for a long time, and as a bonus, it tends to open rather than close the mouth.

Basic two-hand seal

A slightly different version with thumbs wrapped around, resembling a "double EC"

Both methods compared

The downside is that it doesn’t leave a hand to squeeze with. Ideally, another rescuer should squeeze the bag. This lets you focus on maintaining the airway while they focus on bagging slowly, gently, and at an appropriate rate. (But remind them to stop squeezing when they see chest rise; with two hands it’s tempting to try and empty the whole bag, which is far in excess of what’s necessary if you have a good seal.) It can even help to separate the mask from the bag entirely, position it perfectly on the face, clamp down your grip, and then allow the bag to be attached and ventilation begun; this ensures everything is where it ought to be. On scene you often have enough personnel for this; in the back of the ambulance you may or may not. Can you still execute this method alone?

You can, and I highly recommend that you work out the logistics now, with your own unique body type and equipment. For patients in a bed or a high stretcher, you can often stand behind the head, hold the seal with your hands, and squeeze the bag with your elbow against your side. In the patient compartment, you can sit in the tech seat and squeeze the bag against one leg with your elbow, or between your knees if you’re an experienced Thighmaster. A supine patient on the ground can be the trickiest position; you may be able to squeeze the bag against a leg or something similar, but often your best bet will simply be to recruit help. (Again, please experiment with this now, so you’re not improvising while a patient turns blue.) Just remember that using two people to bag isn’t a failure, and has no impact on your sexual adequacy; it’s a legitimate method which is supported by literature and explicitly recommended by the experts we’re supposed to be listening to.

 

The Sniffing Position

We understand now that successful BLS airway management means maximizing the passable upper airway and minimizing obstructions. Bringing the jaw forward will always be helpful, by pulling the tongue and other anterior structures away from the posterior pharyngeal wall. Now let’s look a little closer at the position of the head itself.

We’re taught to rotate the head back in the head-tilt chin-lift maneuver. Why do we do this? In essence, because it helps align the oral and nasal passages with the pharynx.

In other words, in a neutral position there’s an angle that approaches 90 degrees between the oral cavity (through which air initially passes — or the nasal cavity, which is nearly parallel) and the pharynx (the initial portion of the passage down into the lungs). Such a sharp angle increases the resistance to air and increases the likelihood of occlusion. By rotating the head backwards along the atlanto-occipital joint — i.e. where the skull meets the spine — we can straighten out this corner. We can’t make it completely straight, because the head doesn’t rotate that far (if it did you’d be able to directly face the sky without leaning), but we can improve the angle substantially.

The trouble is that when we do this, we change another angle too. The angle between the pharynx and the trachea tends to sharpen in the vicinity of the larynx as we tilt the head backward. Since the pharynx follows the alignment of the upper neck and lower head, and the trachea follows the alignment of the lower neck and thorax — with the larynx and glottis smack in the middle — there’s an additional angle here that should be straightened as much as possible.

Image courtesy of http://tinyurl.com/c6logld

The good news is that with a supine patient lying on a flat surface, such as a bed or stretcher, simply rotating the head back will partially accomplish this. That’s because our occiput — the back of the skull — is somewhat bulbous and protruding, and when you tilt the head back, it rolls over this rounded prominence, elevating the head. Thus, a standard head tilt produces a small amount of neck-to-thorax flexion, which helps improve the angle at the larynx.

Many patients benefit from greater head movement, however. What we’re trying to do is shift the head forward — anteriorly — while maintaining (not increasing or decreasing) atlanto-occipital extension. In combination, this creates what’s known as the sniffing position, as it resembles someone ostentatiously “sniffing the air.” (“Leading with the chin” may be a more intuitive description.) It’s widely taught as the optimal position for intubation, but it can also reduce resistance to BVM ventilation; you may even encounter patients with perilaryngeal swelling (particularly epiglottitis) who assume this position intuitively to maintain their narrowing airway.

To establish the sniffing position, you need to pad behind the head. It’s sensible to treat each patient somewhat individually, but a good starting point is to elevate the head until the ear (that is, the canal or meatus) is horizontally aligned with, or slightly in front of, the notch of the clavicles. This is often only a few inches (average is ~7cm) beyond the elevation you’ll get from the occiput against the bed alone, but you’ll certainly need to put something back there. Pillows are usually too soft unless you fold them gratuitously, but a folded towel or blanket can work well, or really anything flat.

 A few special cases are worth mentioning. First, children. Kids are notorious for having enormous heads compared to their bodies, and the frequent result is that after rotating the cranium, you’ll have created all the anterior movement you need. In fact, it’s possible you’ll need to pad the back and upper shoulders in order to avoid hyperflexion of the neck.

Image courtesy of http://www.narenthorn.or.th/node/77?page=0%2C2

Now consider obese patients. Their general airway challenges make them great candidates for this technique, but because they have extra adipose tissue on their back — which elevates their torso relative to their head — they have the opposite problem as kids: you may need to provide substantially more padding behind the head in order to achieve ear-sternal alignment.

Interestingly, though, in very big patients you may encounter a different situation. Because relatively more adipose tissue collects in the lower back and hips than in the upper back and shoulders, while supine, the morbidly obese patient may actually be “upside down”; their torso is angled uphill, resulting in their head and chest being crunched together even while lying “flat.” To achieve anything like reasonable airway positions, you’ll need to first correct this by elevating (really just leveling) their upper back. This is called ramping, and may require a substantial amount of linen, although you might be able to get part of the way there by raising the back of the stretcher a little (thus preferentially elevating their upper back, since most people slip down a fair amount). Once you’ve achieved body normality, you can create your sniffing position, aligning ear to clavicles in the usual fashion.

Image courtesy of http://bariatrictimes.com/2012/02/16/airway-management-in-bariatric-surgery-a-challenge-for-anesthesiologists/

Truth be told, there are advantages to sitting up almost any respiratory patient. It reduces the chance of airway occlusion from soft tissues, helps blood and secretions drain, reduces impedance on the chest wall, and prevents the abdominal viscera from compressing the diaphragm. The only reason we don’t manage everyone this way is because it’s hard to do much with a patient sitting high or semi-Fowler’s, such as bagging them or airway insertion. But for the patient who’s still breathing spontaneously, the simplest airway intervention is simply to keep them upright or perhaps in the lateral recovery position.

 

Key Points

  1. The two-hand BVM technique is preferable to the EC technique whenever possible, and it’s far easier to perform with a second person to assist.
  2. Optimal airway diameter and angles can be achieved by protracting the jaw and simultaneously elevating and extending the head into a “sniffing position.”
  3. Pediatric patients may not need additional head elevation to achieve this, or may even need padding of the back.
  4. Obese patients may need substantial head elevation.
  5. Very obese patients may need to be “ramped” to level their torso before attempting other airway maneuvers.
  6. When more aggressive management is not needed, an upright or lateral supine position provides the simplest protection of the airway.

 

Tune in next time for a few extra tricks to increase our airway options, and a comprehensive approach for bringing it all together.

Continued at Mastering BLS Ventilation: Supplemental Methods and finally Mastering BLS Ventilation: Algorithms

Psychological First Aid

Eventually, we all reach EMS satori — I’m referring, of course, to the realization that most of our job doesn’t involve saving lives, or performing any high-level, acute medical interventions. Once we understand this, the question becomes: what does our job consist of?

One good answer among many is the management of psychological rather than physical injury. Can we help the person, even when there’s little need to help the body? We sure can, and it seems like after all the hours we spent studying airway management, we should spend at least a little time developing this other skill. If we’re going to surrender our identity as ET tube samurai, we’d better become experts at dropping mental balms.

It may not be rocket science, but there is certainly a right and a wrong way to help. One good source of ideas for doing it the right way is called psychological first aid.

Psychological first aid, or PFA, is a system developed jointly by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Center for PTSD. It’s meant to be a psychological counterpart to medical first aid — not a replacement for long-term professional therapy, but merely a method for addressing the immediate, acute mental stress response following crisis. It’s largely aimed at post-disaster scenarios, such as the victims of hurricanes and mass casualty incidents, and it’s become the preferred methodology for American Red Cross personnel. However, it also has valuable concepts that we can use every day on the ambulance, to help us care for both patients and any of their family or friends who are struggling.

This sort of thing may come naturally to some people, but PFA rolls it together into a standalone curriculum that can be transmitted to any professional, particularly those of us who don’t specialize in mental health. It’s also evidence-based: there is research behind most of its interventions, and the science tells us that it generally works. (Contrast this to CISM, which many feel is baseless at best and counterproductive at worst.)

Classes are available; check with your local Red Cross for more information. But here are some of the concepts:

 

General ideas

  • Take your cues from the patient. If they want to talk, listen. If they don’t, don’t force them.
  • You’re here as support and to listen, not as Dear Abby; limit your input and resist the urge to offer advice. Be sparing with relating personal anecdotes or “war stories,” even if they seem germane; it’s the patient’s crisis, not yours.
  • Cater your approach to the patient’s age and culture. Children in particular will need a different style than adolescents and adults. When approaching children, make contact with parents first, and understand that both parties will probably need to be attended to.
  • Reassure them that their emotions and reactions, no matter what they may be, are understandable and acceptable, not pathological.
  • Use language that’s clear, simple, and personal, avoiding medical terminology or jargon.
  • Understand your own role and limitations, and be ready to bring in better-trained specialists.

Avoid these types of remarks:

  • I know how you feel.
  • It was probably for the best.
  • She is better off now.
  • It was his time to go.
  • Let’s talk about something else.
  • You should work towards getting over this.
  • You are strong enough to deal with this.
  • You should be glad she passed quickly.
  • That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
  • You’ll feel better soon.
  • You did everything you could.
  • You need to grieve.
  • You need to relax.
  • It’s good that you are alive.
  • It’s good that no one else died.

 

Major Goals

 

1. Contact and Engagement

As you go about the business of the call, make sure that you’re orienting yourself as somebody who’s willing and able to help. From the initial patient contact all the way until you shake hands and part ways, you should be presenting yourself as a compassionate professional; all it takes is one slip of the tongue or roll of the eyes to betray that you’d rather be back at quarters finishing your burrito.

 

2. Safety and Comfort

Obviously, you should ensure that you are both physically safe, and that immediate medical concerns are managed; this also includes the recognition of patients who could harm themselves or others (like you).

If you’re still at a scene or in the ED where upsetting things are happening (such as a resuscitation), try to move somewhere more quiet and controlled. Keep them physically comfortable, with blankets, a chair, food or water, etc. Remove them from anyone who is themselves panicked or emotionally distressed, but do help to put them in contact with social support, such as friends, family, or clergy.

Try to give people active, familiar things to do, rather than sitting there passively being overwhelmed. Anything, even minor tasks (“here, hold this”), that involve them with their own care or the care of their loved one is beneficial; perhaps they can make some phone calls or locate insurance information.

Share whatever information you have regarding what’s currently happening, including what’s happening to others affected, and what can be expected next (do use judgment on how much they want/need to hear at this stage, though). But don’t lie, guess, form unfounded predictions, or make promises beyond your control (“they’ll/you’ll be just fine”). Consider a broad interrogatory like “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

Kids may appreciate something like a teddy bear, and you can use it as a proxy for their own care, for instance: “Remember that she needs to drink lots of water and eat three meals a day — and you can do that too.” Also, children especially are sensitive to alarming sights and sounds; try to shelter them from unnecessary stimuli.

 

3. Stabilization (if needed)

As we’ve talked about before, anyone experiencing an acute, uncontrolled emotional response needs to be stabilized and grounded before much else can be done. Be on the lookout for things like: glassy-eyed or vacant stares; aimless wandering or unresponsiveness; uncontrolled crying, hyperventilating, shaking, or rocking; or frantic, illogical, even potentially dangerous behavior such as perseverating on simple tasks (continuously searching for a pair of glasses) or walking thoughtlessly through traffic. Remember that reactions may ebb and flow in surges.

Rather than broad reassurances — “stay calm” — try to determine their specific concerns, even if not entirely rational, and help address them. If completely adrift, patients may be assisted in “grounding” by deep breathing and asking them to describe where they are or concrete aspects of their surroundings (I see a table, I see a clipboard).

Consider both giving them some brief privacy (do tell them when you’ll be back), and remaining present and available yet non-intrusive, such as sitting nearby while you finish paperwork.

 

4. Information Gathering: Current Needs and Concerns

Determine the specific problems and needs of the patient. Individual responses may be flavored by their own psychological backdrop (such as depression or anxiety), history of similar incidents (a prior MVA or death in the family), or other unpredictable elements (they can’t stand the waiting room music). In some cases, the need for referral to a specialist may become obvious here, such as uncontrolled schizophrenia or major stressors in the setting of known PTSD and a history of self-harm; don’t try to “wing it” in complex psychiatric cases.

Follow their lead, and don’t press for details — a CISD-type debriefing can come later, if appropriate. Listen actively and openly. Look for expressions of emotion in their remarks, then make clarifying comments such as: “It sounds like you’re being really hard on yourself about what happened” or “It seems like you feel that you could have done more.” No matter what, don’t judge.

 

5. Practical Assistance

Assist the patient with any practical issues, which may be dominating (or over-dominating) their attention. Offer to notify friends or family, arrange for needed support, or obtain information about their care. Larger needs (such as questions about the costs of treatment) may be beyond your immediate power to address, but you can often take the first step, such as notifying hospital staff of their concerns. At the very least, provide whatever information you can and discuss a plan for resolving the problem. Even small measures like a warm blanket can have both practical and psychological benefit.

Remember that, although you may not be the most knowledgable or appropriate resource for many concerns, as an EMS provider you may be the only person who has the time and ability to address them. If you don’t make that phone call or find them a glass of water, it may be a long time until anybody else does; and it may not seem like a priority to find someone to move their car, but imagine how much better they’ll feel after it gets ticketed and towed.

 

6. Connection with Social Supports

Make an effort to enlist the patient’s support structure. In some cases, the first step may be to actually ask some version of, “Do you have a support network?” Some patients, such as the elderly or homeless, may not, and may need to rely particularly on institutional support, such as social workers.

When multiple individuals are in a group, such as family members at a scene or in the waiting room, ask if they have any questions or requests; this can provide a jumping-off point for further communication.

Make particular effort to bring children together with their parents or caregivers, and try not to separate them unnecessarily. Consider engaging children with simple activities, such as tic-tac-toe, “air hockey” (wad up paper and try to blow it across a table into the opposing person’s “goal”; this also promotes deep breathing), or the scribble game (one person scribbles on a paper, and the other tries to make it into something coherent).

 

7. Information on Coping

This step focuses on describing common stress reactions so that individuals will be more equipped to manage them. It is probably best left to more specialized professionals, since our own training is usually limited here.

 

8. Linkage with Collaborative Services

Help pass the patient along to existing resources, either by providing contact information or through direct referral. Most hospitals will have phone numbers or extensions for mental health, social work, counseling, and other services, and there are hotlines available for individuals not in care at a facility. (It’s worth having this sort of thing in your phone or on a cheat sheet, so that it’s available when you need it.)

When bringing in other aid, and even when making routine hand-offs to ED staff and the like, try to smooth the transition of care. Patients often feel as if they are passing through the hands of an endless series of personnel, with each one demanding to hear their story (and probably take their vital signs). Make an effort to give full, complete reports, and to establish your credibility through word and deed so that receiving staff feel less of a need to do it all over again; in particular, try to communicate whatever concerns or emotional state the patient is currently experiencing, so that the job of managing it can be seamlessly turned over. Introduce the new “helper” (for instance, the RN) directly to the patient, and let them know that they’ll be taking care of them; don’t just disappear, or they may feel abandoned.

 

Further information can be downloaded here from the National Center for PTSD.

Thoughts from WMEMS

This past weekend, I was able to attend the Western Massachusetts EMS Conference alongside such luminaries as Scott Kier and Kyle David Bates (of the extraordinary Pedi-U podcast). We sat through two days of outstanding lectures on various EMS-related topics, and walked away with some ideas and information I haven’t found anywhere else. Here are just a few of the unique pearls from the conference. Thanks to everyone for the great time!

 

Kyle David Bates on Mechanism of Injury

  • In an MVC, ejected (that is, fully ejected) victims have a 1/3 chance of a cervical spine fracture.
  • They also have around 25 times higher chance of mortality than an equivalent non-ejected patient.
  • Is “another death in the same vehicle” a legitimate concern when considering mechanism? Yes, but make sure that death wasn’t from an localized cause—for instance, a girder in the face, or they had a heart attack before they crashed.
  • How about “intrusion”? Over twelve inches into the patient compartment where your patient is found (meaning, visible from inside—not from the outside, which includes the buffer space of the walls), not including areas like the hood, trunk, etc. Alternately, over 18 inches into the patient compartment in areas where your patient is not found—for instance, the rear seating area, when you’re treating the solo driver.
  • “Distracting injuries” can mean painful injuries that distract the patient, but also gross stuff that distracts the provider. Consider a head-to-toe on virtually everyone, even when the funky arm fracture is drawing your attention.
  • Many “trauma” patients are no longer being treated with surgery anyway, so sending everything to the trauma centers overloads them for no reason.
  • One more reason why the sternal rub is not a great diagnostic: if they do clutch at their chest in response, is that localizing—or an abnormal, decorticate flexion response? Different GCS scores, but you can’t tell.
  • Are extremity injuries significant mechanisms? Penetrating injury proximal to the elbows or knees should be considered threatening to the torso, so yes. Pelvic fractures? For sure. (“How much blood can you lose into your pelvis? All of it!”)
  • With the automobile safety technology available today, you can crash fast, turn your car into a paperweight, but walk away unharmed. We no longer care about “high-speed,” only “high-risk,” which has many factors (see the Rogue Medic’s recent post on this).
  • Auto vs. pedestrians: kids get upper body injuries; adults get lateral trauma as we turn and try to get out of the way. Both can get run over.
  • Motorcycles. Harley-type riders seem to have more head injuries: they get hit by cars, due to low profile and dark clothing, and they wear partial helmets. Sports bikes get more extremity injuries: they wear good protection, are higher visibility, but they ride fast and run into things, breaking any and every bone they have.
  • Rollovers: no longer trauma criteria. You can roll and do great if you’re restrained. Number of rolls, final position, even roof intrusion have no correlation to injury severity.
  • Extrication time >20 minutes: no longer trauma criteria. Sometimes it just takes a while due to weather, access, etc, and newer vehicles are supposed to crumple more anyway.
  • Are burns trauma criteria? No. If they need specialized care, it’s a burn center, but this is not that time-sensitive—more a long-term management thing—so someone with burns and trauma should go to the trauma center instead, can be transferred later for burn care.
  • Helicopter transport: costs can range from $2,000 to $20,000 depending on distance, and insurers are refusing to pay many of these bills due to lack of necessity. Also consider the possibility of everyone dying in a fiery crash. Weigh cost vs. benefit.

Kyle David Bates on Shortness of Breath

  • Anxiety is caused by hypoxia; the cure for this is supplemental oxygen.
  • Sleepiness is caused by hypercapnia; the cure for this is bagging.
  • OPA or NPA? Testing the gag reflex may create a bigger airway problem (vomit). Better yet, check the mouth for pooled saliva; if present, there is no gag, use an OPA. If absent, they have a gag and are managing their own secretions, use an NPA.
  • Respiratory distress means there’s a problem, but they’re compensating (compensatory signs like tachypnea).
  • Respiratory failure means they’re decompensating (hypoxic/hypercarbic signs like altered mental status, cyanosis, falling sats)
  • Respiratory arrest means they’re not breathing.
  • Normal inspiration:expiration cycle about 1:2. Obstructive pulmonary problems impede expiration first, because that’s the passive process—it’s easier to inhale past obstructions because it’s an active process. So asthmatics have ratios like 1:4 or 1:5, they’re using active exhalation, and using auto-PEEP maneuvers. (Pursed lips in adults, grunting in kids.)
  • In adults, look for retractions intercostal (between the ribs) and sternal notch (between the clavicles); in kids, look substernal (below the ribs).
  • 40% of patients hospitalized with asthma have a pneumothorax! (Not necessarily clinically significant, though.)
  • Pulsus paradoxus/paradoxical pulses are a useful early sign of significant pulmonary dysfunction.
  • 90% of asthma attacks linked with an allergic reaction; however, rhinovirus (the common cold) may now be a contender. Others include: exercise (not sure why; maybe the temperature differential), active menstruation (asthma very common in young post-pubescent women—maybe the hormones), psychological (stress, panic), aspirin use.
  • Kids compensate great, so cyanosis (a decompensation sign) in kids is very late and very bad.
  • Risk-stratify these patients, because high risk patients can decompensate fast even if they look okay now. Previous hospitalizations? ICU admits? Intubations?
  • Cough asthma: no dyspnea, just dry coughing. It happens.
  • Smokers: measured in pack-years. 1 pack a day for 20 years is 20 pack-years, 2 packs a day for 5 years is 10 pack-years; 30–35 pack-years is where we start to see bad dysfunction.
  • Best place to check skin? Under the lower eyelid—lift it and check the mucus membranes. Dry for dehydration, pale for shock, blue for cyanosis, the whole gamut.
  • Ascites is a sign of fluid overload; try the fluid wave test. (Scroll down to “Examining for a fluid wave” here.)
  • Nebulized ipratropium/Atrovent: its role is mainly to reduce mucus and secretions (cf. atropine). Tachycardia etc. is not a contraindication, because it’s not absorbed systemically; it remains in the lungs.
  • Give nebs by hand-held mask or T-piece instead of strapping it to their face; that way you have a warning of deterioration when they can no longer hold it to their face.
  • Bronchodilators may not work great in beta-blocked patients.
  • Steroids take hours to have an effect, but the earlier they’re given the better the outcomes; give ‘em if you have ‘em.
  • If they need RSI, ketamine is nice because it also bronchodilates.
  • “Facilitated intubation” (i.e. snow ‘em with a ton of benzos/narcs)? Be careful, because if you don’t get that tube, it’ll take forever to wear off; these aren’t short-duration drugs.

Kyle David Bates on Pediatrics

  • Use the Pediatric Assessment Triangle! Appearance, Work of Breathing, Circulation.
  • Appearance: General activity level and impression. Muscle tone, interactivity and engagement, look/gaze, crying. Appropriate appearance depends on age. Indicates a CNS/metabolic problem. (Make sure to check their sugar.)
  • Work of Breathing: Flaring, retractions, audible sounds, positioning. Remember they’re belly breathers.
  • Circulation: mostly skin. Cyanosis (bad), pallor, mottling (pallor + patchy cyanosis), marbling (in newborns—bright red skin with visible blood vessels, maybe some white areas—this is normal). Check cap refill on bottom of foot in little kids.
  • Shock in kids is most often from dehydration.
  • Airway: crying is a great sign. Remember to pad under the shoulders when lying flat, their huge heads can tip them forward and block the airway. Avoid NPAs in infants. In very small kids, breath sounds can transmit, so you may hear upper sounds in the chest or chest sounds in the trachea.
  • Under 2 months: peripheral cyanosis is normal, central cyanosis is bad. Limited behavior, often won’t visually track. Ask parents if their behavior is normal. Ask about obstetric history, it’s still relevant. They have no immune system really, so any infection (temp over 100.4) is a serious emergency.
  • 2–6 months: social smile, will track visually, recognize mom, strong cry and can roll/sit with support. May still be okay with strangers, but try to keep them with parents; if parents like you, they’ll like you
  • 6–12 months: stranger anxiety (unless they’re raised very communally). Very mobile and explore with their mouth, so always think about foreign body airway obstructions, especially up the nose, especially for dyspnea with sudden onset. Separation anxiety, so keep with parent. Offer distractions (toys, etc.). Do exam from toe to head so they get used to you before you reach their face.
  • 1–3 yrs (toddlers, “terrible 2s”): mobile, curious, opinionated, ego-centric, can’t abstractly connect cause-and-effect but learn from experience. Keep with the parents, distract them, assess painful part last (or everything you touch afterwards will hurt). May talk a lot or not much, it’s all normal, but they always understand more than they let on, so be careful what you say.
  • 3–5 yrs (preschool): magical thinkers, misconceptions (“silly” ideas like if they leak too much they’ll run out of blood), many fears (death/darkness/mutilation/aloneness), short attention span. Explain things in simple terms, relate to them (any cartoons or toys in the house you recognize?), use toys, involve them (here hold this, which arm should I use, etc). Don’t ever negotiate, just tell them what to do; praise them often; never ridicule.
  • 6–12 yrs (school aged): talkative, mobile, may not get cause and effect, want reassurance, involvement, praise. Live in present, may not think about danger or risk. Peer involvement. Speak directly to them, anticipate questions (will this hurt? am I going to die?), give simple explanations, don’t ever lie, respect privacy. If you need to do something painful (IVs, etc.) don’t tell them until just before, or they’ll dwell on it. Head-to-toe okay.
  • 13–18 (adolescents): regress when hurt or sick—act like big toddlers. Can understand and theoretically have common sense, but still take risks. Peer support. Speak directly, give concrete explanations, respect privacy, have patience.
  • Under 21 usually considered “pediatric.”
  • Degree of fever temp not associated with severity. No actual danger to brain until 106–107 degrees F or so.

Dr. Lisa Patterson on Trauma and Field Triage

  • RR <20 in infants is trauma center criteria since this is the one easily-measurable vital sign for them.
  • Crushed/degloved/mangled extremities: although not life-threatening, still worth the divert, because usually needs multi-specialty care (plastic surgery, orthopedics, hand specialists, etc.) to maximize function.
  • Calling in “altered mental status” or “unresponsive” is not super helpful—give a GCS or otherwise specify what you mean, there’s a big range here.
  • Trauma activations here are typically three tiers: category 1 (life threat), category 2 (no immediate emergency, but some concern or suspicion due to mechanism or presentation), consult (no concern on initial presentation, but later decision to admit, trauma paged down to consult).
  • Activation may alert/standby numerous parties including radiology, OR, pharm, blood bank, lab, ICU, respiratory, anesthesiology, social workers, etc. Not a small thing.

Sean Dorr on OEMS investigations

  • [This is Massachusetts-specific information; local providers can contact me directly if they want to hear about some of this material.— ed.]

Ginnie Teed on Organ and Tissue Donation

  • Donation is hugely hugely valuable and lifesaving, but there’s not nearly enough. About 60-70% of Americans are registered donors, around 100 million people, but only 1% end up as usable donors and we need far more. Low rates aren’t from consent, they’re from the logistics of getting viable candidates.
  • Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) is federal regulation providing basic requirements for process; states use this standard to form their own systems. Registered donors must be recognized and organ procurement agencies are required to advocate for them even against wishes of family, etc. Driver’s license “opt-in” now considered legal consent in some but not all states.
  • National Organ Transplant Act establishes the rules of the registry, blinds the entire process, prevents manipulation or line-jumping; the database is centralized and controlled; you can’t legally buy or otherwise get around the system. Manipulation is taken very very seriously and massively investigated, because it’s not only unethical, the pall it casts over the process makes others decide not to donate—the result is many lives lost.
  • Referrals (i.e. calling procurement organization to say, “we have a potential donor”) come from hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, whomever. This process is exempt from HIPAA.
  • Tissues tested more heavily than organs, because if an infection is carried through transplanted (i.e. nonliving) tissue, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.
  • Organs used: vital organs. Heart, lungs, kidneys and livers (most common), pancreas, sometimes small bowel. Max 9 organs per donor.
  • Tissues used: not living, usually good for about 24 hours after death. Bones (not marrow, which is living), although we try to not obviously mutilate people (for their family’s sake), skin (hugely beneficial), corneas, vessels, heart valves, pericardium, connective tissue (for orthopedic repairs).
  • Three ways to declare death: neurological (no brain activity; body only alive due to our mechanical support; recovery team responds to site and performs planned recovery); cardiac death (heart stops; not planned); planned extubation/cardiac death (patient is mechanically supported, determination made that there is no possibility to survive on their own; vent is pulled, if heart stops within 59 minutes they can take some organs; usually just the durable liver and kidneys unless bypass is available).
  • Live organs can only be taken from perfused patients. Someone “dead” (i.e. no pulses) can be a tissue donor but not an organ donor unless you get ROSC. No point in continuing CPR to “maintain the organs” if there’s no possibility of getting return of circulation.
  • EMS documentation absolutely critical for determining donor eligibility. Need to know downtime in arrests, how much CPR, any ROSC no matter how brief, events/mechanism leading to arrest. There are hard limits on fluid/blood/colloids received, so they must know how much fluid you gave (reasonable estimate is fine). Must document all needlesticks, number and location; if they find any holes that aren’t accounted for they’ll have to assume they’re a drug user or that additional lines were started and extra liters given. If you don’t want to document something at least tell the receiving staff.
  • If blood is drawn, label must be placed so that expiration date of tube is still readable (FDA requirement).
  • Every donor can save up to 200 people; failure to document can kill just as many.

UMass Memorial LifeFlight on Air Ambulance Transport

  • Consider: how do you want the helicopter used? Need their higher level of care? Rapid transport to trauma center? Transport multiple patients in an MCI to more distant hospitals to reduce burden on closest facilities? Can even split the crew to provide higher level of care for multiple ground ambulances.
  • Many services simply will not fly into a hazmat situation.
  • Best makeshift landing zones are schools—big open areas, everyone knows where it is.
  • Wires are a major hazard, make sure to warn pilot—you can see them but he can’t.
  • Need about 100 x 100 ft for an LZ, or 35–40 big-ish strides per side. Secure the area against bystanders.
  • Hazards to clear, alert the pilot to, or just pick another spot: poles, antennas, trees, bushes, livestock, stumps, holes, rocks, logs, mile markers, debris. Tall grass can hide hazards. Close all vehicle doors, put your chinstraps on, secure loose items. Don’t stare at the bird landing, turn your back and watch for hazards.
  • Bad surfaces are dust, dirt, snow, ice, hay. Snow should ideally be very fluffy or very packed. If they land and get iced they may not be able to take off again. Don’t wash down a dusty LZ unless pilot requests it. Paved areas are simplest and best. Large clear roadways can land multiple choppers in a row.
  • Lighting options: orange traffic cone at each corner, with a handlight placed in each at nighttime. Or, flashing ministrobe at each corner. Or, vehicle headlights crossing the LZ. Don’t shine anything up at the helo, don’t mark with loose material, don’t use flares.
  • Designate one person as LZ Command (not the IC). Nobody else communicates with the helicopter. Your portable radio probably won’t reach them; use the mobile in the truck. If there’s any hazard on final approach, say one word—”STOP”—and pilot will abort.
  • Most crashes are pilot error, and most pilot error is due to fatigue. There should be hour limits for a pilot, and this is a valid reason to refuse to fly.

Detective John LeClair, EMT-P, on Opiates and Prescription Pills

  • Heroin is still big, but pills are a huge player now too. You get an easy prescription from a walk-in clinic or ED, pay maybe a couple bucks with Medicare/Medicaid, and can not only sell them for easy cash but can crush and snort/shoot it for the same effect as heroin. Then if money or access runs low, you end up on heroin anyway to chase that high.
  • Oxycontin/oxycodone best selling narcotic in the nation ten years ago, but now on the wane. You scrape off the time-release coating, crush it and snort or chew it. “Hillybilly heroin,” “blue,” “oxycotton,” “kicker,” etc. Street price about $1/mg (40mg, 80mg, 160mg common), so many turned to crime. In Aug 2010, manufacturer (Purdue) added a “geling” agent which turns it to gel when it contacts water, making it difficult to snort. Try to snort this Oxycontin OP and it turns into a ball in your nose. Some people are sticking straws/tubes up in there to try and get it deeper and deeper, so airway obstructions are happening.
  • Percocet: oxy plus acetaminophen. For years the most common analgesic for sports injuries, so common among youth. Kids shared ‘em, put out bowls of them at parties, girls prostituted themselves for pills. Taken with alcohol the APAP/Tylenol kills your liver. “Littles,” “little babies,” “little dogs.”
  • Opana/oxymorphone: getting popular after Oxy OP started ruining everyone’s fun. Same idea but you can still snort it. Twice as strong, and costs twice as much ($2/mg)
  • How to grind? Take a hose clamp, cut it, straighten it, tape it down, run the pill across the holes to grind it. Or use a Pedi-Egg, which collects the powder for you. The finer, the better high.
  • Heroin: snort, “skin pop” (subcutaneous), mainline. Must be pretty pure to snort, which it now tends to be, so popularity grew (people were afraid of needles due to HIV). However now some HIV/Hep is spreading through bloody noses and sharing straws anyway.
  • Smack, horse, china white, chiva, junk, H, tar, black, fix, dope, brown, dog, food, negra, nod, white horse, stuff. Dealers have their own “brand names.”
  • Heroin addicts are creatures of habit; get high same place, same way. Any change in their routine (e.g. different location) can get them amped up, changing their sensitivity and leading to OD even with their usual dose. Consider this if you find an OD somewhere like a car or alley.
  • “Cotton fever”: they pluck out wads of cotton from cigarette filters and drop it in the heroin to help filter it. Sometimes when they draw out the liquid they get a bit of cotton, and when they shoot it they get a sort of phlebitis/infection/sepsis.