Murder by Checklist

Reader Steve Carroll passed along this recent case report from the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

It’s behind a paywall, so let’s summarize.


What happened

A young adult male was shot three times — right lower quadrant, left flank, and proximal right thigh. Both internal and external bleeding were severe. A physician bystander* tried to control it with direct pressure, to no avail.

With two hands and a lot of force, however (he weighed over 200 pounds), he was able to hold continuous, direct pressure to the upper abdomen, tamponading the aorta proximal to all three wounds.


Manual aortic pressure


Bleeding was arrested and the patient regained consciousness as long as compression was held. The bystander tried to pass the job off to another, smaller person, who was unable to provide adequate pressure.

When the scene was secured and paramedics arrived, they took over the task of aortic compression. But every time they interrupted pressure to move him to the stretcher or into the ambulance, the patient lost consciousness again. Finally en route, “it was abandoned to obtain vital signs, intravenous access, and a cervical collar.”

The result?

Within minutes, the patient again bled externally and became unresponsive. Four minutes into the 9-minute transfer, he had a pulseless electrical activity cardiac arrest, presumed a result of severe hypovolemia. Advanced cardiac life support resuscitation was initiated and continued for the remaining 5-minute transfer to the ED.

The patient did not survive.


When the cookbook goes bad

The idea of aortic compression is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s the most important lesson to this story.

Much has been said about the drawbacks of rigidly prescriptive protocol-based practice in EMS. But one could argue that our standard teachings allow for you to defer interventions like IV access if you’re caught up preventing hemorrhage. Like they say, sometimes you never get past the ABCs.

The problem here is not necessarily the protocols or the training. It’s the culture. And it’s not just us, because you see similar behavior in the hospital and in other domains.

It’s the idea that certain things just need to be done, regardless of their appropriateness for the patient. It’s the idea that certain patients come with a checklist of actions that need to be dealt with before you arrive at the ED. Doesn’t matter when. Doesn’t matter if they matter.

It’s this reasoning: “If I deliver a trauma patient without a collar, vital signs, and two large-bore IVs, the ER is going to tear me a new one.”

In other words, if you don’t get through the checklist, that’s your fault. But if the patient dies, that’s nobody’s fault.

From the outside, this doesn’t make much sense, because it has nothing to do with the patient’s pathology and what might help them. It has everything to do with the relationship between the paramedic and the ER, or the paramedic and the CQI staff, or the paramedic and the regional medical direction.

Because we work alone out there, without anybody directly overseeing our practice, the only time our actions are judged is when we drop off the patient. Which has led many of us to prioritize the appearance of “the package.” Not the care we deliver on scene or en route. Just the way things look when we arrive.

That’s why crews have idled in ED ambulance bays trying over and over to “get the tube” before unloading. That’s why we’ve had patients walk to the ambulance, climb inside, and sit down, only to be strapped down to a board.

And that’s why we’ve let people bleed to death while we record their blood pressure and needle a vein.

It’s okay to do our ritual checklist-driven dance for the routine patients, because that’s what checklists are for; all the little things that seem like a good idea when there’s time and resources to achieve them. But there’s something deeply wrong when you turn away from something critical — something lifesaving — something that actually helps — in order to achieve some bullshit that doesn’t matter one bit.

If you stop tamponading a wound to place a cervical collar, that cervical collar killed the patient. If you stop chest compressions to intubate, that tube killed the patient. If you delay transport in penetrating trauma to find an IV, that IV killed the patient.

No, let’s be honest. If you do those things, you killed the patient.

Do what actually matters for the patient in front of you. Nobody will ever criticize you for it, and if they do, they are not someone whose criticism should bother you. The only thing that should bother you is killing people while you finish your checklist.


* Correction: the bystander who intervened was not a physician, but “MD” (Matthew Douma), the lead author, who is an RN. — Editor, 7/22/14

Those who Save Lives: Harry Watts

Harry Watts

Who was Harry Watts?

You probably haven’t heard of him, unless you’re English — like he was — and you lived in the 19th century — like he did.

That’s because he was nobody special. He wasn’t a prince or a pope, he never invented a robot or discovered a mountain. Probably never even kicked a ball on television.

What did he do, then? He was born in Sunderland and lived poor. Poor as hell; no shoes poor, family-all-in-one-room poor. His father was a sailor. He had two sisters, and two brothers, one of whom drowned during a storm while Harry watched.

Starting work when he was young, Harry made his living first as a sailor, then as a rigger in the docks, and finally as a deep-water diver (the guys who wear big brass suits and suck air from a hose to the surface). He married and had two kids.

Oh, right. Also, all on his own, he saved the lives of 36 different people.


What, what?

While apprenticing on his first ship, he watched his fellow apprentice take a fall overboard. Harry’s automatic response was to dive in after him, pluck him up, and pull him to safety upon some floating timber. That was number one.

On his second voyage, he was waiting to receive the captain who was paddling back to the ship in a small canoe. He suddenly capsized, however, and was floundering in the waves. Harry grabbed a rope, swam out to the captain, and towed him back to the ship’s ladder. That was number two.

Number three was on the same voyage, when a boy was thrown into the water during a major storm, and the waters were too rough to lower a boat after him. Harry went in, and somehow, they both came out.

He rescued four and five on his next cruise — at the same time. So at the age of 19, he’d saved the lives of five human beings.

“Did you get any reward for these doings, Harry?” he was asked.

“Rewaard! Wey, sartinlees nut; nivver thowt o’ sich a thing. But we helped the two men wi’ dry claes an’ things.”


He got six more all together when an anchor line broke and dropped the anchor directly into a passing boat. There were six men aboard, and Harry went straight overboard while calling for help, landing directly on the wrecked boat in time to save them all.

Then one day at the dock, he saw a crowd gathering to watch a boy drowning in a rough sea. He leapt in, swam out to him, and brought the boy successfully back to shore on the verge of exhaustion.

At age 36, he made a career change from sailor to diver. At this point, he’d saved 17 people (plus one dog), most through risk to himself — sometimes grave. On one occasion he swallowed so much contaminated water from the Thames river (this during the cholera epidemic which had essentially turned it into a flowing sewer) that he was bed-bound for months and nearly died.

Many of those saved were sailors; many others were young children. And if you’ve never plunged twenty feet into rough water, wearing boots and heavy sailor’s clothing, and pulled out a panicked child (clinging like an octopus and trying hard to drown you)… well, you’re missing out. At this point, by the way, he had never received reward or recognition of any kind. As they say,

… There is a hackneyed platitude to the effect that virtue is its own reward, but it is safe to say that the average man does not find such a result sufficient. It might be so in an ideal world inhabited by ideal people, but in this work-a-day world, in addition to the approval of our conscience, we love to have the approval of our fellows and to know that our  acts are appreciated, and especially is this the case when we are actuated by altruistic motives. This is, of course, a form of vanity, but then vanity is almost a universal failing. [source]

But if Harry wanted applause, he certainly wasn’t clamoring for it. Just chugging along and saving lives as they presented themselves.


People take notice

Not long after that, he swam out to save two boys from drowning — while wearing one of his lead diving boots. (Yep.)

About a year later, he saved a couple more, and finally, there came the very first mention anyone had made of his efforts, a brief story in the newspaper:

Yesterday afternoon, about half-past three o’clock, a lad named Smith, about 16 years of age, son of an engineer employed on one of the Commissioners’ dredgers, narrowly escaped drowning. He was on board a dredger in the new Graving Dock, which was full of water, when he accidentally fell overboard. Mr. Harry Watts, in the employ of the Commissioners, gallantly jumped into the water and rescued him. The lad was very much exhausted, but restoratives were promptly used, and he was soon brought round. This is the twenty-second time that Watts has so nobly exerted himself in saving persons who have been in imminent danger of being drowned.

For a while, eyes turned away again. Then he hit number 25, and another story ran in the news, mentioning the man with “a perfect penchant for rescuing lives.” After that, people finally began to notice, and most of his saves received at least a little local attention.

He had countless saves while diving, such as the man who became tangled in a chain and was whipped overboard by a sinking weight — Harry dove in after and managed to free him underwater before they both drowned. Between rescues, he had plenty of interesting adventures, diving at the time being a trade full of explosives, accidents, and rockslides (he even had one memorable fight with a giant angler, or “devil fish,” which he ended up dispatching with a boat hook).

If that was his job, however, his hobby was volunteering with the Sunderland Lifeboat service; there was hardly a wreck nearby that Harry didn’t attend, they would say, and he was involved in rescuing over 120 sailors in extremis during storms. (Those don’t count on his score, of course, since they were team efforts. Just icing on the cake.)

He was 27, and up to 23 lives, when he received his first parchment award from the Royal Humane Society. A little while later when he ticked off number 25, they gave him their bronze medal as well, and when the local “Diamond Swimming Club and Humane Society” heard about that, they thought it just wasn’t cutting it, so they awarded him a gold medal of their own. The RHS gave him another parchment at number 26, and he continued to accumulate medals for his diving and rescue work — even one from the local temperance society for his good-natured efforts against the evil drink.

In fact, when he reached number 32, the local sailors (“gentlemen,” noted the newspaper, “because what constituted a gentleman was the performance of gentlemanly acts”) personally chipped in to cast him a silver medal in recognition of everything he’d done for them, despite the many years since Harry had personally sailed. Later, by widespread acclaim, his mayor wrote to the Queen to recommend Harry for the Albert Medal. Due to bureaucracy or who knows why, nothing came of the request.

An unfortunate turn came when Harry loaned his medals to the local church for an exhibition, and as night rolled around, the entire set was stolen by an unknown burglar. Harry was crushed, and the town of Sunderland felt it a slur on their name; the burglar was caught before long, but the medals were melted and gone. A popular movement arose, and within weeks they had struck replacements for the lot, and they returned them with dignity at a town ceremony. There, the thief himself expressed remorse, saying he wished he were drowned; Harry replied, “Mister, if ye were droonin’ aw’d pull ye oot bi th’ neck!”, and refused to press charges against the man.

He was 51 when he was approached to dive 150 deep to effect a mechanical repair. He was a little past such stunts for pay, he said, although of course he’d do so to save a fellow man, and he recommended some others who were younger and more willing. Their diver went down, and contact was soon lost; they returned to Harry and asked him to live up to his words, as nobody else was willing to go down to attempt a rescue.

He suited up and dived. The working depth was perhaps 120 feet, but it was upon a tiny platform across a bored-out shaft which continued another 300 feet past that; anybody who slipped was going a long way down until they looked like a recycled soda can. Feeling around, he located the other diver, who was dead (fainted, probably, then asphyxiated). He resurfaced, reported the news, then dived again to retrieve the body.

At the ripe age of 52, Harry was one of the divers who volunteered to recover bodies after the Tay Bridge disaster. He offered his services for no charge; when the diving commission attempted to pay him afterwards anyway (maybe because he was a million years old and a living legend), he politely refused and asked it be passed to a charity of their choice. (The man got around; somehow he was on hand at the Victoria Hall disaster as well, and widely applauded for his assistance in the aftermath.)

But never mind all that. His last life was saved at age 66. He and his wife were walking along the docks toward their home when he heard the cries of a drowning boy. His wife begged him not to, but he went; relenting, she cried, “Be quick, Harry!” and in he dove. Grab hold, haul over to a rope, out they came.

Thirty six lives. Not bad for a poor old seaman.


Harry finally rests

When he was 70, Harry retired at last. And although many people didn’t realize it, his wallet was thin; the diving commission didn’t offer a pension, and he’d quietly turned down others from grateful benefactors. That’s how things were when Andrew Carnegie passed through Sunderland to open a library.

Visiting the local museum, Carnegie saw an exhibit of Harry’s medals and asked after the man, now 84 and still full of vim. Surely he must be a war hero of some kind?

Nope. Just a life saver. When he learned who he was dealing with, and had the pleasure of shaking his hand, Carnegie inducted him into his Hero Fund on the spot.

At long last, Harry Watts no longer had to worry.

In Carnegie’s words,

I have to-day been introduced to a man who has, I think, the most ideal character of any man living on the face of the earth. I have shaken hands with a man who has saved thirty-six lives. Among the distinguished men whose names the Mayor has recited, you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die. Compared with his acts, military glory sinks into nothing. The hero who kills men is the hero of barbarism; the hero of civilisation saves the lives of his fellows.

At the age of 85, Harry’s town of Sunderland was worried that after his death, such a remarkable, yet humble man might be forgotten in the distance and darkness of history. In response, the mayor and several of the town’s luminaries commissioned a biography to be written about his life. You can read it here, and much of this story came from it.

Not a bad goal. Live your life so that when you’re old, someone will insist on writing a book in your honor.

In their words,

The modest merits of this good citizen may, so far as the public are concerned, be summed up in the simple statement that he has saved upwards of 30 lives from drowning. When we consider what are the awards usually apportioned by mankind to the destroyers of their species, the presentation of a gold watch and chain, accompanied by a framed parchment from the Royal Humane Society, in the precincts of a disused School Room, must appear an inadequate acknowledgment of services so signal. But we are new at the business and shall improve as we go forward.

Those who Save Lives: The Royal Humane Society

Royal Human Society

Mostly, people get into healthcare because they want to help people. And there’s no bigger and better way to help than saving lives.

Of course, that’s not really a cool thing to talk about, and we’re nothing if not cool, so most new folks clam up about lifesaving pretty quick. Then before long they’ve transitioned all the way to full-on Nicholas Cage burnout mode and managed to forget about that heroic stuff completely. To quote Dr. Saul Rosenberg: “I think the current generation of young people are terrific…. so much smarter, and so much broader, and so much more altruistic. At least until they come to medical school.”

But the fact is that there’s something very basic and very noble about the simple act of saving a life. To help shine light back on that deed rather than on the more ignoble parts of the job we do, I’d like to talk about some notable lifesavers throughout the years. Maybe we can learn a few things from them. Or maybe, at least, we’ll be reminded about the things we used to admire.

Today, let’s talk about…


The Royal Humane Society

In London in 1774, there were a whole lot of people drowning.

It wasn’t hard to understand. Most folks couldn’t swim, and many lived and worked on or near the water, especially the Thames river that flows through the city. Shipping and other water-based commerce was common, along with recreational activities like ice skating (sometimes on thin ice). To make a long story short, death by drowning was a frequent occurrence.

The science of resuscitation was in its infancy, and little was known about what could be done to bring back near-drowning victims. There were some interesting new ideas, but even if they were effective, there wasn’t much opportunity to use them — victims were usually presumed already dead and therefore beyond help.

(Any of this sound familiar? The problem of bystander intervention remains the toughest part of saving lives even today.)

William Hawes and Thomas Cogan were a couple of English physicians who believed that, with the current techniques and their best efforts, some of the drowned victims might be saved. (Hawes had, in fact, been paying out rewards to anyone who brought him recently-drowned bodies still “fresh” enough to be revived.) They thought that medicine could do better. So with some friends and colleagues, they sat down and founded the elegantly named Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, a sort of club with the goal of saving Britons from drowning.

The Society gave out cash rewards to anyone who attempted a rescue, more if they succeeded, and even awarded money to homeowners and publicans who allowed victims to be treated in their buildings. People being people, this quickly led to two-man scams where a “rescuer” and a “victim” would stage a drowning, then split the reward. So monetary prizes were soon discarded, except in rare cases, in lieu of certificates recognizing the lifesavers.

Gradually, the Society (after a few years switching to the the shorter name) began setting up stations and “receiving houses” near the water, where volunteers stored equipment and launched rescues. They were undoubtedly responsible for popularizing the concept of resuscitating the near-dead, and were among of the first to develop any type of rescue service for civilian medical emergencies. Kinda like the grand-daddy of EMS. In their literature, the Society asked:

Suppose but one in ten restored, what man would think the designs of the society unimportant, were himself, his relation, or his friend — that one?

The Society still exists, and has shifted from solely recognizing water rescues to acknowledging all manner of lifesaving heroism using a range of different medals and certificates. Awardees have included Alexander the First and author Bram Stoker.

Read through some of the most recent winners. They’re all good yarns. Humane Societies (not to be confused with the folks who protect animals) now exist in many countries of British descent, such as Australia and Canada, as well as other regions (including my own state of Massachusetts).

If you are honored by the Royal Humane Society, you’ll receive a medal stamped with their emblem: a fat cherub holding a sputtering torch, blowing at it with puffed cheeks, doing his best to fan a dying flame. Across the top:

lateat scintillula forsans

“A small spark may, perhaps, lie hidden.”

Royal Humane Society medal

Advanced CPR Techniques for Basic Providers

Handstand CPR


So you’re an EMT operating at the BLS level, and you understand that when it comes to cardiac arrest, you’re the man. Sure, you’ll call for the medics if you get there first, but the stuff that’s really important — compressions and defibrillation — well, that’s right in your wheelhouse.

But it may seem a little simple. Simple is beautiful, but maybe you’re wondering what else you can do to really master the art of resuscitation, especially when you’re out there on your own. Take it up a notch, if you will. And a lot of the cool stuff that’s being tried in the big world, such as pit-crew choreography and various supportive devices, are only available if your service makes a large-scale decision to adopt them. What can you do as an individual provider to absolutely ensure your peri-dead patients have the best chance of survival?

Here are some ideas.


Don’t Stop Compressions, at All, Ever — Seriously, Just Don’t

Hopefully at this point you don’t need to be convinced that stopping compressions is a bad thing. It truly is. The mountain of evidence is unequivocal: any time spent not-compressing kills people; each interruption in compressions kills people; pausing after compressions before defibrillating kills people; pausing after defibrillating and before resuming compressions also probably kills people; and so forth.

The trouble is that, despite this knowledge, we still stop all the goddamned time. There’s a lot going on during a code, and a lot of things you might want to pause for. But let’s go through a few and see if we really have to stop:


Stop for Pad Application?

As soon as you found the patient, you began compressions, right? As long as they weren’t wearing a honking seal-skin anorak, you can do that just fine over a shirt, blouse, or other light garment. (Hint: anoraks and similar loose outerwear can often just be pulled off the arms overhead, like removing a T-shirt.) Bam, in you went.

Now your partner needs to apply AED pads, though. Should you stop what you’re doing? Heavens, no. Let him work around you if he needs. He can unzip, rip, cut around your hands, tug the fabric out from under them as pressure lifts between compressions, and clear as much of the chest as he needs. Then he can simply apply the pads. No interruptions, no problem.

In some cases, a CPR-feedback device will be present, either combined with the pads as a one-piece unit, or as a separate “puck.” Either way this usually needs to go between hands and chest, but you should be able to slip it under there with (at most) a brief hiccup in the rhythm


Stop for Rhythm Analysis?

Unfortunately, if you’re using an AED (rather than a manual monitor like the medics are toting), you will need to stop compressing and come off the chest in order for the device to analyze the rhythm. Otherwise, the electrical motion artifact produced will confuse the computer. So as soon as the device tells you to stop compressions for analysis, clear the body — but don’t go far (in fact, I would simply hover), and as soon as it’s finished, get back on there.

You may need to stop for manual rhythm analysis as well, but some monitors have a filter that can allow the medics to “read through” compression artifact.


Stop while Charging?

So the AED finished analyzing and advised a shock; now it’s charging. Can you compress during this period? Yes. Both common sense (it won’t shock unless someone pushes the button, so… don’t push the button) and at least one study (albeit for manual, not automated defibrillators) have shown this to be safe. There are some AEDs that will get confused if you compress during this time, so know your gear. [Edit: per our “para-engineer” friend Christopher Watford, the Philips FR2+, FRx, and FR3 AED models, plus the Zoll AEDPlus and AED Pro, may complain and possibly halt if you try to compress while charging or shocking. Lifepak AEDs should be mostly okay. Chris and David Baumrind — two of the conspirators behind EMS 12-Lead — wrote a feature for JEMS discussing the behavior of various AEDs if you attempt these maneuvers. Required reading!]

Once the device has charged and is ready to shock, clear everybody except the compressor, ensure that they’re clear, and coordinate between the compressor and button-pressor. Something like, “I’m going to count to three, and when I say three, I’m going to come off and you’re going to press shock, okay? One — two — [come obviously clear] and shock — aaand back on.” The actual defibrillatory shock takes a fraction of a second, and the device will verbally announce once it’s delivered, so you can get back on the chest almost immediately after pressing “shock.” There is no residual “charge,” it doesn’t “take a while” to deliver, it’s a quick blip, so you’ll only need to clear the chest for a moment — no more.


Stop while Shocking?

As a matter of fact, do we need to clear the chest to shock at all, or can we keep our hands down, compressing continuously while the electrons flow?

Instinctively, most of us say “No thanks!” However, a little logic suggests the risk may be low. Electricity follows the path of least resistance, and if pads are properly placed and well-adhered to the chest, this path should always be through the patient’s chest. The alternate path up into your hands is much longer, and will only exist at all if you have a connection to the ground, which (if present at all) will probably run through fabric and other insulators. Since almost all AEDs now are biphasic — these use less current than the old monophasic devices — and since pretty much everybody wears rubber gloves while they compress, risk is probably quite small.

The evidence supports this somewhat. Consider these studies: Lloyd, Neumann, Sullivan (supports multiple-gloving in my view), Yu, and Kerber.

This idea has been gradually gaining traction, and some folks have already started doing it routinely, mostly of their own volition. Salt Lake City Fire has even been experimenting with making it a standard option during all resuscitations. For the most part, the worst adverse effect reported seems to be a tingling sensation, particularly if there’s a tear in your gloves. It’s reasonable to ensure that you’re wearing intact gloves, especially over prolonged efforts (multiple shocks may break down the material), and probably wise to double- (or triple-) glove. If there’s a feedback device between your hands and the chest the risk is even lower (or you could lay something like a rubberized blanket over the chest to totally insulate yourself, as in the Yu study).

Now, everybody has a story about a guy who knows a guy whose ex-partner’s bartender was touching a patient during defibrillation, got blown across the room and set on fire, and now can’t pronounce vowels. For the most part, this seems to be purely legend. The trouble is that there isn’t sufficient evidence yet proving it’s safe to make this an official practice on a top-down level; but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the decision for yourself.

If you have an arrhythmia (especially with an ICD or pacemaker), or another legitimate reason to be concerned about your own heart, it’s probably reasonable to pass. For everybody else, to paraphrase Dr. Youngquist of SLC Fire, this practice is probably safe for providers — if not yet for administrators. So you might not see this in your protocols for a little while, but I’ll bet it doesn’t say not to do it, either. The decision is yours.

(There is a possibility that some AEDs, particularly those with feedback technology, may detect the ongoing compressions and refuse to deliver a shock. Again, see above for more info.)



Stop for Ventilations?

Until you get some kind of tube into the patient’s airway, you’re going to have a hard time bagging any air in unless you pause compressions first. One option would be to simply skip it and perform continuous compressions, which is very reasonable, especially early in the code, or really whenever in doubt. But if you do pause to ventilate, take as little time as possible — pause, breathe goes in, exhale, second breath, and then immediately back into compressions (no need to wait for the second exhalation).


Go Faster — and Probably Harder

The currently recommended rate for chest compressions is “at least 100 per minute.” In other words, that’s not a target, that’s a minimum. Can you go too fast? Probably, but it’s hard, and it’s much easier to go too slow.

There’s an accumulating body of evidence, however, that points toward a more exact rate — right around 120/minute. Up to that number, more people survive if you push faster; above that number, fewer survive. It’s not for-sure yet, but in this business, not much is totally sure.

Since it fits the official “over 100” recommendation anyway, I now use 120 as my target rate, and I think you should too. It does mean that your old go-to songs for musical pacing, such as Stayin’ Alive (or perhaps Another One Bites the Dust) won’t work anymore, since those are matched to 100/minute beats. But 120/minute is simply twice per second, and most people can approximate that pretty well, or you can find a faster song (try this app for suggestions).

With that done, are you pushing hard enough? The recommendations are at least two inches deep in adults, so you should at least be hitting that. (It’s deeper than you think.) But as much as some people are willing to go wild on the rate, few people ever seem to challenge the depth. Unless you are an 800-lb gorilla and the patient a 70-lb granny, you are unlikely to cause meaningful damage, and there is a direct link between depth of compressions and cardiac output. Try to really aim for the mattress, and whatever depth you’re hitting, even if you think it’s pretty good, go a little deeper.


The Knuckle Hinge

Does it matter how you hold your hands against the chest? Maybe.

What really matters is that you provide good compressions, but hand position can affect that. What you should do is find a CPR mannequin and experiment until you figure out what works best for you. But while you’re experimenting, here’s something to try.

Most people lay one palm over the back of their other hand, and either interlace their fingers (as the AHA videos usually depict) or don’t (I don’t, since I find it somewhat awkward, but since it forces your arms to externally rotate, it can help encourage providers to lock their elbows). Either way, as you meet the chest, you’ll be making contact with the heel of a palm and one set of knuckles.

“Glue” these knuckles to the chest; they don’t move, so once you’ve found your position, you’re locked-in. But each time you compress, do allow your palm to lift off the chest, “hinging” at the knuckles as they remain in contact. Don’t come up very far — just enough that you could slip a sheet of paper between palm and chest — but get a little daylight in there.

What’s the point? One of the more common errors when otherwise high-quality compressions are performed is a failure to allow the chest to fully recoil. You can go deep, but if you don’t come all the way up at the top, you’re still not producing the largest possible stroke. What’s more, unlike poor depth, this isn’t always obvious by looking at the chest (either to you or to others), so the safest method to ensure full recoil is to actually lift off the chest. If you remove your hands completely, though, you tend to lose your place, and your hands can “wander” until you’re pushing on the patient’s feet or your partner’s face. The knuckle hinge allows the best of both worlds.


Assign a Monitor

Isn’t this tiring? Now you’re pumping away crazy deep, twice a second, full recoil, and not stopping for almost anything.

Even if you’re an Olympic decathlete, this will start to wear you out fairly quickly. You’re full of adrenaline, and you’re a rockstar lifesaver, so you won’t say anything, and perhaps you won’t even notice; you’ll keep plugging away. But before long, you won’t be pushing quite as hard or deep, or quite as fast, or maybe you’ll start leaning on the chest instead of recoiling all the way. I promise you will; many studies have shown this; and what’s more, you’ll probably still think you’re doing good work.

No problem. As long as we have adequate manpower (and in most places, there are plenty of people on scene at a code), simply assign one person to monitor the quality of compressions. If it’s you, your sole job is to sit somewhere with your head close to the action, staring at the up-and-down, and ensuring it follows all the criteria we’ve discussed. If it needs to be faster, you tell them to speed up until they’re on pace. If it needs to be deeper, tell them. If they ever pause for any unnecessary reason, yell at them like an Italian grandmother until they start back up. And once it’s clear that they’re fatiguing, you make them swap out, and ensure that the swap happens with minimal delay. The AHA recommends switching every two minutes, but use a smart approach; some compressors will last less, some more, and if you reach a mandatory pause (for rhythm analysis, say), you might as well change even if the current person has some juice left.

Depending on resources, they may be swapping with you, or there may be enough people sitting around that you can have a rotating pool of dedicated compressors. You can maintain the same person as monitor (the easiest method, if you can spare them), or just have each on-deck compressor act as monitor.

Useful tools for the monitor include a watch with chronograph, but even better would be a metronome. That way you can set up an audible pace (120/minute, remember) that any monkey can follow. A few services do carry actual digital metronomes, but if not, most smartphones have metronome apps available. (Find and download it now, not in the patient’s living room.) You can also throw an MP3 from an appropriately-paced song onto your phone, if nobody minds running a code to a soundtrack (probably not ideal when there’s an audience). The monitor person can keep track of other times as well, such as the ventilatory rate once an advanced airway is placed, total duration of the code, times of medication administration, and so forth. A pad of paper or strip of tape down the leg are helpful.

An electronic feedback device is a helpful adjunct to this role, and if resources are limited can replace it, but it’s not quite the same. If it is available, tracking the automatic feedback (and ensuring the compressor obeys) is the monitor’s job.

Whether or not a monitor is assigned, everybody performing compressions (really everybody at the scene) should understand that it’s still their responsibility to ensure quality. This is particularly important when it comes to eliminating interruptions, because even if there’s somebody to yell at the compressor when he stops, if he’s stopping all the time that’s still a lot of pauses. An effort should be made when assigning a compressor (who isn’t you), such as a first responder or bystander, to make them understand that they “own” their compressions, and it’s their responsibility to do ’em right and stop for nothing. The monitor’s job? Just to keep them honest.


Ask Why

Cardiac arrest happens for a reason, and even though it’s the most time-sensitive, treat-the-ABCs syndrome that exists, there are still times when you’ll never fix the problem without understanding the cause.

In a perfect world, you’d show up, compress, apply AED, shock, get a pulse, the patient sits up and hugs you, you transport and all’s well. In a realistic world (depending on your area), usually ALS shows up at some point and things take a more technical direction. But if you’re working the arrest for more than a couple minutes, have adequate manpower, but are still BLS-only, then your extra providers shouldn’t be sitting around twiddling their thumbs; they should be gathering information, planning the next step, and preparing for transport.

Ideally, one person is running the code. Either that person or somebody competent he delegates to should communicate with family or bystanders, examine available records, dig through the meds, whatever — try to determine both the history of the present event, and a reasonably-complete past medical history and medication list. Partly, this is for later management; the medics or the ED may need it. But it’s for you, too, because it may suggest your course of care.

Without an ECG, you haven’t got much to tell you what’s happening, except that the patient’s got no pulse. (Auscultating the chest may indicate whether a regular heart rhythm is present which is simply not perfusing — PEA, or if you’re a magician you may be able to “hear” V-tach — but you have to stop compressions to appreciate much.) You’re unlikely to be able to magically predict whether you’re dealing with V-fib versus torsades versus asystole. But you may be able to guess that certain correctable causes are present.

For instance, was the patient complaining of classic MI symptoms (crushing chest pain, nausea and vomiting, dyspnea) for twenty minutes before he finally became unresponsive? And he’s had two heart attacks before, with several stents placed? It’s a fair bet that he’s had another, which caused this arrest, and you may not have much luck getting him back until that artery can be opened back up. You can and should still work him initially on scene, but your mental goal should be delivering him to a PCI-capable hospital, so while you do your thing, stay on that track. If you get a few “no shock advised” messages with no pulse, or perhaps shock once or twice but he remains severely unstable, try to get him packaged as you continue your awesome compressions, notify the hospital of the situation and your suspicions, and get him over there. Try for ALS, who can perform a 12-lead ECG, which will facilitate this process (and your protocol may not permit you to divert to a more-distant PCI hospital otherwise).

Do you have reason to suspect hypovolemia as the cause of arrest? Is there obvious external bleeding… or is there a rigid and distended abdomen, perhaps with a story of abdominal pain or blunt trauma? In that case, you can push or shock all you want; you’re not going to refill an empty pump. Maybe chest trauma with a potential tension pneumothorax or cardiac tamponade? Transport ASAP to a trauma center (and perhaps ALS, since they can decompress a pneumo and give some volume if appropriate).

Is this a hemodialysis patient who missed two sessions, has been lethargic and sick-appearing, poorly-tolerating exercise, and finally fell asleep and didn’t wake up? Suspect hyperkalemia, a true “ALS-curable” condition, so if medics are available, work it until they arrive. If they’re on the dark side of the moon, transport with the best compressions you can manage.

Is the patient a known diabetic, taking insulin, and a story consistent with hypoglycemia? Check that sugar if you can, and if it’s something perverse like 7 mg/dl, get them to either ALS or an ER — both can administer intravenous sugar.

Could it be a hypoxic arrest? All arrests are hypoxic after a few minutes — dead people don’t breathe — which is why it’s usually reasonable to breathe for them (although far from a top priority). But if you walk in to find a post-drowning victim, or a hysterical mother saying her child choked and now has no pulse, you may have a cardiac arrest whose underlying cause is nothing more than hypoxia: their heart didn’t get enough oxygen, so eventually it gave up too. They still need compressions, and may need to be shocked, but most of all they need oxygen, so opening the airway and bagging in high-concentration O2 is a top priority. (Compare this against the post-MI patient above, who doesn’t need any oxygen at all until you have enough hands to provide it without delaying compressions and AED use, and even then doesn’t need much.)

Possible pulmonary embolism? Poisoning? Commotio cordis? The list goes on. The point is, if you have the resources to take a moment, gather some information, step back, and think, you can often do a pretty good job of guessing what brought you here, even without the benefits of the ECG. In some areas, your policies and protocols will dictate pretty clearly what decisions you can make, and it may not matter much. But flip through that rulebook now, because often times people assume it says more than it does (for instance, “closest appropriate facility” is more common than “closest facility”). When in doubt, you can always call medical control and make your case.

(As a general point of safety: continuing CPR while packaging and transporting emergently is difficult at best, and both unsafe and low-quality at worst. This should factor into your decision-making, as should the specific obstacles presented by extrication, and the potential availability of a mechanical compression device, which can make the process substantially easier.)

Just don’t ever try to argue that only ALS is allowed to think.

BLS is all yours, and cardiac arrest remains a fundamentally BLS problem. Own it.

Mastering BLS Ventilation: Algorithms

Continued from Mastering BLS Ventilation: Introduction, then Mastering BLS Ventilation: Hardware, then Mastering BLS Ventilation: Core Techniques, and finally Mastering BLS Ventilation: Supplemental Methods

Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored a large number of BLS tools for maintaining a patent airway and pushing oxygen through it. This is good, because the only reliable way to address this dilemma is by having a large toolbox. Nobody can oxygenate every patient with just one trick, no matter how skilled they are.

But a box of tools isn’t an approach to the airway, no matter how big it is. It’s just a box. You need more than that — you need a plan. If I toss you an apneic person, what are you going to do? What if that fails? What’s plan B? And plan C? Then what happens?

The only way to answer these questions is by creating your own scheme, a roadmap to fall back upon. I can’t give it to you, because I don’t know your variables. I don’t know your specific skillsets, what you’re comfortable with, what you’ve practiced and in what situations, versus what you’ve never done in your life. I don’t know what your local protocols are, and what equipment you have available (including extra toys like supraglottic airways or Narcan/naloxone), your typical transport times, or the general availability of ALS. I don’t know what type of patients you usually encounter, how many personnel you have on hand to manage them, and what sort of extrications are involved.

But you know those things. Roll it all into a ball so you understand your resources and challenges, consider the various tools we’ve discussed, and make a plan.

Click to expand

Click here for a PDF version (recommended if printing)

Here’s an example I concocted. This is a flowchart patterned after the airway algorithms commonly used in the ED or the ICU, and it incorporates most of the ideas we’ve talked about. It assumes certain things, so I’m not putting it forward as something to follow religiously. Rather, it’s meant as an example: this is the type of thinking you need to be doing. You probably won’t take the time to chart it out, but you should at least be thinking about it now, because figuring it out on scene with the sick person is too late. Mentally walk through what you’d do at each juncture, imagining yourself treating a real patient in your real ambulance using your real gear. Think about your responses to each dilemma, and if you discover you’re unsure about any details, seek out additional training or practice to patch those holes; for instance, spending some time with a (high quality) mannequin and a BVM can be beneficial. Even just a few minutes playing with the BVM (try bagging yourself until you really understand how the pressures and airflows work), the non-rebreather, your various airways, and so forth can help develop familiarity with little-used tools, so you truly understand how all the valves function, how to size and adjust everything, even where it can be found in your bags. This is particularly important if you rarely use these tools, because infrequent or not, you still need to exhibit mastery when the time comes.

Questions, comments, or remarks on our proposed model are welcome.

Thanks for sticking with us through this exploration of the art and science of BLS ventilation.