A Saga of Spurious Spines

Journal cover

There’s a story we’ve all been told. It goes like this:

A person suffers a traumatic injury, usually a minor one, like bumping their head or crunching their fender in traffic. Afterwards, they appear fine, without deficits or any great pain. Ambulance and hospital personnel are unimpressed. But all of a sudden, our seemingly-well patient makes some slight movement — maybe he turns his head — and instantly collapses to the floor, unable to move. He is paralyzed forever, and it’s all because of the unstable spinal injury that you missed.

You heard this cautionary fable in EMT or paramedic class. They tell it in medical school, in the emergency department, and on the trauma wards. It goes back decades. And it makes sense, right? Even a layperson would agree that if the structure of the spine is damaged, the cord it protects will become vulnerable, just like how you’re not supposed to poke the soft spot on a baby’s head.

In fear of this event, we go to great lengths to prevent it. We wrap collars around our patients’ necks, we tie them onto boards, we strap and tape and secure. If their spine can’t protect the cord, by golly we’ll protect it instead, at least until somebody definitively proves that there’s no injury. Which there usually isn’t. But still.

Here’s the trouble: practically nobody has actually seen this phenomenon of mechanical instability occur. For real; the next time somebody mentions it, ask if it’s happened to them. No, they’ll say; but my partner’s cousin’s babysitter saw it a few years back. And if you bother to track that person down, invariably you find that the case either never occurred or has become terribly dramatized through the telling. Steve Whitehead calls it the “Sasquatch event.”

So does this happen at all? After all, many things in medicine that make sense aren’t real. Indeed, doubt has grown lately as to whether our spinal immobilization precautions are effective, and we’ve become more aware of the harms associated with them; as a result, backboards have become increasingly vilified in recent years, and “selective immobilization” algorithms have been accepted in some areas. But there’s been less attention to the question of whether the disease itself is real or a myth, and I wanted to know.

So we went and looked. With the help of four folks smarter than me — Domenic Corey, NREMT-P; James Oswald, B.Emerg Health (Paramedic); Derek Sifford, FP-C; and Brooks Walsh, MD, NREMT-P — we canvassed the literature as far back as possible to dig up any actual, confirmed, peer-reviewed reports of this event. And we just published our findings in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine. Check it out. (And also check out the accompanying editorial by spine connoisseur Mark Hauswald, who you know from “that Malaysia study.”)

I won’t spoil the results, but let me put it this way:

  1. Despite looking across 50+ years, we found few examples.
  2. Most of them weren’t very impressive.
  3. Even fewer occurred in the EMS setting, and none of those were the classic, sudden event you’ve heard about.

So the next time your buddy mentions this unicorn, tell him you don’t doubt him, but that he should write it up for the journals — because it’ll be the first one, and that’s publishable.

This has been an exciting project for another reason. From start to finish, this paper was the child of two parents: the FOAM and EMS communities. Of my four co-authors, I knew three of them exclusively through the web, and have only met two, yet we share interests and passions enough to collaborate on a project that took us over a year. Moreover, every one of us is either an EMT or paramedic, most of us still working actively in the field (although in a few cases we’ve accumulated some other titles too). In fact, had this reached print a few months sooner, the fanciest initials of the lead author would be EMT-B, and that should tickle you.

So never let it be said that the nonsense in this profession is invincible, or that we can’t be the ones to exorcise it. We can fix our own problems, and if we spent more of our energy on moving forward rather than complaining, it just might happen sooner than you think.

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

Glass Houses: Suicide in Both Seats



Of all the skills we’re called upon to wield without adequate training, care for psychiatric complaints tops the list. In particular, it’s a rare shift when you don’t handle a person — whether on the initial emergency response or a subsequent interfacility transfer — who has thought about, or even attempted to commit suicide.

Probably because these patients aren’t very medically exciting and can be challenging to deal with (due to varying degrees of cooperativeness), many of us aren’t big fans. We also tend to have a cynically individualistic sort of streak, which says that deep down, patients are responsible for themselves. If someone wants to be healthy and they get unlucky, we’ll help out. But if they can’t be bothered to try, we can’t be bothered either, and if they’re actively trying to hurt themselves, surely we have better things to do than interfere with natural selection.

But before we throw stones, we should probably understand the disease we’re discussing. Just like you can’t treat CHF without grasping its pathophysiology, properly treating the suicidal patient — or even deciding not to care — demands knowledge before judgment.

Depression itself is hard to grasp from the outside. This easy walkthrough may shed some light, but if you haven’t been there, you probably shouldn’t pretend you understand it. Nevertheless, it’s one of those conditions that invites amateur opinions, because it seems like the sort of thing we all know something about.

Maybe depression is too loosey-goosey; maybe it’s better if we stick to concrete facts, yeah? And there’s nothing more concrete than suicide. Let’s talk about suicide.

Start by reading through this article at the Daily Beast. It’s long, but it’s real good, and you may start to change your mind about a few things by the end.

For instance, in 2010, in the developed world where we have good statistics, suicide killed more people in the prime of their life (ages 15–49) than anything else. Read that again. Of all the terrible insults we study and treat, from gunshots to heart attacks, car crashes to cancer, suicide was more deadly than every single one. Over a hundred thousand suicide deaths that year. Almost a million across all age ranges. Every murder, every war, every natural disaster you read about in 2010 — throw them all together, and they still don’t equal the number of suicides. There were probably even more that weren’t reported, and even that’s just the successful suicides, of course; those that were attempted but didn’t quite succeed make up a much larger group, perhaps twenty-five times larger. (Yes, 25 times.) And there are more and more every year.

When we talk about CPR, we often talk about quality of life. When a 98-year-old bed-bound dementia patient dies, we might ask whether we should jump through hoops to save them; even in the best possible case, they’re not going to return to a very long or very fruitful existence. But when the 20-year-old college student drops dead on the lacrosse court, we want very badly to bring him back, because if we can he might live another 70 wonderful years.

Well, the people committing suicide are the second kind. They’re often middle-aged, middle-class folks who could be happy and live long — if they can get past their illness. But dead people won’t get past anything.

Of course, we see a lot of depressed people, and most of them won’t kill themselves even if they’ve thought about it. Figuring out who’s most at risk of taking that step is a worthwhile goal, and the Daily Beast article describes three risk categories that you may find useful:

  1. Those who feel alone, that they don’t belong anywhere
  2. Those who feel like a burden to others
  3. Those who have the willingness and capacity to go through with self-annihilation

Who feels alone? Everybody, at times. We need connection. Married people kill themselves less often than the unmarried, twins less often than only children, mothers raising small children almost never. Sometimes those who seem to have everything in life may have the weakest connections, which is why they say that money doesn’t equal happiness.

The life-saving power of belonging may help explain why, in America, blacks and Hispanics have long had much lower suicide rates than white people. They are more likely to be lashed together by poverty, and more enduringly tied by the bonds of faith and family. In the last decade, as suicide rates have surged among middle-aged whites, the risk for blacks and Hispanics of the same age has increased less than a point — although they suffer worse health by almost every other measure. There’s an old joke in the black community, a nod to the curious powers of poverty and oppression to keep suicide rates low. It’s simple, really: you can’t die by jumping from a basement window.

When nothing ties you down, when nobody cares what happens to you, what’s stopping you from shuffling off into the abyss? “I’m walking to the bridge,” one note said. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” Did you smile at your last psych patient?

Who’s a burden? Anyone who’s not achieving, contributing, responsible for something or someone. The unemployed, the chronically cared-for, those with debilitating diseases or intractable poverty. We do this job because we like taking care of people, but that means there’s always someone being taken care of, and nobody loves being on that side of the equation. Some people will go to their graves rather than add to the work or worry of those around them. A few will send themselves there.

Finally, who’s actually willing to end their own lives? It takes something special to close the deal, a particular resolve; no living creature’s natural instinct is to die. Even if you have the desire, it’s not easy to pull the trigger. It’s those with the gift or the learned ability to follow through with difficult deeds, the “athletes, doctors, prostitutes, and bulimics . . . All have a history of tamping down the instinct to scream.”

Think about those categories. None of those are particularly insane thoughts to have. All it takes is their juxtaposition, and suddenly, something unthinkable becomes a very real possibility. Honest. It happens hundreds of thousands of times every year.


Suicide in EMS

“Well, what the heck,” you’re thinking. “That’s nice, but I’m not going to fix them, so why do I care? I’ll bring ’em where they’re going and say good luck; God and the doctor can take care of the rest.”

Fair enough. But I have a homework assignment for you.

Find that guy at work. You know the one. His nickname is “Doc” or “Papa.” He’s been doing this for twenty-plus years, since the days when ambulances were dinosaur-drawn wooden wagons. Ask about the other old-timers, the endless sea of faces he’s worked with over the years.

He’ll have good stories. Tons of them. Partners and coworkers and crazy SOBs. Hijinks were had, shenanigans performed, laughs all around.

But then ask what happened to those guys.

Because a lot of the time, they’re not running around on the ambulance anymore. Ol’ Doc is the exception. They’re not semi-retired, spending their afternoons fly-fishing and golfing. They didn’t jump careers to become bankers or meteorologists.

They’re dead. Or maybe in jail. Or shot robbing a 7-11 for $13. Or they were committed to a psych hospital so many times nobody knows what happened to him. Maybe they overdosed. Living on the street. Living who knows where.

And yes, some of them committed suicide.

Seems a little rich to judge your psych patients when, the way the odds go, you’re probably going to be the next one.

I suppose you could argue that EMS was different back then. Russ Reina talks about the time when most “ambulance drivers” were people who couldn’t find a job anywhere else, drifters and ex-cons. Not like now. Now we’re all as well-adjusted as Mr. Rogers. Right?

Yeah, sure.

Let’s be real. A lot of the people doing this job can’t stay employed even in our own dysfunctional field, and would never stand a chance anywhere else. Drug abuse and PTSD are common. And our social support networks often don’t extend past a partner or two.

Do we belong anywhere? Maybe you do in the police or fire service. But those of us who enter private EMS usually don’t last long before being sucked into a loop of working more and more overtime until we no longer have hobbies, no longer spend time with friends, no longer travel or expand our horizons. If we have spouses, significant others, or family, we neglect them. If we don’t have those relationships, we sure as hell don’t develop them from the driver’s seat of an ambulance. The last step — which doesn’t take more than a few years — is when we start to view every one of our patients as a nuisance. Burnout takes away the last string tying us to other people; if patients aren’t worth helping, aren’t hardly people at all, then the circle of humans in our life may become no larger than our uniform belt.

Are we a burden? In many cases, that shoe drops when we find ourselves off the clock. If our life has become the ambulance, what happens when we lose the ambulance? Your company goes belly-up. We piss off the wrong boss and get tossed out on our ass. Or, inevitably, we get injured. Suddenly, the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is gone. Sounds nice at first, but you realize quickly that having nothing to do actually means you’ve got no reason to be alive.

And are we afraid of dying? Who could be less afraid? We spend every day minimizing death, trivializing the human condition, ingraining a culture that teaches we should be able to order nachos after bandaging a burn victim. We drive fast; we laugh at seatbelts. Sometimes we snort cocaine and have sex in ambulances. (No, not you. But you know who.) There’s nothing beyond the pale for an EMT. Including pulling the trigger.

So is suicide a big deal? Yes. Should we try to understand it? Yes. Does it matter for us? Yes.

But more importantly: do we get to judge it? Do we get to pretend we’re above it? Are the kind of people who attempt it so bizarrely pathological that we’re nothing like them?

You can decide. But you only get to say that if you’re willing to say you don’t care about a disease that kills more healthy patients than anything else. Willing to write off hundreds of thousands of people every year.

And willing to say you don’t care that your partner could be next. Or your boss. Or yourself.


Check out The Code Green Campaign for mental health support for EMS. — ed. 1/17/15

Further reading

Preparation vs. Improvisation

Everything in its place

I have a new partner who called me obsessive once.

“Eh?” I asked.

“Everything has to be just so. When you come in you make sure the collars are organized and facing the same direction, you fold over the ends of the tape and stack it in a certain order, you make sure the handles on the bags are easy to grab…”

“I’m not obsessive… have you seen my car?”

“Well, you are here.”

And it’s true. When I show up in the morning, I do my damnedest to ensure that all of our equipment is as stocked, ready, and prepared as possible. I’m the guy who checks the integrity of the air-filled gaskets on the BVM masks, and considers two spare O2 tanks one and one none. If my blood pressure cuffs aren’t labeled, I label them, and I ensure my map book is turned to the correct page.

And all of that may sound funny, because everybody knows that one of the hallmarks of EMS is improvisation, the ability to adapt to unusual situations and “make do.” If you’re juking around at a chaotic scene and discover that you haven’t got any splints, or your stretcher strap is broken, or your patient is dangling over the side of a balcony and needs to be boarded, you see what you have and use your noodle and make it work. Not long ago I saw somebody apply pressure to a laceration on top of a patient’s head by tying a bandage to both stretcher rails and rubber-banding it over their skull like a bow-and-arrow. Why not?

We find a way. So why am I so anal about being prepared while we’re still standing on solid ground?

The fact is, in this job, things are going to go wrong. They just are. And you’re going to handle them the best you can. But if too many things go wrong, the situation may reach a breaking point — your capacity to “adapt and overcome” is not infinite.

Have you ever read a book or watched a show about a major disaster? Plane crashes, reactor meltdowns, bridge collapses. What they have in common is that numerous intelligent people usually foresaw the possibility of such an event, and so they designed systems and safeguards to prevent it from happening. When disaster happens nonetheless, it isn’t because one thing went wrong. It’s because five, six, twelve things went wrong. The backups to the backups to the backups failed. More problems occurred simultaneously than anybody expected..

In this job, too, the only time when feces hit fans is when problems accumulate. It’s not that the patient was sicker than you expected. Or that the stairs were rickety and covered in snow. Those are a nuisance. It goes from whoopsie to trainwreck when you didn’t bring your stairchair and your suction. Then when you go back, the chair falls open while you’re walking, and as you try to fold it you trip over your untied laces, and when you finally get inside you realize the suction canister is missing a cap and won’t hold pressure. And then once you get the patient extricated they’re already unconscious, but you can’t find any Yankauer tips in the truck, and by the time you do they’ve stopped breathing…

See? With this job, even at the best of times, the line between well-in-hand and circling-the-drain can be pretty slim, and once you’re on that slope it’s hard to recover. The only way to stay safely in control is to create a buffer, and that means doing everything you can to prepare yourself when you have the chance, because you won’t always have a chance. If you don’t bother dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s before you enter the mix, then when things inevitably go wrong, the sum of those unhingings may be too much to handle.

Consider your emergency responses. It’s a safe bet that you’re going to drive past the address, or turn the wrong way, or get caught behind the world’s slowest schoolbus. Something is going to cause problems, whether it’s your dyslexic partner who confuses Gable Street with Bagel Street, or you forgetting the apartment number three times in a row. But that’s just a small delay. It won’t be a real problem unless you also stopped to pee before leaving the base, or forgot where your boots were, or had to spend five minutes backing out of where you parked. In that case, you already burned through your margin for error, and now when the unexpected (but inevitable) comes along, you’ve got no slack left.

In short, you can be the best in the world at rolling with the punches, and in this job, you ought to be. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also try to be prepared to the point of obsessiveness. One lays a foundation for the other, and when you habitually have both to work with, you can handle whatever comes your way; if you’ve only got one, you’ll be lucky to get through your shift.

The 10 Easiest Ways to Violate HIPAA

  1. Leave paperwork face-up on the dashboard or front seat.
  2. Leave your computer unsecured wherever the hell you please.
  3. Tweet a picture of the badass MVA you just did, with a victim obviously identifiable to anybody who reads the news (“A car struck a tree on Route 421 today, driver Jim Smith was rushed to the hospital…”).
  4. Tell everybody about the celebrity you just transported.
  5. Tell everybody about the coworker you just transported.
  6. Crack jokes and make comments about the patient you just dropped off while in the elevator, or in the public ambulance bay outside — usually while the patient’s family is eavesdropping.
  7. Post a Facebook status about the crazy shooting you ran, sharing intimate details about the patient who was probably the only person shot in your town that day.
  8. Leave paperwork in the truck at end-of-shift.
  9. Let a facesheet (demographics page) escape into the wind as you fruitlessly chase it down the street.
  10. Answering curious questions about the patient’s status or destination from the random person on scene, I’m not sure who that is, probably just the nosy guy who lives downstairs.