Glass Houses: Suicide in Both Seats

suicide

 

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.

 

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.

Clinical Judgment: How to Do Less

 

It was around 11:00 AM when we were called to a local skilled nursing facility for a hip fracture. The patient was a 61-year-old male with mild mental retardation and several other issues, who’d fallen last night while walking to the bathroom. He was helped back to bed with moderate hip pain, and the staff physician stopped by to check him out. A portable X-ray was performed, which the physician interpreted as showing a proximal femur fracture as well as an associated pelvic fracture. This was communicated to us via a scrawled note and a cursory report.

The patient was found resting comfortably in bed, semi-Fowler’s and alert. He had no complaints at rest, although his pelvis and left femoral region were mildly tender and quite painful upon movement. No deformity was notable and there was no obvious instability. His vitals were stable and he was generally well-appearing, in no apparent distress. He denied bumping his head and had no pain or tenderness in the head or neck.

We gently insinuated a scoop stretcher underneath him, filled the nearby voids with towels and other linen, and bundled him into a snug, easily-movable package. Then we gave him the slow ride to his requested emergency department, a teaching hospital in town just a few minutes away.

We rolled into the ED and were lifting him into bed on the scoop when a young man entered the room, bescrubbed and serious-looking. I gave a brief report. As the words “pelvic fracture” left my lips, his mental alarms started visibly beeping and flashing, and he hurriedly asked, “What kind of pelvic fracture?”

“We don’t know. All we’ve got is the radiology note, which doesn’t say much.”

“Okay, but pelvic fractures can be a big deal. It could be … ” he sucked in air, “… open-book. There could be a lot of bleeding.”

I stared at him. “Well, sure. But he’s been stable since last night, and has a basically normal physical with no complaints at rest. He’s not exactly circling the drain.”

He didn’t seem to hear me as he briskly approached the patient and began poking him and asking questions. While we pulled our stretcher out of the room, he asked, “Does your neck hurt at all?”

Now that the patient had been stuck on a scoop stretcher for over twenty minutes, he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Sure.” The doctor immediately ordered the placement of a cervical collar.

As we escaped, he was on the phone to the SNF, and the last thing I heard was him berating them with his urgent need to know exactly what type of pelvic calamity the patient had suffered.

 

What was the failure here? It was a failure of clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is a phrase which means different things to different people, and often its meaning is so nebulous (much like “patient advocacy“) that it sounds good while saying nothing. But most would agree that it means something like this: the ability to combine textbook knowledge and personal experience, applying them intelligently to the current patient’s situation to yield an accurate sense of the possible diagnoses and the costs vs. benefits of possible treatments. In other words, it means knowing what the patient’s probably got and what to do about it, which is the heart of medicine anyway. So what’s all the fuss about?

In reality, when clinical judgment is mentioned, what’s often meant is something specific: the wisdom to know when something’s not wrong. Much of medicine is about planning for the worst, ruling out the badness, and looking for the unlikely-but-possible occult killer that nobody wants to miss. As a result, we often act as if nearly everybody is seriously ill, even when they probably aren’t.

On a practical level, most complaints — from chest pain to the itchy toe — could conceivably represent a disaster. Anything’s possible. So if we want to truly adopt perfectly mindless caution, we should be intubating every patient and admitting them directly to the ICU so that we’re ready when their skin melts off and their eyes turn backwards.

But we can’t do that, and we shouldn’t. So how do we know when to do a little less? Clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is the acumen to assess a patient and say, “I think we’re okay here. Let’s hold off on that.” It’s what you develop when you have both the knowledge and experience to understand that a person is low-risk, and that certain tests or treatments are more likely to harm than to hurt them. That doesn’t mean that nothing will be done, or that more definitive rule-out tests will not occur, but it means you’re not freaking out in the meanwhile. It’s a triage thing.

Put another way, imagine the patient who you’re placing in spinal immobilization, or providing with supplemental oxygen, or to whom you’re securing a splint. They ask, “Look, I don’t much like this; do I really need it?” Well, I don’t know, rockstar — does he? If you’re simply acting on algorithms, reflexively doing x because you found y, then you really don’t know. How important is that oxygen? To answer that, you’d need to truly understand the benefits versus the potential harms, which means having a strong grasp of the mechanism of action, familiarity with the relevant literature (including the pertinent odds ratios, NNT and so forth), prior experience with similar patients, et cetera… only with that kind of knowledge do you really understand what’s happening. In essence, the patient is asking for the informed element of informed consent, something he’s entitled to, and you can’t provide it if you don’t have it yourself.

But when you do develop that depth and breadth of knowledge, you gain a special ability. It’s the ability to do less. When you truly understand what you’re dealing with, and more importantly, what you’re not dealing with, you can titrate medicine to what’s actually needed and stop there. Along with the knowledge comes the confidence, because you don’t merely know, you know that you know; in other words, you don’t need to take precautionary steps merely because you’re worried there might be considerations you don’t understand.

When it comes to withholding anything, even the kitchen sink, you might ask, “isn’t there risk here?” And strictly speaking, there is risk. But you can set that bar wherever you want. The important thing to grasp is that “doing everything for everyone” is not the “safe” approach; overtriage and overtreatment are not benign. All those things you’re doing have a cost. They may cause real harm. Even at best, they cost time and money, and subject the patient to unnecessary discomfort and inconvenience. We’d like to minimize all that whenever possible.

So, we return to the gentleman with the pelvic fracture. Strictly speaking, fracture of the pelvis has the potential to be life-threatening; certain types of unstable fracture can cause massive bleeding, along with damage to nervous, urinary, and other structures. So a textbook response to “pelvic fracture?” might be to treat it as a high-risk trauma.

But a patient with an unstable, severely hemorrhaging open-book pelvic fracture probably wouldn’t look like that. It would be evident; it would cause a number of apparent effects, such as pain and distress, shock signs, altered vitals, deformity or palpable instability. Except in bizarre cases or in patients who are clinically difficult to evaluate, big problems create big changes. While it’s true that we don’t know exactly what the X-ray showed, so one could theoretically argue for any conceivable pathology, there’s no question that the patient appeared stable, had remained unchanged for many hours, and had apparently been judged low-acuity after evaluation and imaging by his own doctor. In other words, let’s take it easy.

The question of spinal immobilization is another example. Strictly speaking, could we rule out the possibility of a cervical spine fracture? Well, no. Not without CT and MRI and even then who knows. But the fall was many hours ago, the patient was freely mobile and turning his head throughout that period, had no peripheral neurological deficits, denied striking his head or loss of consciousness, and quite frankly, had no pain until he spent twenty minutes with his head against a metal board.

It’s not often that you find a doctor more concerned about C-spine than an EMT. How did it happen here?

Despite the fact that we delivered the patient to a major tertiary center, it was nevertheless a teaching hospital, and the new interns had just hit the wards. While this particular clinician was undoubtedly smart and well-educated, at this stage he had about two weeks of experience behind him, and that is not conducive to providing judicious (rather than applied-by-spatula) care. He had neither the experience to know when to take it easy, nor the confidence in that experience to stand by such a decision.

We don’t want to take this concept to its extreme, which would involve doing very little for most of our patients. In the end, this is still emergency medicine, and emergency care will always involve screening for the deadly needle in the benign haystack. There’s also danger in simply becoming lazy and burned-out, and using Procrustean application of cynical “street smarts” to justify never bothering with anything. The real goal is to do the right things for the right reasons, no more, no less. And to get to that point, you have to put in some time.

Live from Prospect St: The Big Crunch (part 1)

It’s 4:00 PM on a gloomy Friday in Chandlerville, and you’re the technician for the A2, a dual-EMT, transporting BLS unit dedicated to the city. Chandlerville is a small town, but densely populated, and its numerous industrial districts are frequent sources of work. 911 dispatch is directly through the fire department, which also sends a BLS fire apparatus to assist on all medical calls; your company’s ALS is also available by request. You are equipped with finger-stick glucometry, glucose, aspirin, and epinephrine.

After a “man down” call that ended in a patient refusal, you’re now returning to quarters. Just as you’re beginning to back into the garage, a tone sounds.

Engine 3 and Ambulance 2, respond to 2108 Coastal Rd, the Empire Shipping Company, for an MVA. That’s two-one-oh-eight Coastal Road, in front of Empire Shipping, for an MVA. Engine 3?

“Engine 3 is responding.”

Ambulance 2?

As your partner flips on the lights and pulls out to the street, he speaks into the radio: “Ambulance 2 has 2108 Coastal Rd.”

Time out 16:01.

Coastal Road is a long connector that wraps around the edge of town, and you glance at the map book to confirm that the 2000 block will be near the very end, about as far away as you can get in Chandlerville. Engine 3 is stationed in that district, however, so they arrive within minutes.

“Engine 3 to Firecom.”

Firecom answering.

“We’re off at 2108 Coastal Road. Two-car MVA, car versus truck. Multiple injured parties and entrapment. Start an ALS unit and a ladder for extrication.”

Engine 3, you have a car versus truck, multiple injuries with entrapment. Break. Ladder 3, respond to 2108 Coastal Rd for the MVA; Engine 3 is on scene and A2 is responding. Time out 16:04.

A few seconds later, your company radio dispatches Paramedic 12 to the same address, after Chandlerville Firecom contacts them via landline. The P12 starts responding, but they’re coming from two towns away, with an ETA of 10+ minutes. The field supervisor also starts rolling from an unknown location to assist. 30 seconds later, Engine 3 updates that they have an injured adult and several children.

Now very awake, you reflect that the nearest hospital will be Chandlerville Memorial, a 3–5 minute emergent transport (10 minutes otherwise). The nearest large tertiary center, Bullitt Medical Center — a Level I adult trauma center and a designated pediatric ED — is 15 minutes emergently (25 otherwise). The nearest Level I pediatric trauma center, however, is the Children’s Hospital, which is also 15 minutes but in the opposite direction; they do not receive adult patients.

Ladder 3 arrives on scene momentarily, and you pull up a few minutes later. As you park and call yourself out, you observe a Ford sedan with its front left corner smashed in, two feet of its fender and frame crumpled. This is evidently the result of driving almost headlong into the side of an 18-wheeler. It appears that the driver swerved right to avoid the truck, undercutting its rear wheels and “submarining” itself; the damage reaches the passenger compartment, but there does not appear to be significant intrusion. The truck itself seems minimally damaged.

As you jump out, a firefighter waves you down. “We’ve got three!” he announces. “Mom’s in the driver’s seat; she seems really loopy, probably drunk. Her door is just dented, we popped it open. But her kids are over there.”

Twenty feet away, you see two young girls, around 4 years old, each in the arms of a firefighter. They are crying loudly and clearly upset, with no visible injuries. The mother is hidden from sight in the sedan. The driver of the truck is nowhere to be seen.

 

What are your initial steps for addressing this scene?

Who appears to be the first priority for care?

What resources will you need? Which, if any, should you cancel?

 

Continued in part 2 and the conclusion