Archives for September 2011

Live from Prospect St: The Reluctant Tumble (part 2)

You kneel beside Joe and ask, “So, would you like to go to the hospital?”

No!” he vociferously replies — a theme that will be repeated often over the next few minutes.

You explain the risks — that given his anticoagulation (Coumadin), and given that he struck his head and seemingly lost consciousness, there is a non-trivial possibility of bleeding into or around his brain. That although he feels well now, it’s not impossible for such a problem to develop insidiously and not manifest with symptoms until it’s too late. That you can take him to the hospital of his choice, in total comfort, he can receive some quick tests, and if nothing is wrong he’ll be back home before he knows it.

Joe wants to hear none of this. He just came out of the hospital, enjoyed it not at all, and that was just the latest episode in a long series of hospitalizations. “They ruined my hip” on one occasion, he opines, and he’s already been fooled before by “home before he knows it.” No sir; he’s not going anywhere.

You try, your partner tries, the neighbors try, the proxy tries. No way, no how.

Well, okay. But this is not the sort of incident to just brush aside, and you’re well aware of the risk inherent to patients refusing transport, particularly in a risky circumstances like this. So you pick up your phone and hit your hotkey for medical control.

“Needletown Hospital; this is Dr. Scrubs. How can I help you?”

“Hi doc, this is Maverick from Poketown BLS 48. We’re on scene with a high risk refusal.”

You fill him in with the story. He asks a couple questions, then requests to speak with Joe, and finally talks to the proxy for a few minutes. When the phone gets back to you, Dr. Scrubs informs you that he really thinks Joe needs to go.

Well, okay. You dive back in, bolstered with a physician’s opinion, and attempt to get Joe on board the hospital train. He’s not having it. The whole entourage keeps hammering away at him, but he’s simply not budging.

You call back Dr. Scrubs, bringing him up to speed. “We’re making no headway here. He just doesn’t want to go.”

He asks to speak to Joe, and the sounds of his best MD magic come wafting over the speaker, but Joe just has less and less polite things to say, until finally he comes out with, “You’ll have to handcuff me before I’m going anywhere! And just go ahead and try it!” He hangs up on the doctor.

You call back. “I gotta tell you, doc, I don’t see us convincing this guy. If you tell me that we must take him, then I’ll take him, but I think we’d have to do violence to him and start a battle royale here. Is that what you want?”

Dr. Scrubs replies, “Well, I think he needs to be seen, and it sounds like his proxy does too. I’d like to hear your opinion.”

You pause, then carefully say, “I do not think that it would be inappropriate to leave him, although obviously it would be preferable if he came in. I don’t know that I’d make the same decision, but I might, and I don’t see the situation as so high-risk as to justify anything really extreme.”

“Head injury, on Coumadin, loss of consciousness, you don’t think he needs to be seen?”

“We obviously can’t clear him here. But he’s stone normal by our assessment from every angle, and he’s not going to be left alone.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s a great idea. And he wasn’t really able to logically explain to me the risks of his decision. Anyway, his proxy agrees, so I’m not sure if I see the problem.”

“Doc, the problem is that although he does have someone here who says she’s his health care proxy, by our assessment he is at this time totally oriented, competent, and exercising sound judgment. So I’m not really comfortable kidnapping him, unless you want to sign a Section [your state’s involuntary mental health process, for those who are a danger to themselves or others].”

“Sure, I’ll do that. I can fax it to your dispatch and to the receiving hospital.”

“So you want us to tackle him?”

“Do what you have to do.”

You hang up the phone and look around. Police have left the scene, but could be easily recalled. Joe sits before you, a 79-year-old in fair condition, but no Evander Holyfield.

What do you do?

What are the legal considerations?

What are the ethical considerations?

Live from Prospect St: The Reluctant Tumble

It’s 9:00PM on a Wednesday, and you’re the tech on A48, a dual-EMT, transporting BLS ambulance. You are the 911 coverage for Poketown, a midsize urban area; ALS is available for intercept as needed. You carry fingerstick glucometry, activated charcoal, glucose, aspirin, and epinephrine.

You are just starting to yawn when a tone hums from the radio, and a voice declaims:

Ambulance 8, take the response to 91 Eastbrook Rd. That’s priority 1 to 9-1 Eastbrook Road in Poketown, apartment 710, for the fall.

You acknowledge, flip your lights on, and head that way. This is an apartment block in the middle of town that you know well.

You arrive to find Poketown Fire and Police already on scene. You load your bags into the stretcher, plus a backboard, and head into the elevators, which are so small you have to fold the cot to fit inside; you wonder how you’re going to fit the patient if you end up boarding them.

You arrive at the apartment to find an elderly man sitting in his wheelchair, accompanied by neighbors and friends, including a young woman who describes herself as his healthcare proxy. He greets you cheerfully, telling you that he’s Joe, 79 years old. He was walking around the apartment with his walker when he brushed against the refrigerator and fell backwards; his proxy tried to catch him but failed, and he hit the ground. He denies falling, then denies hitting his head, saying he landed on his butt, then finally agrees that he hit his butt then his head; his proxy, however, tells you he fell straight back like a board and struck the posterior of his head on the ground. She says his eyes rolled back for a few seconds and he seemed unconscious, after which he quickly came around and moved himself to his chair. She was alarmed and called 911 immediately after; the fall was about 15 minutes ago.

He presents as fluidly conversational, friendly, and fully oriented. He is slightly hard of hearing, speaks in a loud voice, and doesn’t always understand your questions the first time around, but he’s generally “with it” and remembers the full chain of events that led him here. He jokes around with you and the firefighters and offers to marry you to one of his daughters, who has “lots of money.” You tell him you wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Physically, he seems well, with no notable trauma. There is a small lump on his occiput which may or may not be baseline (hey, heads have funny shapes), but he denies any pain or tenderness there. He also denies pain or tenderness of the neck or back, and in fact denies everything, saying he’s just fine. A “lifeline” bracelet is present on his right wrist. His vitals show:

Skin: Slightly cool in the feet, some ecchymosis throughout, otherwise dry and unremarkable.
Pulse: Weak, slightly irregularly irregular radial pulses at 78
BP: 110/70
RR: 16 and unlabored
BGL: 124

Your physical exam notes no other gross trauma. His left pupil is large and abnormal in shape; he states that he has bilateral cataracts. His right pupil is round, slightly small, and somewhat reactive. His eyes track in all directions with no major nystagmus. His lungs are clear bilaterally. He demonstrates equal CSM in all extremities, and no facial droop, arm drift, or speech slurring. A full neuro exam notes no deficits. He denies chest pain, dyspnea, nausea/vomiting, general weakness or dizziness, peripheral weakness or parasthesias (numbness/tingling), or any other complaints. During your exam, he actually gets up and ambulates back and forth across the room with his walker, moving slowly but well with no major gait disturbances.

While you talk, your partner is examining the medication list provided by his proxy. It includes:

  • Digoxin
  • Metformin
  • Citalopam
  • Advair
  • Omeprazole
  • Coumadin
  • Ibuprofen

His full medical history is otherwise not readily available. He does state that he was just released from the hospital two days ago, after a 5-day stay for diverticulitis. He is allergic to morphine.

What is your general impression of this patient’s priority?
What do you think is going on? What are you worried could be going on?
What is your next step?

Eight Tips on Ambulance Wrangling

One of these days, we’ll have to do a comprehensive post on care and feeding of the multi-wheeled chariot we call the “waaambulance.” For the time being, however, here are a few morsels that most people don’t figure out until they’ve been in the business for a few months at least. These apply mainly to any Type II (van) or Type III (van cab with box module) ambulance based on the Ford chassis, although they may have some application to other vehicles as well.

  1. If you turn the ignition key too far, it may get stuck slightly past the “on” position, in which case most of your vehicle electronics (FM radio, air conditioning, etc.) will not work. It’s not broken; just turn it backwards slightly.
  2. In a similar vein, you may occasionally find that after switching off the power, your key is trapped in the ignition. Give the gearshift a wriggle while turning and pulling at the key. Jiggle the steering wheel too.
  3. Lock yourself out? For shame. On many Type II (van) units, there’s an easy solution: unscrew your antenna (either the FM antenna or a stout two-way) and head to the back doors. The leftmost of the two lights above the license plate should be easily removable, and you can poke the antenna up into the gap and use it as a probe to “lift” the base of the locking post. Then open the sucker up and unlock the rest using the electronic switch (or just climb through to the cab). Of course, your service may also have installed an emergency unlock button somewhere hidden, but you should hopefully know about that…
  4. The knob that you pull to activate the headlights has another function. If you twist it while it’s in the “on” position, it will adjust the brightness of your dashboard console (including the LCD radio display and the lights behind the dials); give this a try if your radio seems inexplicably dim. And if you turn it all the way to the left (it will click), it’ll usually activate the overhead light.
  5. If you have a digital odometer, there should be a button beside it that cycles through your tripometers and resets them. If the ignition is off and you need to retrieve the odometer mileage for paperwork, you don’t need to turn the key; just press this button and the display will light.
  6. If you have a “momentary” switch that disables the backup alarm (rather than one that can be switched off permanently), you can hold it down while shifting into reverse (you may have to shift left-handed) in order to avoid any beeping; this is a nice courtesy to avoid deafening your partner if they’re back there spotting you. Otherwise you’ll usually let out at least one beep before you can hit the switch. Once you’ve shifted you can let it go.
  7. The newer gasoline vans have a third “cigarette lighter” charging port located inside the glove compartment.
  8. Diesel vehicles can safely be fueled while the engine is running. There’s no need to shut down and kill the AC and everything else. I would not, however, try starting the engine while fueling it.

Decision Fatigue and Good Habits

Editor’s note: this post was eventually expanded into a cover feature in the May 2012 edition of EMS World.

There’s a concept from psychology that’s recently made the jump to the world of popular science (that misty realm ruled over by a benevolent Malcolm Gladwell; Bill Nye is his jester) known as decision fatigue.

The idea is that human beings have a limited reserve of willpower. Willpower isn’t a physical substance, something stored in a sac in your abdomen, but nevertheless it’s a real quantity. Every time you’re forced to make a decision, especially important or consequential decisions, it drains a little of this resource. Certain restorative acts, like sleep or eating, can help restore it. But if you start running low, then you start losing the ability to make weighty or difficult choices — you tend to pick the easy option, the default answer, the path of least resistance. Rather than the big picture, the long term, you start seeing only the immediate payoff. That little mental push that lets you do the right thing… well, if you spend all day pushing, by 9:00 PM you just might be out of push.

This phenomenon may ring intuitively true, but understand that it’s not horoscopes or tarot cards — this is a real behavior exhibited by all or most people. This is something you do right now, whether it’s obvious or not.

And this is very pertinent to those of us in EMS. Due to the nature of our work, we carry an unusually large burden of decisions. For the level of training and experience our job requires, we are granted a great deal of independent responsibility; in other industries, we would be working with a supervisor over our shoulder, a hands-on boss ensuring that we toe the line. Not so on the ambulance; we perform our duties on the road, alongside one partner, and typically have no direct oversight for the vast majority of our day. If you mess up badly enough, you’ll hear about it later; but to quote the luminary Peter Gibbons, “that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” We all know a few EMTs and paramedics who have learned all the hot spots, the danger zones, know exactly what they need to do (and what to avoid) in order to stay under the radar — and as long as they dance those steps, they can otherwise do, or skip doing, whatever the heck they want.

The point is, in this job you can do everything right. . . but only if you decide to.

Many of our decisions are small. When it comes down to it, even Old Man Lazybones, the 400-year-old medic who only wakes up to punch out and sometimes eat animal crackers, will generally mobilize for the cardiac arrest and the multiple stabbing. That stuff comes packaged with motivation. But what about all the little things in between? Do you change the stretcher linen between calls, or leave it? Do you sanitize that blood pressure cuff after using it on your “recent VRE” patient? Are you professional, caring, and thorough in your patient interviews, or are you starting to lapse into taxi driver mode? Do you document thoroughly, or cut a few corners? Is everything on the truck restocked for the next crew, or are you out the door? And so on, and so forth. There’s doing your very best, there’s just barely “not getting fired,” and there are many points in between, but no doubt, each time you’ll have to decide where you fall.

It’s tempting to say that what matters is simply the kind of person you are. The “good” EMT, the true professional, that guy will do the right thing. He’ll make the right choices. And the slacker, the hack, he’ll blow it off. And maybe that’s often true.

But the lesson of decision fatigue is that none of us is a saint, or an infallible machine. Every time we make one of those little decisions, every time we exert ourselves to do the right thing, we use up a little bit of our motivation. And after 8 hours, 12, 24 hours, five calls, ten calls, you’re going to start scraping the bottom of that well. The good medic will last longer, the hack won’t make it past lunchtime, but eventually, everyone starts cutting corners. Be honest with yourself, and you’ll see that it’s true. You can care, and you do care, but at some point, you’ll stop caring quite so much. In the long-term, we call it burnout, but in the short term we just call it “time to go home.”

One of the valuable observations from the research on decision fatigue is how the most successful subjects tended to cope with it. By and large, those with the best self-control didn’t survive by being the most stoic, just standing there and weathering a stream of decisions that would shake the best of us. Instead, what they did was set up their lives to minimize the drains on their self-control. They recognized that if they have to spend all day consciously choosing to do the right thing, eventually they’re going to start slacking. So whenever possible, they arrange their circumstances so that no decision needs to be made. When they grocery shop, they don’t just “buy what looks good,” because that’s a constant barrage of “cookies or carrots?” They go in with a list, and they buy what’s on the list, and that leaves no decisions to be made. And then, on the way home when they have to decide whether to yield for the slow-walking granny in the crosswalk, they aren’t already worn out from the battle of the cookies.

Good habits. Good habits will save us.

You can’t go through your shift constantly deciding to do the right thing. But you can create good habits, wherein you do the right thing automatically. This may sound like you’re creating work for yourself, but in fact it’s the opposite. “Work” is choosing to do it. Habits just happens. Waking up, brushing your teeth, driving to work, you don’t complain about having to do these, you just do ’em; they’re things you do, not things you decide to do. If every time you drop off a patient, you change the linen, then this stops being an “issue”; it’s just part of the call, part of your routine.

Setting up habits takes work, but maintaining them takes none, and you’ll quickly find that the type of EMT you are is defined by your habits as much as your decisions. Although I’m a huge proponent of good judgment, critical thinking, and wide leeway for field providers to make good decisions, the truth is that much of our work is routine. And the more of your routine you can manage by habit, the more willpower you free up for the tougher stuff. This doesn’t tie you down. It liberates you to think bigger, and aim higher.

Spinning a Yarn: The Chronological Narrative

I was never explicitly taught to write documentation in school. It fell into the “They’ll train you how they want it when you’re hired” category, and all we got was a rough idea that there were a few common formats for writing your narratives.

I’ve experimented with a few different models, including the typical SOAP, CHART, and chronological formats. I don’t want to rehash the basics of how these work, because you’ve probably either learned about them or you will. However, on a regular basis I get coworkers peering over my shoulder and commenting on my own somewhat unusual style, so I thought I’d share it for anyone looking for something new.

The biggest change in my own narratives came when I moved to a service that wrote their documentation on computers. I have poor handwriting, write slowly, and don’t enjoy it; however, I’m a fast and comfortable typist, so once we switched from pencil to keyboard my narratives improved substantially. One of the early changes I made was a conscious effort to remove 99% of the abbreviations and shorthand; when typing, it’s usually just as fast to write it out fully, and it makes everything much more readable. (If you ever think to yourself that “everyone knows what YEOIOCRIPIDRN means,” attend M&M rounds sometime and listen to a room full of fellow EMS professionals try to puzzle it out.)

The goal with my narratives is to produce an easily readable, standalone document that tells the story of the call in a similar order to how I experienced it. Because our electronic PCR software includes separate sections to record details of the physical exam, vital signs, and so forth, I’m able to omit many of the nuts and bolts. What I do mention explicitly is all unusual findings, pertinent negatives, and whatever mundane details are necessary to knit the story together. One of the risks with the free-form chronological narrative is forgetting to include this or that assessment finding, but fortunately the ePCR prompts me for these things in other screens. Typically for EMS, documentation is one-half a record of patient care and one-half covering our butts; so although I try to minimize it, I also include some amount of standard butt-covering. This should be customized to what issues your own employer happens to care about. (I had one that insisted every patient be covered with two wool blankets in the winter; so, guess what ended up in the paperwork.)

I modeled my template on the discharge notes you find in hospital charts. I always found these to be pleasantly readable and professional; particularly if you start with the ED and admission note, read the hospital course, and finally the discharge summary, you have a great top-to-bottom view of what’s going on with the patient. I write chronologically, because it keeps the story understandable and because it allows me to show the order that things occurred, which is a central part of many calls; for example, we did X treatment, but then the patient began complaining of Y, so we changed things up to Z treatment — very different from if we’d known about Y from the beginning. However, I don’t adhere zealously to the timeline if it’s not especially relevant, so I’ll often group together assessment or treatment items for efficiency; as a result it’s often not too different from a loose SOAP or CHART format.

I’ll give three examples of hypothetical calls here: one routine transfer, one typical medical emergency, and one critical trauma call. This will seem wordy, but for many unremarkable calls the majority of the narrative can be written prior to arrival, simply leaving blanks for the bits you don’t know, then filling them in and fixing anything unexpected afterwards. (It’s helpful to understand how the actual PCR will print out once it’s completed and [in our case] faxed; this lets you know how it reads, what inserts where, and so on.)

Dispatched non-emergent to Waldorf Memorial Hospital (6 West) for discharge to Mumford Rehab.

Arrived on floor and met by staff, who provide paperwork/signature/report. Patient is Mr. Jeeves, a 73 yo male with hx of COPD and CHF, who presented with chest pain and dyspnea. He was found negative on cardiac enzymes with nonspecific ECG changes, admitted for further monitoring, and eventually underwent cardiac catheterization with no acute occlusions found. He is now stable and is being discharged to short-term rehab for gait training.

He is found in bed, alert and semi-Fowler’s, fully oriented with some general confusion, and denying acute complaints. There is some peripheral pallor, and non-pitting edema of the lower extremities. Vitals unremarkable, as noted above [note: in our ePCR, the vitals screen prints out above the narrative]. A locked IV is present in his left forearm.

He is transferred to our stretcher, secured with straps x5 and rails x2, and loaded onto A56. Transport routinely with monitoring en route. No changes in status during transport.

Arrived without incident, offloaded, and brought Mr. Jeeves to his room. He is transferred into bed and left in a low position, rails up, with his call button and belongings. His care and paperwork are transferred to staff.

Dispatched emergent to apartment in Malden for abdominal pain.

Arrived on scene to find Malden FD and PD with an adult female seated, alert. She is Ms. Bergerac, a 66 yo female with hx of NIDDM, who awoke 2 hours prior with general nausea, weakness, and abdominal pain. She describes the pain as 5/10, dull and diffuse, with a gradual onset over the past several days; she states the nausea has been ongoing over the same period, with the weakness new since this morning. She states she has been taking her normal meds, but has not eaten since yesterday due to the nausea. She denies vomiting, chest pain, dyspnea, headache, or parasthesias, and states she has felt normal with no unusual events up until several days ago. She denies any falls or other trauma.

She presents as fully oriented but slightly obtunded and slow to respond, and somewhat ill in appearance. Her pupils are midsize and PERL, and her lungs are clear and equal bilaterally. Abdomen is supple and non-tender with no visible discoloration, distention or mass. She is negative for arm drift, facial droop, or speech slurring, and demonstrates equal and unremarkable CSM x4. She is tachypneic, with an irregularly irregular radial pulse; her BGL is 46.

She is given 15g of oral glucose, which she tolerates well, and is transferred to our stairchair. She is brought outside, then transferred to our stretcher, where she is secured with straps x5 and rails x2. She is loaded onto A80 and transported non-emergent to House of God Medical Center with continuing assessment en route.

Repeat vitals note a BGL of 60 and minor increase in pulse. No other changes during transport.

Arrived without incident, offloaded, and brought Ms. Bergerac into the ED. She is transferred to a bed and left with rails up. Care transferred to RN with report.

Dispatched emergent to Denmark St. and Mulvaney Rd. in Waltham for an MVA.

Arrived with Waltham FD to find two vehicles in the center of the road. A small sedan has a heavily damaged back end with 2ft of compression; a midsize SUV is behind it with a broken windshield and crushed front left wheelwell. An adult male is found ambulatory, who states he was the driver of the sedan, with no apparent injury and denying any complaints. He states that he needs no care but wants his son evaluated, a teenaged male still in the front passenger seat, who also appears well and denies complaints. The father states they were struck from behind at unknown speed while stopped at a light. Both occupants endorse restraints, and there is no gross intrusion or airbag deployment. They are left in care of FD and a second unit is requested for further care.

An adult male is found in the driver’s seat of the SUV, slumped to the right against his seatbelt. He groans to painful stimulus but does not rouse. His skin is pale and cool, respirations are slow and irregular at 8/min, and radial pulse is thready and regular at 124. Breath sounds are grossly clear and equal. Oxygen is provided at 15LPM by NRB. An open abrasion is present on his left forehead, with blood found on the left upright support. There is no other obvious external trauma. A frontal airbag is deployed. There is starring of the windshield, seemingly from the airbag, and no other interior damage. ALS is requested.

The patient is manually stabilized and a C-collar is applied; he is rapidly extricated, exposed, and fully immobilized to a long spine board. He is placed on our stretcher and secured with straps x5 and rails x2, then loaded onto A104. (A11 arrives and assumes care of the other patients; see their runsheet for further.) Transport emergently to Intergalactic Trauma Center with continuing assessment en route.

Bleeding from the head wound is minor. There is diagonal bruising of the chest consistent with seatbelt trauma, and no other major bleeding or deformity. The trachea is midline and there is no appreciable JVD. Chest rise is equal bilaterally, the ribs are stable, and the abdomen is supple and without distension. Vitals note a BP of 184/100, HR 80, and increasingly shallow respirations at 6/min. A grossly dilated right pupil is also noted to develop en route. An OPA is inserted and well-tolerated. Ventilations are assisted by BVM with mild hyperventilation at a rate of 20/min.

P4 intercepts at this time and assumes dual-medic care.

[Documentation note: See PCR 121512 for full patient demographics, billing, and ALS care en route.]