The man stopped breathing.His color signaled that he had only moments to live. His nurse called the code. This brought a hospital team of
nearly 20 staff members assigned to the code blue team. Their job was to provide intervention for advanced cardiac care to return circulation and restore breathing. Every member of this team had a job to do. Starting with the scribe who kept track of everything. “Is somebody writing”? Inquired the maestro. Things like the minutes since the heart stopped and when he first received medication, when IV access was achieved, or the time he received the lifesaving shock to his heart, known as defibrillation. Her voice was sometimes shrill as she tried in vain to speak above the calamitous scene by tracking time since last dose of epinephrine, adenosine, or vasopressin or changing vital signs. Her job was essential and had to be accurate. These are high stress low frequency events that nobody enjoys.
The code team works like an orchestra led by the maestro – sometimes a senior nurse. The maestro must be laser focused and have full knowledge of the patient’s recent medical history and all possible causes leading to this event. Maestro follows an ACLS protocol that guides the decision tree. The team had assigned jobs for CPR and back-up to the person assigned to be first on chest compressions. And there was the rescue breather, respiratory therapist, IV nurse, the runner for blood and other equipment, pharmacist, and physician – usually the maestro. For many team members, there is an intangible calling that underlies a doting sense of purpose which brings them into nursing.The less experienced team members may be second chair in this orchestra but all feel cheated when outcomes are bad.
The man in question wanted no heroic measures taken and did not wish to be transferred to the trauma center if his heart were to stop beating. It was his advanced directive.
On this particular day, the nursing staff on duty watched the patient closely. His heart was being monitored for rate and rhythm. His breathing sounded scary in the early morning hours on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The family had not been able to see the man who had been diagnosed with covid-19 following a stroke. By all reports his viral load was mild. He seemed to be getting better leaving most of us to believe he would slowly improve and one day make it home. I spent time with him that Friday assessing his language. It too had improved during his time in the unit.
The physician on the day shift was not on the unit yet on the Saturday morning. It would be the man’s last day. He was running a low grade fever perhaps 99.8 degrees. This was lower than it had been the days prior. The man had started to show signs of improvement after being diagnosed with coronavirus shortly after being admitted to the rehabilitation hospital. He was fully vaccinated. So what happened? He went from being on the mend to not breathing in a matter of hours. This is what front line ICU nurses and doctors have been dealing with for 18 months during this pandemic. We saw very few cases of this type at our hospital. Afterall, he was in our hospital to rehab from his CVA.
These events take a human toll and put a chink in the armour. Outcomes whittle away at job satisfaction, personal efficacy, and professional.purpose. The coronavirus was making its fourth appearance with a growing wave of breakthrough cases which had us all on edge. The man in this case was sick well before my breakthrough surprise. I became infected in mid-December and was sent home for quarantine.
The man was transferred to us following a significant left hemisphere stroke. He was sent for retraining to advance the functionality of his language so he might return home. He had global aphasia but was getting better with using words and helping himself. Slowly, his receptive language was starting to make connections again. He started to understand nuance and gesture. He could make his point using the tools he was learning during therapy sessions. These are good signs in early stroke recovery and represent the plasticity in the human brain. He had become able to follow some perfunctory directions and express his basic needs, still sometimes missing the point by using jargon. This is known as the language of confusion in speech pathology circles. We have excellent speech pathology services at Whittier and I especially respect their efforts and expertise.
He was not depressed and was working with his therapy team as much as he could. For their part, the staff is passionate when it comes to helping patients gain function. By standing, speaking, and eventually, directing their own care.
When he was admitted, the man and his family decided that they wanted no heroic measures taken should his heart stop beating. No CPR, no intubation or breathing tube, no transport to a higher level of care such as the nearby trauma center. He was not a young man and believed he had lived a good life. His wishes.
Remember, his breathing and respiratory drive took a rapid turn for the worse. Quickly, he went from looking bad to looking better, to looking worse. In a matter of a few hours his breathing had become more shallow. Agonal in quality. His nurse called the code.
Agonal breathing usually signals a cardiac arrest. Nurses are trained to respond with the code cart and a dozen or more advanced cardiac rescue interventions geared toward restarting the heart and saving a life. Not the outcome last Saturday morning. His choice was very clear – no heroic measures. So staff were instructed to stand down and watch. Some staff became emotional and were consoled by senior nurses.They could do nothing but sit on their hands.
The younger staff felt traumatized, as this was not supposed to happen. Even support personnel were watching as team members slowly backed away to hear witness.
His family was called and the sad news was shared. They had not said goodbye because of the mandated virus protocols. He did not yet receive the Sacrament of the Sick, as he had wanted. He was not alone and in the end, the group came together to recognize this man for the good fight he brought forth at rehab and for having the courage to know what he did not want, and for those few things he did. He died at 8:12 as he wished, without fanfare. The maestro on this day, reminded them all of this and that he lived a full life, and the scribe recorded the time.