March 28, 2010

"The Look."

As part of our internal medicine rotation, we were required to spend 5 weeks at a hospital out in the community. The hospital I was sent to was a fairly large medical center with close to 500 licensed beds, and part of my hospital was a large tower of a structure dedicated as the "cancer center". The problem with the cancer center is that it was built as an addition to the hospital, which meant to get access to the beds within the tower, you had to go up to the 3rd floor of the regular hospital, through this back hallway attached to the corner stairwell, go through a tiny side door, which brought you to a back elevator shaft. You then went up the curiously slow elevator, through a set of double doors, then up another set of stairs, just to get to the beds in the tower. As a result, the tower had been nicknamed the "Death Star", because every time a code or rapid response was called in the tower it took several minutes to respond simply by virtue of its reclusive location. While rotating at the site, I worked with a senior resident who took the code pager very, very seriously. Whether it was a code blue or a rapid response, we. were. running.

One day on short call, we had an afternoon where the code pager would not shut up. As a result, we were running all over the hospital to various locations within the hospital, always at an aggressive jog with my 30 pound white coat flapping around me and sweat beading on my forehead. All the codes that morning ended up being fairly well controlled situations... a patient in the post-op area of the day surgery who got too much narcotic, a code blue called on a patient already in the cath lab, a patient who had an an RRT called simply because the attending wanted a stat ECG. We had just finished up our 5th code of the morning when the code pager started blaring again, this time for a patient in the Death Star. "Crap." my senior muttered, and off we took, up to corner stairwell, down the back hallway, through the tiny side door, to the elevator. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Up the elevator. Through the double doors. Up the stairwell. Down another hallway.

When we arrived the scene was fairly chaotic. An elderly woman was sitting tensely up in bed. Nursing staff was trying, quite unsuccessfully, to get an ABG, and blood was spotted all over her arm and hospital gown. The ECG showed new-onset a-fib and the patient was satting 70% on 12 liters of oxygen through a rebreather mask. But what struck me most profoundly was the look on the poor woman's face. She had what we called "the look": sitting rigidly upright, arms locked with hands grasping onto her sheets, desperately trying to breath with eyes wide and an expression of impending doom on her face.

There's only a few things that give someone "the look," and in an elderly bed-ridden hospital patient, we knew even before the labs came back that she had thrown a clot to her lungs. She was wheeled down the hallway, down the elevator, through the lobby, up another set of elevators, and into the ICU. Luckily, she did quite well and survived her PE with only a scare. The Death Star had been defeated that day. But I'll forever be imprinted with that look she had the moment we walked through the door. It's one of those indelible moments that are sprinkled throughout the third year of medical school - when what you learn in textbooks manifests itself in a living, breathing human being tenuously placed in front of you.


Nathan said...


sarah bess said...

wow. you're a fabulous writer.