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You want fries with that Atropine?

I know there are a lot of nursing students out there, as well as new nurses. I think it’s important to let you know that things do get better, especially if you have any experience waiting tables. With that in mind, here is a follow-up to the worst day ever.

Over the weekend I had another particularly difficult assignment. One patient was an FTW (failure to wean: unable to be weaned from the ventilator.) He had about a bazillion dressings that needed to be changed and documented on. He also was just awake enough to mouth words and attempt to communicate with me. This always gets me. I have this habit of dropping everything I’m doing in order to try and understand my vented patient as they mouth words to me. I just cannot read lips, no matter how hard I try. For now, the best I can do is ask:

Are you in pain? Are you warm enough? Are you comfortable? Do you need to be cleaned up? Do you want the TV on/off?

That’s about it. I find it pretty hard to do my job while my patient is looking at me, trying to tell me something, and I am powerless to figure out what it is. Can you imagine being say, an accountant, and sitting at your desk trying to crunch numbers while someone is sitting next to you, silently pleading with you, mouthing words you don’t understand? Can you imagine getting any work done at all?

So mentally, I’m in a state of frazzledom.

My other patient was admitted 2 hours ago, which means that she is busy! Lines to be placed, X-rays to be taken, CT scans, cultures, new meds, you name it, they are ordering it! Luckily she is comfortably sedated, and not mouthing words to me.

So I am just barely keeping up. I’m merely treading water but my patients are still alive, dammit! Doesn’t that count for something? It’s toward the end of the day and I’ve almost gotten everything done for one patient, and ready to move onto the next. And patient #1 goes into V-tach. Just like that. This was not part of the plan. And just like that he bounces back into his regular if not somewhat tachy heart rate. So now the docs are at his bedside, coming up with all sorts of new things for me to do. This does not fit into my plan either. The time I allotted for his care is finished and now he is eating into the time of patient #2.

So the treading stops and the drowning begins. But this time, I enlist the help of the charge nurse. Not only do I ask for help, but I tell her that I am drowning. She starts to take care of V-tach-er’s new orders so I can finish up my tasky stuff for patient #2.

The charge nurse tells me that she took care of patient #1 last week and he was so busy that she was unable to leave his bedside the entire shift. Nice to know it’s not just me. In the end, everything is finished on time.

But I go home thinking I am just not getting it.

A good night’s sleep leaves me ready for round 2. I am even hoping that I will have the exact same patient assignment. The devil you know and all.

Part 2: Be careful what you wish for…

In morning report I find out that yes, I do have the same patient assignment and also that the unit is extremely understaffed and everyone will be busy.

So more of the same. Only this time the v-tach-er has turned into a de-sat-er. He keeps dipping down into the low 80?s. I bump him up to 100% and suction. Bump him up and suction. Bump him up and suction. The theory on him today is that he has a mucous plug, and he is to be sent for a thoracic CT to confirm this. So I call the respiratory therapist in to see if she has any ideas. She does. Bag him, lavage him, THEN suction, with a longer suction catheter! Brilliant. I bag, she lavages and suctions, and together we pull up a couple of big gobs of mucous. Yay! Problem solved! We leave him alone for awhile and he is satting 99%.

Moral of the story #1: When you have a patient with a Bivona trach and you are using an inline suction catheter, you may need to switch to a longer catheter that will go deeper. It’s funny, if I read the above statement in a textbook I would never remember it. Instead, I saw it in action and now it will forever be in my arsenal of things to do when my patient desats.

In nursing school I had this one professor who loved to rant about the saline bullet. She would always tell us that there is no evidence that routine lavaging and suctioning with a saline bullet improves outcomes. In my literal-minded nursing student head what I heard was, Saline bullets are evil! Only bad nurses use saline bullets!

So I never used them. Of course now I will. I think what she needed to make clear was that ROUTINE suctioning and lavaging should not be done. Every once in awhile, if the situation calls for it, it can be quite useful.

At any rate, I got through these two shifts quite well. I did, however, confess to the charge nurse that I felt like I was not getting it.

Please, she said. Take a look around. Even the most experienced nurses on this unit have crazy, busy days. It’s just part of the job.

This was kind of an aha moment for me. It’s just like waiting tables. You get in the weeds (waitress speak for “I am totally freaking out of control right now and every single one of my tables wants something!”), and then you get out of the weeds. When you are in the weeds, you can’t see the other side of the weeds. When you are out of the weeds, you can even laugh about being in the weeds. One extremely important difference, though. When a waitress is in the weeds, someone might not get their chicken on time. When a nurse is in the weeds, someone might not get their (you fill in the blank – blood products? Pain meds? Epi? Atropine?) on time.

Moral of the story #2: If you are a nurse and you find yourself in the weeds, ask for help. Your patient’s life may depend on it.