Voices Carry

EMS Along with those patients we see during our shifts, there’s a group of patients we never see…. the ones on the other end of the Medical Direction line.  At the hospitals we rotate through, there are the “Bat Phones” –  the phones on which pre-hospital care providers call us for, well, medical direction.  It’s actually red at one of the hospitals.  Cool.

Interns, not allowed to touch the Bat Phones.  Junior residents, encouraged to field calls.  Us seniors, we’re on it most of the time.  I’ve given orders for medications, orders to keep a patient home, orders to have a patient sign off AMA.  And, I’ve given the order to pronounce a patient in the field.

I don’t think about those too much.  Usually it’s an elderly patient, found down after EMS was called to a home for a welfare check.  “Lividity?”  Yes.  “Cold with no signs of life?”  Yes.  Ok to pronounce.

I did have one funny situation where I was told the patient was “obviously dead” however they still were showing a sinus rythmn at 60.  Pacemaker.  I told the EMT’s to get a big magnet, and/or to make sure that anyone that was going to be handling the body knew about the pacemaker.  Wouldn’t want anyone to get an unpleasant  jolt.

During my overnight shift, though, I had the hardest medical direction yet – pronouncing victims of a house fire.  I got the first call about 3 in the morning.  I could hear the sadness in the usually jovial EMT’s voice, “thirty-something year old found in a burning house;  soot around their face and mouth.  No signs of life.  Asystole on three leads.”  I didn’t know what to say.  How long had they been in the house?  “Unknown.  Found by first responders to the scene.  Fire had just shown up.”  I put them on hold.

Now, I’ve asked my attending about some complicated scenarios that I’ve been faced with.  Early on it had to mostly do with medications during in-the-field resuscitations.  But, last night, I felt I needed his advice.  I told him the scenario.  He too paused for a moment and asked the same question I had asked, “how long?”  We both knew too long.  I gave the order to pronounce.

Saddened by this, I went back to the bustle of the E.D.  Then about 20 minutes later the Bat Phone rang again.  It was the same EMT sounding even more morose.  “I have two more, doc.  Twelve and about 15 years old.  Pulled out by Fire just a few minutes ago.  Soot on the face and asystole on three leads.”  In my head I calculated 4 – 6 mintes for brain damage to start and they had been in the house already longer than the first victim.  Kids have a smaller reserve.  I gave the order to pronounce.

My attending walked over to where I had been on the phone, documenting what I was hearing.  He read over my shoulder.  He walked away quietly.  I hung up the phone and placed the run sheet in its place;  suddenly feeling as though I had pronounced that family in the E.D. instead of from a distance.  I had lost three patients in 30 minutes.

I gathered myself and went to pick up another chart.  As I walked to the patient’s room I glanced at the Bat Phone, wondering when it would ring again, and what my next patient would be.

  1. #1 by De - December 23rd, 2009 at 23:02

    I hate those calls….circle of life, but still hardest to do when it’s a child. We save those we can and pray for those we can’t. Merry Christmas!

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