one of the interesting facts about bees is how the scouts convey to the rest of the hive where they can find nectar stores. you see the returning scout does a little dance when it returns to the hive. the dance is in the form of a figure of eight with the bee vibrating its body in the middle section. the direction he faces during this dance indicates in which direction the stash can be found. the intensity of the vibration of its body during the dance accurately depicts the distance to the nectar stores. all very fascinating.
i was rotating through icu and it was my call. all seemed to be quiet. in retrospect i should have realised it couldn't stay that way. we were waiting for one postoperative admission and then i even entertained thoughts of getting a bit of sleep.
finally she arrived. she was still intubated and ventilated but it seemed to be more cautionary than necessary. the general surgeon registrar who handed the patient over to me was even upbeat.
"let her rest through the night but she should be ready for extubation early in the morning."
"sure." i said, "any other things i need to know about?"
"she bled a bit during the operation but the anesthetist put a high flow intravenous line up so there was no problem for him to keep up with fluid replacement. other than that everything should go just fine." with that he sauntered out. i quickly checked the patient out. once i was satisfied that all did in fact seem to be fine, i continued with my evening rounds, making sure all the other patients were ok. a bit of shut eye seemed like a real possibility. i started letting my mind wonder to the cozy bed in the doctor's room behind icu. just one or two more things to check on and i could lie down and submit myself to sleep. i think a smile may actually have crept across my face, but before anyone could see it i quickly regained my stern icu-doctor-like serious composure.
"the patient has crashed!!!" it took a moment for the sister's words to fight their way through my naive musings about beautiful sleep. but then the full gravity of what she said ripped my mind back to the present. the patient had crashed and that meant i had to charge in and save the day. but what patient had crashed? they were all stable and there was no one that was due to move on to the hereafter. if someone died i would have a hard time explaining it to the prof the next morning. in fact the only patient i could think that might have crashed was the new patient that had just arrived and she was the boss' patient. if i didn't manage to pull her through, never mind trying to explain to the icu prof the next morning, it was unlikely i would survive the m&m. at least i would get more sleep in whatever other profession i ended up in once the boss threw me out of his department.
it was the boss' patient! fear and dread gripped me. i needed to do something. the most pressing thing seemed to be the fact that the patient's heart was not beating. i shook the fear from my nearly paralysed arms and jumped into action. almost immediately i was compressing the chest. her a-line gave me a good indication that my attempts at cardiac massage were very effective. at least i was keeping here alive, but why had she crashed. i mean i couldn't keep doing cardiac massage forever, although, i reflected, it would probably give me good upper body definition. still it would help if i had a better long term solution.
"should i draw a blood gas so long?" asked one of the sisters. i understood her question. it wasn't really that anyone there thought a blood gas would bring us any closer to figuring out what had caused the patient to crash, but at least she would feel she was doing something. the one thing that a blood gas could possibly tell me was if the hb was low, indicating that the patient could have bled. but her vital signs just before crashing were completely stable, meaning it was unlikely. anyway, i nodded to the sister and almost immediately she had the blood drawn and was scurrying off to the blood gas machine.
moments later she had the results.
"doctor look here!" the shock in her voice was clear. she held the printout in front of me. i couldn't take it myself. i was still applying cpr. any thoughts of a chiseled torso had long since given way to a firm knowledge that my upper body would be stiff and sore the next day. i quickly looked for the hb result. it was normal. the next thing to check would be the oxygen status. that was better than normal. even the ph balance was close enough to normal. but then why had the sister sounded so shocked?
"doctor, look at the potassium." i looked.
a normal potassium is around 4. when it gets to about 6 it can cause dysrhythmias of the heart. at about 8, pretty much all hearts will stop beating. the result that met my worried gaze was 16! was that even possible?? how did it happen?? what the hell was going on??
despite a few obvious questions at least i knew what the cause was and i could treat it. half an hour later the patient's heart was merrily beating away all on its own without the assistance of my tired arms. once the chaos that always seems to surround any resuscitation effort had subsided i finally found out what actually happened.
when the patient arrived in icu, her potassium levels, among other things, were checked. the junior sister tasked with looking after her showed the results to the charge sister. they were slightly low. the charge sister then instructed her junior to replenish them. the junior, not knowing any better, put a massive amount of potassium in a small bag and connected it to the high flown line that our anesthetic friend had so kindly put up for us in theater. the result was that all that potassium ran into the patient very nearly instantaneously, stopping the heart. in all honesty we were lucky to realize this the way we did and pull the patient through. but, still, what had transpired up to that point was the easy part. the difficult part veered up before me like a cliff. i still had to tell the prof on ward rounds the next morning.
the next morning i told the prof. as expected he didn't take it too well. as i relayed the events of the previous night, he became more and more agitated. finally he could no longer stand still. he started jumping up and down on the spot, his mouth open and his fists clenched. when i got to the part where we were all desperately trying to save the patient's life, in exasperation, the prof's body shook. he then did a little circle around to his left. a memory stirred somewhere deep in my mind. where had i seen that before?
when we got to the potassium levels and how it was that they had come to be that high, the prof's body once again vibrated. he then spun around to his right, vibrated again and then spun around to his left. a light went on in the deepest parts of my mind. i knew exactly where i had seen this dance before and what it meant.
and so the prof continued doing his little dance. he would vibrate in a mixture of rage and surprise. he would then attempt to speak, but because he was so absolutely dumbfounded by the details of my story, he just couldn't. he would then spin around and try again, but when there were no words his body would once again violently vibrate just before he spun around the other way. we stood there in silence watching him. finally my colleague spoke.
"i have never seen the prof this angry before!" he whispered quietly.
"yes," i agreed, "but after ward rounds, follow me. i'm pretty sure he is showing us where we can find a motherload of nectar, but be warned, it is very far away!!" he looked at me as if i was mad.