“CPR Theatre” – Pediatric Deaths, resuscitations, and futility

This post is a cooperative joint topic with two widely respected EMS bloggers, Steve Whitehead from Http://www.TheEMTspot.com and Greg Friese, from Http://www.EveryDayEMStips.com – Our topic is supposed to be on why it is that EMTs, Paramedics, and other healthcare providers will sometimes “go through the motions” and continue on with futile resuscitations with pediatric cardiac arrest victims. I’m sure that they will have very insightful posts on the topic, as they always do. Here’s my take.


Can someone say “emotionally charged”?

One of the truths about where I’m sitting right now is that I’m chained to a lot of potential responsibility. Today, like a lot of days I’m one of two paramedics on-duty in my service area and the next call is mine. No matter what the next call is, it is my responsibility to get up and answer that call… without regard the horror that fate may be sending me to bear witness to and intervene in. All medics have to accept this inherent part of the job. One of the worst of those possibilities is that it may be a call that involves the significant injury or illness to, or even the death of a child.

Mention the possibility of a child’s death to even the most cynical and seasoned of healthcare providers and you will send a very cold chill down their spine. It’s just horrible. For me, the blessedly rare times that I’ve lost a child have been sentinel events in my life, things that are often thought of but rarely spoken of… almost always spoken of only to comfort the pain of a colleague experiencing the same thing. The loss or suffering of a child just burns into our souls and leaves an indelible scar that only someone who has experienced it can have true empathy for.

And I for one, wish that I didn’t have the empathy that I have for it.

Heaven forbid that I ever have to be one of the parents with pleading eyes at one of those tragic and traumatic scenes. I just can’t imagine what they go through when I’ve said “I’m Sorry”. I can’t imagine their pain, and frankly I don’t want to. As a parent myself the thought is blocked from my conscious mind and relegated only to the deepest recesses of my subconscious fears. Losing an adult patient is one thing, as we humans come to know that our lives are fragile and that our price of admission is to be removed from this existence. It’s a knowledge that we get as we progress through life and gain the experiences, both good and bad, that make us who we are and will become. However, the terrible thought that one could be ripped from us in their age of innocence is an affront to everything that almost everyone holds dear… and it’s more than a lot of us can bear to make the last decision of a child’s life. Instead, we try. We try hard and we keep trying. We hold out hope against thought and fight on, sometimes against futility.

But in my mind, I think I know why it is… because no healthcare person wants to be the person who looks into those pleading eyes and says “I’m sorry”. That decision takes an enormous emotional toll upon the parents and family, of course… but also upon the EMT or Paramedic. It’s ultimately easier on us as EMS people, we reason, to fight on. To race headlong into futility and hold out hope that someone else won’t have to say “I’m sorry”. At least we won’t have to.

There are probably psychological studies out there that I haven’t read that deal with the issue of whether “CPR Theatre” is harmful or helpful to the long-term well being of the surviving family.  These studies are probably well-researched. I took a class once that told me that it was better for family members to be in the resuscitation room inside of a hospital to witness the events as healthcare people try to save their loved ones… and I can understand that I guess. Perhaps it is better to witness that “everything possible was done” for your departed loved one. I don’t know.

As healthcare providers, it is our sworn duty to alleviate suffering as best we can using the tools at our disposal. I, like most of my colleagues, realize that the secondary and tertiary patients that we treat are the family members and their grief reactions to the tragic circumstances that resulted in their calling us. I am reasonably comfortable handling their grief reactions and sadness when an adult passes on scene but I am humbly inadequate to be of much comfort to a parent that has just lost their child no matter how I might try.

My guess that futile CPR theatre can be explained as being more for the parents and families of departed children than it is for the slight chance that we might have missed something. We make the effort in the name of showing to the family members that “everything possible” was indeed done, up to and including running their child lights and sirens to a hospital. I’ll even admit that in the back of the ambulance while I’ve done this, I’ve prayed right along with the family that just perhaps this once we would have a miracle. Never once has it happened.

Here’s a mea culpa for you, even though every time I’ve gone through the motions I’ve said it was for the family…  It may really have been for my own benefit as I’ve stated it could be above. I am a paramedic and I’ve seen my share of pain, but I don’t think that I can look a parent in the eyes and say “I’m sorry” ever again. I just don’t want to and as I write this, I can’t imagine that I could do that and then come back and look the guy in the mirror in the eyes without wondering if maybe this time would’ve been the miracle. I am probably selfish for this practice… but is that wrong?

From a completely actuarial perspective, no futile resuscitation should be performed due to safety concerns and the unnecessary costs involved. I agree that with adults, transporting cardiac arrest victims is probably deadly. I also understand that no ambulance should risk a lights-and-sirens trip to transport a body to the emergency room. However, I am not an actuary. In those cases I’m a witness to horrible emotional pain and I want someone else to be the one who says “I’m sorry”. It’s human nature, perhaps.

In my career, I have told parents “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do” in cases where it was blatantly obvious that the child was long beyond hope of any intervention. I’ve done it more than once and I can see the places where I’ve done it in my mind to this day. Sometimes it’s completely obvious that there is indeed nothing that anyone can do. However, occasionally I have indeed known this and just done it anyway. Perhaps it’s completely subjective. Perhaps it was my level of experience and intuition that guided me at the times I’ve made the decision. I’ll tell you this, it certainly wasn’t a decision made from the pages of a textbook.

I don’t have the answers to this. But I do want to go home and hug my kid. My only advice to the EMS people out there is to realize that we’re all human, and that all you have to do is your best. Be compassionate, and use your best judgment. For that’s all we can ever do.

For more on this powerful topic for EMS, head over to Greg Friese’s page and also to Steve Whitehead’s page. You also may want to read “Splashed Sadness – A look at Negative Emotions in EMS” where I further explore the sad side of EMS and our reactions to it.