A letter I received from a reader who states that she is a paramedic student has gotten me thinking. I’m going to include her letter in this post with her permission, but before I do I would like to speak a little bit about things that we say to patients. EMS and all of emergency medicine tends to be full of emotionally charged situations being handled by emotionally drained people. Sometimes our experience in dealing with situations that lay people find to be traumatic can lend itself to our making comments that we find perfectly acceptable to make at the time we make them, and yet upon reflection seem like the wrong thing to have said. I can’t tell you just how many times I’ve been in trouble for my mouth. I will say something that I intend to relieve the tension of a situation and to provide comic relief that I think is cute and funny, completely thinking that it is above-board and not-offensive to anyone, and then find out that some wet-blanket took offense.
Honestly, I make it my policy never to make a dirty joke. All of my “patient friendly jokes” are clean enough to tell to my five-year-old with nary an off-color word or adult reference in sight and sometimes still people look at me like I’ve dropped a live weasel in the ball-pit at the McDonald’s Play Land. Like some random time ago where a patient who had overdosed, scratched her wrists with a dull knife, and was found trying to hang herself apologized to me during my assessment of her because she hadn’t shaved her legs. I said “Oh that’s quite alright, Ma’am.. You weren’t planning on needing them anymore and besides, you shaved your wrists real nice”. I believe the question I got from my partner after the call was “Does your Brain-Mouth filter even work anymore?!” He was laughing as he said it, so obviously it was funny. The patient laughed too.
I have stock comments to the common questions and situations that come up on calls that I trot out when needed to liven up the situation. Some are movie quotes, some are lines that I’ve stolen from other providers, and some are straight up from my strange brain. Like when I find someone lying in bed that needs to be lifted over from the bed to the cot with a sheet and a couple of people. Some beds are way too wide for me to work from my feet and it’s often useful to crawl right in bed alongside the patient to lift them over. I ask them “So when was the last time you had a strange man in your bed?” The unconscious ones almost always laugh. I have yet to have an older lady blush and be embarrassed and the comments I get back are always entertaining. Also, when I’m palpating an area of a patient’s body to see where they’re hurting such as for an injured extremity or the like, if the patient yelps out in pain when I touch something I excitedly declare “Found it!!” It’s much to their relief to know that I know where it is that they hurt. I also have what I call the “Poor Man’s X-Ray”. If someone thinks that something’s broken on their body, I grab it, give it a good squeeze and a shake, and ask them if it hurts. If they say “Yea that hurts” it’s probably not fractured. If they say “YEeeeeEEaaargh!!!” it probably is.
So, exactly how serious do you think I’m being with all of that above there? Here’s the test. If you took me serious enough that you want to call my medical director to tell him to pull my license… I was joking!! Ha Ha!
I remember probably the worst thing that I’ve ever said to a patient ever, and in all seriousness I still feel bad about this comment to this day. Early on in my career I worked as a Security Guard *slash* EMT at a big regional 400 bed hospital/trauma center/psyche center/everything center. Usually I worked alone on weekend nights and it was an absolute zoo. While this was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever held, I was in way over my head for an eighteen year-old country boy working in the big city. One day we had a patient come in who had been witnessed swallowing baggies full of what was presumed to be crack cocaine during a traffic stop. He was belligerent as all heck, swearing at us and trying to swing at the police officers who brought him in, the nurses, and myself. He looked at me and said “So what the (colorful word) is going to happen to me now you (something my mother would be unhappy with me if I typed on my blog, or even thought about for that matter)” I asked him “So, are you a religious man?” To which he replied “Blankety-Blank No!! You Blankety Blankin Blank blank!” I said back to him “Well you probably should be, because you’ll need to be saying some prayers”. Then he seized and went into V-Fib. I have no idea if he survived. I honestly feel really, really bad about that. I wish I hadn’t have said it.
So when you read this letter, go easy on the paramedic student who sent it in. She seems to feel pretty bad about saying what she said and since I’m going easy on her, you probably should too.
Here it is:
I did something colossally stupid today. Something so… irresponsible and cocky that I truly can’t believe I allowed it to happen.
I allowed myself… to assume.
To assume that as a paramedic student I knew enough about a patient’s condition that I could safely make a statement to a family member, when in reality, I should have just kept my mouth shut.
It was careless. It was reckless, and it resulted in a family being given false hope.
He was brought into the ER by two of his daughters for a syncopal episode. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days, and his daughters had been forcing him to eat. When they found him on the floor next to his bed writhing in pain, they loaded him up and drove him over to the local ER.
His VS upon arrival were… less than ideal. Hypoglycemic, hypothermic, hypotensive. He had the hypo’s covered. His coloring was even less impressive than his vitals. A few amps of D50 and some warm blankets later and we had 2/3’s of the hypo’s resolved. He was no longer altered, he was flirting with the nurses, and the color had improved.
Still, his BP was crap. His tank was dry. He needed fluids, and after his third liter bag, his BP in the 60’s started to creep it’s way towards 70 and 75. I did a happy dance in my head.
Then it happened.
I was removing some of his blankets and replacing them with some that were straight from the warmer when daughter number 3 asked me a question. “His blood pressure is still so low, should we be worried?” Me. The only one in the room with them that had any medical experience.
Five sets of eyes were on me in an instant.
I finished tucking a piping hot blanket in and casually said something to the effect of, “His BP is coming up, he’s just a bit dehydrated. One more bag and I’d be willing to bet that his pressure is better than mine.”
Ugh. How could I let myself say something like that?
I didn’t know that he had a fractured hip.
I didn’t know he was in kidney failure.
I didn’t know he had a leaking AAA.
I didn’t know the complete picture, and I should have just kept my mouth shut.
I guess it goes without saying, but his blood pressure never came up. It dropped, and it dropped again, and it dropped again.
The family was informed of the complete picture. A DNR was signed. Hospice was called. He died before he could even make it to the inpatient hospice facility.
A family was given hope, because I gave it to them. And I had no right to do that. Watching them emerge from a family consultation room, one by one with blood shot eyes, holding each other when just two hours earlier they had been laughing and joking with their father…
That was probably the hardest lesson that I’ve learned in school. It’s one I’ll never forget, or forgive myself for.
So the student who wrote this letter expects to be flamed for it… I’m willing to bet that the response will be just the opposite. We’ve all been there. We’ll all be there again.
What about you?