Friday, October 17, 2008

The call any med student in Emerg is waiting for: "There's been a massive accident."

It was shaping up to be quite a boring shift. Only a couple hours to go, and nothing very interesting. There must have been a notice in the paper that the super keen medical student (myself) was going to be working a shift in Emerg, because there really could not have been any other explanation for the massive numbers of people showing up in droves with a chief complaint of "I have a runny nose."

Then suddenly the night got very interesting. Here's the play-by-play.

6:30 pm :::
A call came in from ambulance dispatch, and the unit clerk quickly summoned the doctor and charge nurse to keep them informed: "There's been a massive car accident down in the valley. A minivan and a car carrying six people in total crashed into each other head-on, somehow got entangled to the point where they were attached, and then both went over the side of the bridge, careened down an embankment, ran into a few trees and then burst into flames. We're setting up for massive burns, tree trunk impalements, major trauma and who knows what else. The medevac helicopter will likely take out the most serious victims to the larger hospital in the next city over, so we'll likely get a few of the less severe tramas...but by the sounds of it, even those will be pretty serious. By the time they get them extracted and bring them in, they should be here in about 50 minutes."

6:40 pm :::
There is a buzz around the department. The night shift MD shows up to start what he had hoped would be another routine shift, and is instead informed about the upcoming chaos, with several curious other ER staff crowding around to hear the briefing. More reports have come in - the area is too heavily forested, meaning the helicopter can't land. All the traumas will be brought in by ambulance to our hospital!!

7:00 pm :::
The night resident has been paged to show up earlier, the afternoon shift MD (whose shift was just ending) made the decision to stay a bit later, and people are busy in the trauma bay setting up IV bags. The care aides and clerks are suddenly finding solutions to the longstanding province-wide 'no beds in the rest of the hospital' crisis, magically clearing up four beds in emerg in anticipation for the incoming carnage. I'm helping out a lot, too, I'm told, by going to see a patient who had a bookshelf fall on her head. And another runny nose.

7:10 pm :::
Another report comes in. The meat wagon won't be in with what's left of the survivors for yet another hour; it seems as though the army or search & rescue might have to be called in to access the area. There's even a suggestion that there might even be gunshot wounds if the drivers got into a road rage argument after the dust settled. In the meantime, my patient with the bookshelf falling on her head turned out to only end up having a textbook fall on her head, the rest of the shelf narrowly missing her body. Her friends were quite concerned, and brought her in. Oh, and she also wants me to assess her runny nose.

7:20 pm :::
The latest from the disaster zone is relayed to the physician: there is an indication that things may not be as serious as they were initially thought. Three of the people walked out of the accident unscathed, but the other three still seem to be pretty serious. No word on the accuracy of the gunshot rumour. For my patients, I continue to prescribe kleenex, one of the few things that I as a medical student can actually dole out, like it's nobody's business.

7:40 pm :::
Word arrives - the ambulances are on their way! One is coming Code 3 - lights and sirens - with the major trauma victim. The other two will follow, as they're coming routine, without lights and sirens, as their patients aren't too serious. The afternoon shift doctor figures that she may as well go home, since things aren't as bad as they first seemed.

8:00 pm :::
Things have somewhat died down, until the first ambulance is heard in the distance bringing in what must be the major trauma victim. A crowd of ER staff instantaneously gathers at the ambulance bay entrance to greet the incoming disaster. Notably absent from the crowd are the seasoned veterans among the emerg staff, and the doctors, who are going about their own jobs.

8:05 pm :::
The ambulance has screeched to a halt, and the paramedics are throwing open the rear doors to reveal their mangled cargo. The crowd that gathered utters nearly an audible, collective groan of disappointment as the patient is wheeled out of the ambulance, sitting up on the stretcher, laughing and joking with the paramedic, without so much as a single indication of major burns, tree trunk impalements, or missing limbs or appendages. In fact, the patient has a makeshift splint on one of his legs, and other than that, appears to be completely well. The patient is deemed non-urgent, and the doctor sends me in to see him. He explains that the accident was pretty much a fender-bender that ended up with his car ramming the guardrail. And despite having what might have been a broken leg, he says that it doesn't hurt that much, and that actually the major thing bothering him right now is his runny nose.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

She was one of those 'natural' people, and the odd x-ray terrified her.

She was one of those 'natural' people, who always wanted to do things naturally, and even the odd x-ray terrified her. Too much radiation. She once wore a cast on her arm for 6 weeks after falling off a horse, for what could have been just a sprain, just to avoid the two x-rays it would have taken to rule out a fracture.

So, obviously, getting a mammogram was out of the question.

Her doctor tried over and over again to explain to her that a mammogram gives you a very minimal amount of radiation, the same amount as living in a city for 7 months (0.7 milliseverts) - the average U.S. citizen is exposed to 3 mSv per year of 'background' radiation.

The mammogram would have picked up her breast lump long before she felt it, long before it was diagnosed as cancer, and long before she would have to get her breast surgically removed.

A few years later, she started losing weight suddenly, then one day coughed up a startling amount of blood. She had never smoked, so lung cancer never even crossed her mind. Fortunately the radiation dose of 1 chest x-ray (0.1 mSv) no longer scared her, given her past experience, so she got the x-ray her doctor recommended to check it out. Unfortunately, however, breast cancer can spread to the lungs, which is what her doctor found on the x-ray. She died a few weeks after I met her in hospital, surrounded by her family, and countless beautiful flowers and cards showing how much she would be missed.

The week before she died, she said to her doctor over and over, over the sound of her oxygen and between short, gasping breaths, "I should have listened to you. I should have gotten that mammogram."

I had a conversation with another patient last month who is younger than my dad, an incredibly friendly and cheerful man, who is dying because he was too afraid to have a doctor stick a finger up his bum. Had he done that, his prostate cancer would have been discovered a long time ago, long before the it had the chance to spread to his spine, ribs, and legs, forcing him to live his last few months unable to get out of bed and suffering from excruciating pain every time he tried to take a breath. While you are celebrating Christmas with your family this year, his family will be celebrating their first Christmas without him.

It takes a lot to wrap my head around the fact that I am meeting and treating patients who will be dead very soon.

It's harder to accept the fact that a good number of these patients, who drink litres of alcohol a day, smoke like a chimney, don't get off their couches, and especially those who don't bother getting screened for cancer, could have had much longer lives.

Yeah, the screening tests we have aren't perfect, and some of them are uncomfortable and seem a bit undignified. But they do save lives, and so if you are in that age group, there is no excuse to not get them done.

This is not the place to get medical advice, so talk to your doctor about getting a prostate exam, a pap smear, or a mammogram. Sooner rather than later, please.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

If this post ends abruptly...

Note - I'm writing this in the hospital as I'm on call, so if it ends abruptly it means I got paged and have to run and was up all night and didn't get the chance to finish it.

While most of my call shifts have been pretty interesting, tonight seems to be very slow. So far, I've just been sitting around in the library, doing noth

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