Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts from the ICU

It's about 2 am, I've got a few minutes, and I figured I would post a few thoughts.

There was a game we played sometimes as kids in which a new player had to figure out the rules of the game as he went along, without knowing anything about them before the game started. It's torturous for the uninitiated, because they don't know what they're supposed to be doing, and when they try something, they're told they're not doing it right -- and they aren't, because, again, they don't know the rules.

Although everyone around me has been very nice and supportive, I often feel like I'm trapped in this game. Everyone else seems to know the rules, how things are supposed to be done, but I feel like I don't even know the objective of the game, much less how to achieve it. Learning the rules -- where to be, what to put in the note, how to order things, how to dictate, how to operate all these computer systems, how admissions work, etc. etc. etc. -- takes so much time that I feel like I can't work on the game's objective -- what's going on with this patient and how should I intervene. I'm used to being good at things, and I don't feel like I'm particularly good at this yet.

The ICU feels like the last place in the world you'd want to be if you're used to perfectionism. Unknowns abound, and either those around me aren't considering them, or they're more comfortable with not knowing. What's wrong with the patient in room 204? Who knows! Multiple concurrent disease processes to be considered, volumes of history to review, piles of medications to sort through. It's exhausting. I guess I anticipated that things would be a lot more lucid.

An elderly male patient of mine died last week. He came in Tuesday with trouble breathing, pneumonia, and leukemia. I talked to him for a little bit before he was sedated, paralyzed, and intubated. His family decided that their father wouldn't want to go on like this. The tube was pulled on Friday afternoon. He died five minutes later. I never talked to him after that first night. We never figured out what caused the pneumonia that ultimately killed him.

A man came in two nights ago after being in a car accident. He has a severe traumatic brain injury. He's in a coma. The prognosis is extremely grim; many are surprised he hasn't died yet. He almost did last night. He has a lot of family members here at the hospital, and I've found myself reluctant to introduce myself to them for fear of not knowing what to say. I know I wouldn't be able to answer any detailed neurosurgical questions. I don't know specifics about his prognosis. If I talk to them and can't answer their questions, it seems like I wouldn't be much help. So I read his chart, glance at his vital signs, and walk away, feeling like I've failed.

These two stories, and many others like them, leave me thinking frequently about what success is. Is it keeping people alive overnight? Nobody has died on my watch yet, but somehow I don't feel successful. Is it figuring out what is going on with each patient? I hope not, because it seems like the ICU in general, and especially at night, is more about keeping patients alive long enough for others to figure out what's wrong with them. But isn't that just passing the buck? If I'm caring for this person, don't I have an obligation to try my best to figure it out?

Maybe success is knowing the answers when the attendings, nurses, and family members ask me questions. I've never said/thought to myself "I don't know" this much in my life. Is success continuing to come in every day? That seems insufficient. For now, I guess it's continuing to give a crap, doing my best to think critically, paying attention to detail, and trying to learn.

Thank you for your comments, thoughts, and prayers. I'm committed to keep trying.


Carson said...

Thanks for the update Matt. Been thinking about you. Extremely interesting and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing.

Malerie said...

I'm glad you're taking time to blog. Not just because you'll be glad you did once this is all over but because I never get to see you and hear about how your nights are. Hang in there. Madeline and I think you are an amazing person, husband, and daddy who somehow balances everything and gives your all with everything you do.

corbin said...

The ICU sounds overwhelming, but you cannot be expected to figure out what's wrong with everyone. To get a little geeky, you are like the Riders of Rohan et al holding off the orc hordes at Helm's Deep in the Lord of the Rings. The opposing army is so vast that there is no possible way you can defeat all of them. You simply have to hold on until morning, meanwhile slaying as many attackers as possible. I've never seen someone with so much desire to do good as you have, so I know it's not in you to give up. Just don't let it get you down that you can't fix everyone immediately.

Sorry for geeking out on you there. ;)

corbin said...

Also, did I ever mail you the copy of Office you asked for? I feel like I just completely forgot, but I wanted to check with you first.

Heidi said...

Matthew, this is your cousin Heidi. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS!! That might sound so weird, but I finally feel like someone knows how I feel when I go to the hospital for my nursing clinicals. I know, in a small way, how you feel. This was the perfect ending to a very long week of overwhelming clinicals. Seriously, thank you. I feel renewed and uplifted. Good luck, I know it's supposed to get easier from here.