In a Crisis

The Daily Prompt made me remember…

During my specialist training, I had to rotate through ICU. There the principles of taking care of the unconscious patient on a ventilator are learnt, and that experience is used for as long as you handle a scalpel. Some patients had metabolic problems, septicaemia or were recovering from major surgery; each of them posing situations a good surgeon must be able to manage. That initial rotation through ICU is extremely important to any doctor who treats critically ill patients.

It was during my stint in ICU that one of my patients had a particular problem with his heart rate and the consultant told me to do a cardioversion. I had never seen the procedure before but he explained that it was rather simple. As the patient was fully conscious, I was to give him a bit of Pentothal, and while he drifted off to sleep, an electric current is passed through his heart. Readers familiar with ER-TV shows know that’s when the doctor shouts “Clear!” and pushes the little red button on the paddles. Now in those days, things weren’t so sophisticated. The red button was grey. The dial on the defibrillator had to be set on a certain strength (no little LED lights), and the ECG machines were huge brutes with a mass of complicated connections.

I explained to the patient what was going to happen and gave him the Pentothal—just a little, as he was going to be asleep for just a minute or so. He smiled as he drifted off into sublime sleep. I set the machine, applied the paddles, and pushed the little grey button. The patient gave a little shudder. I glanced up at the console of the ECG machine. A straight line had replaced the wriggly squiggle of his abnormal rhythm. I felt ice water dripping down where my spine used to be. That straight line meant that I had, all by myself, officially killed my first patient!

I panicked. I had to do something, and quick! I replaced the paddles, and gave him another shock… straight line. Shock again… straight line. Another one… straight line. By now the patient’s chest was adorned by the red circles of my efforts, making him look like a pancake baker with Parkinson’s disease. Sweat was running down my nose as I frantically tried to think what to do next.

At this time the patient sat up and gave me an exasperated look. His Pentothal-induced sleep had long worn off.

“My G-d, Doctor, when are you going to stop?”

It took me what seemed a lifetime to figure it out. With my first shock, the ECG machine had blown a valve (yes, they still had those bulb-like stuff in there, in those days!) and of course, hence the straight line. When I connected him to the machine of the patient in the next bed, a completely normal ECG pattern rewarded me.

The patient left ICU a few days later, convinced that I may be a good doctor, but as a technician my future was in doubt.

(From: Facing Surgery with Christ, Tate Publishers)



15 thoughts on “In a Crisis

  1. jaimmers

    I didn’t see that coming! You gave me a good laugh this morning. Thanks. And yesterday, the rabbit song in my head from South Africa to Chicago, USA. The power of the internet. 🙂


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