Anaesthetics – what I have learnt so far…

  • your ODP is your best friend and most of the time your saviour – treat them right.
  • there are literally a hundred ways to skin a cat. And more to come up with a plan for anaesthetic for any given patient. All are right and some may be wrong – try to sift though and pick and choose and delete and save – and come up with your own brand of magic
  • always be on time for a theater list – or 30-45 minutes early! Pre-op assessments are part of your learning and an integral part of why we do what we do when we give a patient a particular anaesthetic.
  • make sure you attend most if not all teaching/training days arranged by the deanery – they’re VERY particular about attendance
  • know your doses – sux, roc, propofol, local anaesthetics, etc. You may be called upon at the most surprising of moments to decide a drug amount (for example the surgeon may yell out during the procedure how much local anaesthetic he can infiltrate in his rectus sheath block and you may need to do your maths to give them the answer. Bring your A-game)
  • get ready to be surprised at how chilled and laid-back everyone and everything is. When I first entered the department I expected everyone to be on their toes, pumped full of adrenaline, dancing around critical patients who were losing their airways and fighting fires along the way – while this is essentially what happens, things aren’t quite as dramatic
  • get ready for a VERY steep earning curve. Very steep. Very. With a capital S (for steep)
  • There are 4 times more consultants in anaesthetics than emergency medicine. Even more than that. 6 weeks into my anaesthetics rotation and I still haven’t worked with or met all of them. And only 4 times have I worked with someone I have worked with already.
  • Anaesthetics is not about intubating everyone. In my first month, I had observed 58 surgical procedures – only 7 of which were intubated. The rest were mostly LMAs/iGels.
  • The best talent to have/learn is not how to intubate; How to ventilate, bag-mask is more important.
  • You will really get good at cannulation. All sorts of difficult, easy, wriggly, invisible, stubborn veins – you will put a cannula in to all sorts. And then some.
  • Will continue to update these as the time comes. Feel free to watch this space.

Interesting Observations on a mock OSCE Teaching Day

Hi all – so a few days back I had the unique opportunity to organize (OK who am I kidding? I helped to organise) a 1-day course for the FRCA OSCE exam in our deanery. We as the juniors of the department of anaesthetics/ITU/Theaters were called upon to help with various tasks: timekeeper for the different stations, be a patient for history taking, or be one of the relatives for counselling, be a mannequin for examinations, etc. I had a multitude of nominal tasks on the day, but what I found to be invaluable to me that day were a few observations that I made observing the various candidates as they filed through the different stations, and I list those observations here in no particular order to be taken as advice for all my colleagues who have OSCEs to take, bear these in mind:

– Be cognisant of time. As you walk up to the OSCE station, whether it gives you 30 seconds to read through an initial scenario or there is a piece of paper with questions written on it that you are expect to answer, get into the mental zone where you can mould yourself to give what is required of that particular station in the time provided. If there is one question that needs to be answered, you can be a bit relaxed, if there are 3 questions on the paper, make sure you are aware of the time you have to divide amongst them all to do justice to all. If the station requires an interaction with someone like a viva or a direct encounter, make sure you have a framework in mind, a mental checklist to check things off during the actual station so that you are not rambling on about your second point when there are 7 other things you need to be talking about.

–  When asked a question, don’t feel pressured to answer as soon as you sit down – take a breath, pause, ponder over the question for a few seconds, frame your answer for the next few, and then open your mouth to speak. Do not repeat the question back to the examiner in wonderment, as if puzzling it over, you may think you are buying time while you collect your thoughts, but it looks unprofessional. If you need time to answer, take it, but do not insult the examiners’ intelligence by repeating the question back word for word. It is a waste of time.

– When asked a question, avoid using pronouns like ‘you’ as a general term. “If you are on the floor for a long time, your creatinine kinase levels may rise.” While correct, it looks like you are addressing the examiner, whereas a more professional way to answer would be “Patients lying on the floor for extended periods of time may have elevated levels of creatinine kinase.”

– Following on from the previous point – when describing the anatomical location of anything, or a function, it is OK to use your hands to express yourself, but do not gesture towards your own body as a descriptor for your answer. In answer to the question Where can an IO needle be inserted? you may think it is the right answer to point to your sternum, your humerus or your tibial tuberosity, but it won’t score you any points. Also please practise certain expressions or gestures, gesturing towards your crotch for instance when talking about urinary catheterisation is inappropriate. And for goodness sake, it is even worse to point these things out on the examiners body.

– Use proper terminology, use buzzwords if you know them (we all know them) and specific things carry specific marks so make sure you attend some sort of course at least once in your life for OSCE practise so that you know what the examiner is looking for in a particular station when they ask you a particular question. Also, examiners know when you are beating about the bush and not getting to the point – so don’t waste their time (and yours), admit you do not know, and move on.

– Having done poorly in a previous station has no bearing on how you can or should perform in the next one – so do not let anything bother you. Yes, you may well have failed the previous station, but if you continue to mull over it or let it get to you, you may ruin your chances of passing the next one as well. Once you step out of one station, close that chapter, and open the next one with a clean slate.

–  Do not try to impress with big words and fancy terms – be simple, logical and just answer to the best of your knowledge. They are there to test your knowledge and see how good you are with using that knowledge. They are not there to ask for your hand in marriage.

–  If there is a written station, please write clearly. In our current professional examination climate, where usually there is a tick box or a fill-in-the-correct-circle type answer sheets, we forget how to answer the short answer type questions. Make sure it is legible. Your right answer is useless if no one can decipher it.

–  Read up on the simple things (in case of our anaesthetics colleagues, anatomy and physiology, undoubtedly – aside from the usual physics etc) – understand the concept behind why something is done or not done, and it will make it easier for you in these exams.

–  Study. I don’t know why it is so under-rated, that OSCE exams are interaction based and so I just don’t need to read up on how to take a history or do a pre-op assessment or perform a physical examination or test the cranial nerves – we do it everyday, and we get into a comfortable zone – but the exam might need for us to brush up on those skills and make sure we are not missing out on anything. MOST candidates missed an important part of the history taking station, as well as the counselling station – points were docked, valuable points, and for some that can mean the difference between passing and failing.

ECT – the conflict within

DISCLAIMER 1 – EXTRA-LONG POST. You have been warned.
DISCLAIMER 2 – More importantly – this is in no way supposed to be a ‘for’ or ‘against’ type of post regarding any particular therapy/treatment – it is just my opinion and my own feelings about this experience which was very new to me. Bear with me, before rushing to judgement or conclusion – and if you already have formed an opinion without prior knowledge/experience then please stop reading further!)

For those of you who do not know, I have recently started my 6 month rotation in Anesthesia as part of my emergency medicine training, and it has introduced me to a whole new weird and wonderful world that is equal parts unexpected and fun and slightly scary but mostly awesome. But more about that later. Today (and for the past few days) I have been wrestling with some inner demons (wow, that’s not melodramatic at all!) about a recent experience and the ensuing internal conflict broiling inside me. I will try to explain things in my usual way, which is to take you on that journey with me.

So the day usually starts at 7:30 AM, and the rota tells you it’s a different theater every morning – I checked the night before and all it said was that I was assigned to a particular consultant to shadow (read badger/annoy for the rest of the day!) and that we were supposed to be in the “ECT” area (theater?) in a completely different building from the one I had been going to for operations/procedures requiring anaesthetics in the past week. My first thought was ECT? It can’t be electroconvulsive therapy? That’s not still being done in this day and age? But I texted one of my friends in the same rotation as I am, and he said this area was in the building that houses the maternity block, and I thought it was probably some sort of gynaecological/obstetric procedure requiring anaesthesia which is why I am being assigned to this and I am sure I thought of ECV – external cephalic version! I reassured myself and went to bed, woke up the next day bright and early and headed to whatever this amazing day heralded. It was not amazing. Atleast, not initially.

ECT, as it turned out, did mean electroconvulsive therapy – a treatment for drug-resistant psychiatric conditions (please excuse the rough/non-medical language) – and I found out that what I was assigned to today was in fact the ECT suite, a separate entity from the rest of the hospital- where I was shown around while I was waiting for the consultant. There was a procedure room, with anaesthetic stuff and an OT table, and a separate recovery area. There were 4 nurses, a head nurse, 2 health care assistants and 1 psychiatrist/consultant – aside from my anaesthetics consultant and absolute-novice-baby me! The whole area was very peaceful and calm, and the staff were very friendly and spoke in calm, reassuring voices even when they asked me if I would like a cup of tea. I felt myself calm down a bit (I was nervous because A- I had no idea what to expect and B- I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT!)

There were 4 patients on the list for today. 3 of them (the first 2 and the last one) were regulars, here for their 7th, 3rd and 11th treatments, so they did not need pre-assessments doing from an anaesthetics point of view – just a confirmation of their consent for the current procedure (consent did not mean a blanket consent for all treatments, you could consent to the first treatment and revoke consent at any later treatment session, if you were deemed to have capacity. All 4 patients today had capacity) The 4th one had completed 12 sessions of the ECT previously and that usually meant their treatment was over. But their doctor had assessed them and had thought that despite the improvement the patient could benefit from further sessions, and so they had to give another detailed informed consent – because initially they had consented to the 12 sessions, and this was adding on to what they had initially consented for. But I digress – there was just so much to take in and learn that I do not want to miss out on any of the details/finer points that I came across.

So anyway – while we waited for the first patient to turn up, my consultant took pity on the incredulous expression that I had on my face (this was without me realising it) and explained a few things to me, and looked up a very good paper for me to read about ECT. He broke down what we needed to do here, which basically entailed: introducing ourselves; confirming patient details; confirming no changes to medical/pre-assessment history had taken place in the last week since last treatment; putting a cannula in; hooking them up to some monitoring (continuous ECG trace, pulse oximeter, blood pressure, an initial temperature reading) and also hooking them to an EEG machine which is basically just like an ECG of the brain – mapping the electrical activity of the brain; administering the induction agent (usually propofol) and/or a sedative, and supporting the patients breathing before, during and after the procedure till the anaesthetic wears off.  ECT is basically electric current that is run via two ports/electrodes placed at both temples while the patient is unconscious. The current causes your neutrons to fire in a way to cause a generalised toniclonic seizure, and your brain activity is mapped continuously to make sure it has worked, and that the seizure lasts a certain length of time (usually greater than 10 seconds but on average about 30seconds in duration). It is essentially equivalent to being ‘under’ for a surgical procedure, just like you don’t feel the surgeons scalpel or drill, you do not feel the actual shock. Your heart rate and oxygen levels and blood pressure and all that jazz is continuously monitored and in the event of any fluctuations, it is handled by the team of extremely qualified individuals in attendance, as it would be in any surgical procedure. But the actual procedure was what caused me to be so incredulous. Why, you may ask? I will explain, but first let me take you through the first patient’s treatment.

This was a 50-something female, with a history of depression, and she had become so depressed that she had stopped eating and drinking, and none of the medication or combinations of medications had seemed to work on her. I had all this information from her history sheet, and chatting with the consultant psychiatrist made it clear that this was sort of a last resort. She had become anorexic to the point that she didn’t really have the strength to lift up her head from where she lay in bed, to take a sip of water. She was initially medically rehabilitated, her caloric intake monitored and her strength returned, and while she had become medically fit, her depression was still strong. She began this prescribed treatment, and today was coming in for her 7th session. She had been almost a complete mute prior to the first treatment, and was markedly different today. She walked in to the room unsupported (I thought she would atleast be in a wheelchair). She made eye contact with all of us. She smiled at me when I said good morning, and replied shyly that it was indeed a good morning. As they hooked her up to the various monitors she looked around with that smile her face, and gave adequate responses to the questions and requests from the staff members, such as May I put these ECG stickers on you?, and can I put a cannula into the back of your hand? We walked her through the procedure, put her under and after she had drifted off to sleep and we were monitoring her airway and breathing, we put a rubber/foam type thing between her teeth so she wouldn’t end up biting her tongue or lips, and then they placed those electrodes on her temples and …I don’t know what I expected, probably that the patients arms would flail around and her legs would jerk up off the table and it would all be very violent and gruesome. It was certainly difficult to see, but nothing quite as dramatic as that. She just straightened out a bit, feet became a bit rigid and there was a generalise trembling, followed by some twitching. The continuous EEG trace showed she had had a seizure that lasted 34 seconds, and while she became tachycardiac during it, she settled down almost at once after the seizure ended. She began breathing spontaneously after a few minutes and was taken to recovery as she regained consciousness. And now for the crux of this post – the reason why I was so conflicted.

All my life, or at least the last 10 years when I have been a doctor (15 if you count medical school) I have been working with the idea that we need to minimize seizures and we work very hard to figure why someone may have had their first fit, to try and prevent it from happening again, and I have been involved in extensively counselling and reassuring family and patients and parents of toddlers etc on the subject – so the ‘inducing’ of a seizure as a treatment was a bit of a shock – no pun intended! I knew the patient came to no harm from the immediate procedure, the electric current and the anaesthesia, and they actually did not feel anything, much like any surgical procedure (with the added benefit of amnesia as a known side effect of propofol!) and much more importantly, the patients reportedly feel better and they don’t have memory of it etc etc. But having never actually witnessed it before, I had quite mixed feelings about it because it conflicted with my mindset of ‘how to manage a seizing patient’ – as opposed to this current situation – once again, no pun intended! The conflict I speak about is not of the “ohmygod I do not agree with this practise how dare they?!” type of reflection, and I apologise if it sounded that way. Rather it is more of a “everything I feel inherently about this situation is basically not true!” and I had to actively try and work towards not panicking when I saw this patient seize. And the one after that. And the one after that. It didn’t get any easier, and I didn’t get used to it and it really bothered me. I didn’t know what really was most bothersome for me. Was it the fact that I pride myself in being completely professional and see all sorts of unexpected medical scenarios and presentations as an emergency medicine trainee with the calm and focussed approach that is taught and cultivated in my specialty, but that in my almost 6 or so years of emergency medicine experience, I have never been this affected by any procedure or situation? In other words, was it the procedure that had bothered me, or my own reaction to it?

A few positive notes/observations from the day –
*Any patient who can consent because they are deemed to have capacity will be asked for their explicit consent for the treatment, and they will be given the full information regarding it. Out of the 4 patients scheduled for the day, the 3rd one who was coming in for her 13th treatment (having completed 12 previous ones and deemed to still be in requirement of a few further sessions) came in and then declined to give consent for the next one. And, even though she had consented for 12 sessions and had had them, AND she had the capacity to refuse at any time, we respected her decision and she went home. We didn’t just strap her down like a bunch of frankenstein-y mad doctors while cackling in high pitched laughter to administer jolts of voltage against her will – though I will be the first to admit this is what I thought when I first found out I was in the ECT suite, that this was my unfortunate concept of ECT, based on nothing but my (very vivid, it turns out) imagination.
*Also, it has been around since 1938 – there is tons of research on this topic and while it is all shrouded in controversy mostly due to preconceived notions and ideas, there is no denying the absolute faith people have in this treatment.
*The sons of the first patient who’s treatment I detailed earlier were sat outside in the relatives’ room and while the patient was being wheeled to recovery, I went and asked them how they felt the treatment was affecting their mum. They both agreed there was a distinct difference in Mum, that she had begun enjoying her meals – looking forward to what was on the menu for the day,  offering to go to the park with the grandchildren and making plans for one of the sons’ wedding that was supposed to be an out of country type thing. This was in stark contrast to her being in the throes of progressively worsening depression since their father had passed away a few years ago.
*They don’t just administer this treatment without trying anything else.
*It is not like touching a live wire; you don’t feel anything – you aren’t zapped like a Tom&Jerry cartoon situation. In fact, the voltage is so low that I was surprised that while the current was being administered, one of the nurses had their hands on the patient’s chin as a reinforcing/reassuring measure. They were clearly not feeling the effects of a transmitted significant voltage, unlike in a cardiac arrest situation if you administer an electrical shock, you have to be clear and not touching any part of the patient’s body lest you get a shock as well. It is all very professional and clean and protocol-oriented.
*There are a lot of good people working very hard to make the experience as comfortable and easy for the patient as possible.

At some point I will probably do some research into the subject. It has certainly piqued my interest – but I am ashamed to admit I won’t be looking forward to the next time I get assigned to this area, and I dread looking at the rota announcing when I am going to go there next. And at some point I may actually grow to appreciate the whole process. And look beyond the obvious conflict. But today is not that day. Sigh.

Last shift as an ST1 – bittersweet to say the least

So for ACCS we have 6 monthly rotations for the first 2 years, and tomorrow I go for my last shift as part of my A&E rotation (yay, yes I made it to the end!) AND  it will be my last ever shift as a year 1 trainee (or ST1) – even more yay!

This year has been wonderful – I got to know the slightly different other side of the coin as an acute medicine doctor the first 6 months of this year, and got to see firsthand what happens when you refer a patient to the medical specialty: what they look for, how they assess them, what investigations do they do and what is there mindset – and I learnt there were things I could do while the patient was in ED as my patient, and I could tweak certain things and maybe request something that would help the acute medicine department deal with the patient and make an informed and safe decision about their medical care – and maybe stop them from being admitted in the first place! This last bit was especially a unique experience, trying to sort out a patient with the 4 hour time pressure, but sometimes you picked up a patient that usually would be referred to the medical specialty, but if you had the time in ED you could potentially start a treatment that may actually make them better before their 4 hours were up and you could end up sending them home rather than in-hospital – like for a second troponin or someone who is slightly tachycardia with a fever, treat them and re-evaluate, obviously if they still warrant it, get them admitted but if they improve and can continue treatment at home, then let them go into their own familiar surroundings (sometimes the best option for patients with dementia and other cognitive impairment) – and the it doesn’t go unappreciated by the medical team!

The next 6 months were truly wonderful – learning experience from the get go – and since emergency medicine is my chose poison, my specialty of interest, I really was looking forward to it – and it did not disappoint. I learnt so many new things, and not just about the medical bit of it, but about myself as well. I gained confidence. I passed an exam (again, yay!). I realised I was interested in paediatrics, with a possible PEM (paediatric emergency medicine) fellowship consideration seriously for the future). I realised it wasn’t JUST about the resus patients, the cardiac events and the rest pains and the low-GCS and the stabbed-in-the-groin and the 3 passenger trauma call  – those were the interesting and the adrenaline pumping stuff you think of when you think emergency medicine. But I also realised that on a day to day basis you may not even see any of those heart-pumping sort of cases, and may have to deal with accidental overdoses and dental pains (!!!) and minor injuries (oh how I loved the minor injuries – really loved learning there!) and the beautifully vague C?C or ‘Collapse query cause’ and an amazing amount of geriatric and elderly care cases. And I realised I had chosen the right field. Because you don’t just treat the stuff of legend – crack open a chest or put a tube into the chest or restore alignment of a broken or dislocated bone, but you also end up (mostly) sorting out the more mundane cases and they teach you patience and empathy and make you also realise that these cases are also equally important: passing a catheter may be considered a legendary feat by the patient who comes in with 15 hours of urinary retention, or the wrist brace you put on an elderly patient with a sprain may make a world of difference to an elderly patient who has been unable to sleep due to the pain. It is the sorting of these cases which some may consider to be ‘boring’ or ‘brander’ or ‘not exciting’ that is truly the bread and butter of the ED physician.

And now I stand at the cusp of transitioning from year 1 to year 2 – going onwards to a 6 month rotation in aesthetics followed by ITU for 6 months. Am I excited? Yes. Am I nervous? You bet! Why excited, you ask? because: new things to learn and do that I have never known/done before. Why nervous? Because…exactly the same reason! But I am certainly looking forward to airway skills and critical care assessment, and gaining more confidence by adding to my skills – I hope its not too steep of a learning curve! Onwards and upwards, eh?

(Also – no weekends or nights for the first three months in aesthetics, and Friday half day –  somebody pinch me! I might just die of excitement at the prospect of that routine after the A&E rota! So yeah, joy!)

The Intestinal Obstruction That Wasn’t

84 year old male – known to have chronic constipation, and on warfarin for atrial fibrillation – referred in by his GP for ‘inability to open bowels for 2 weeks’ – yes you read that right folks, T-W-O W-E-E-K-S! – ‘increasing abdominal distension and abdominal pain, along with decreased appetite and a possible mass in the pelvis/abdomen going above the umbilical area’.
The nurse triaging him came to me, asking for some pain relief for the patient ‘and an enema because that’s what he usually has for his constipation’ – I decided to go see the patient myself. I stepped into the cubicle and the gentleman seemed to be in some discomfort, but he kept saying that he was in an uncomfortable position/posture rather than anything else causing him discomfort. I introduced myself and asked him what had brought him to ED – he replied by telling me he had not opened his bowels for 2 weeks now, and though was still passing wind and had passed some today, he was drinking very little and felt nauseous and omitted a few times in the past 3 days. I asked him if he had been passing urine normally, and he reported that yes he was peeing fine, but that he was drinking so less due to the nausea that only small amounts were trickling when he needed to go. I took that statement at face value and moved on. He was lying in a trolley, awake but lethargic and completely oriented. His observations were all within normal limits except for a systolic BP of 89, and his GP notes reported a background of chronically low blood pressure. I examine him, of particular note is his visibly very distended tummy – which assort but distended, feels like gaseous distention from the percussion notes, and with tinkling infrequent bowel sounds – and is quite sore particularly in the lower half of the abdomen, and I can also palpate a mass in the lower part of the abdomen – the patient reports that’s been going on for atleast 3-5 days, possibly when the vomitting began as well. This seemed very much to me to be a classic case of intestinal obstruction – and the management plan is – do baseline bloods (already very kindly done by the triage nurse), get venous access (also done), start some fluids, abdominal X-rays, nasogastric tube and surgical referral, and also catheterise patient, to monitor intake and output.
I speak to my registrar who agrees with said plan of action and while I request the X-rays and take the patient down for it, the lab apparently calls back and my registrar takes the call – the patient’s urea is 44, and the creatinine is 469, last creatinine 3 weeks ago was 141 – so he is going into renal failure, if not there already. While I seemingly faff around with the surgical consult, my registrar gets an ultrasound machine, and I assume it is to rule out a AAA, so I walk into the cubicle with him. And he explains to me a great pearl of wisdom that clearly comes with experience but is such a simple thing that I am left berating myself for not thinking about it earlier. He told me that if someone comes in with such significant renal function decline so acutely, always think of and rule out an obstructive cause for this presentation before moving on to other more sinister things. He was doing an ultrasound to look for hydronephrosis or hydroureter, which is basically the dilated urine collection channels in the kidney downwards and the reason they are dilated is due to an obstruction further down the channel. And that is exactly what he found. The left kidney was moderately enlarged but the right kidney was massive and its ureter was like a fire hydrant pipe rather than the small thin tube – and the mass in the lower part of the abdomen, going from pelvis and extending up from the umbilical area? His urinary bladder!!! I was in shock – as my registrar then gave me the second pearl of wisdom: never believe anything you are told, do not take it for granted until you have objective evidence. The patient felt he was peeing less and less because he wasn’t drinking enough. Yet he was peeing less because the channels beyond his bladder were so narrowed and obstructed that they did not allow emptying of the bladder and it just kept filling up till it was a massive huge thing floating in his belly. I at once made arrangement to catheterise the patient, whereby 2000 ml (that’s 2 litres!!!) of dark brownish urine poured forth out of him.

He had been in urinary retention for the better part of 3-4 days, possibly due to an enlarged prostate that had just gotten worse, and his constipation (though being chronic) was either a factor of his massive bladder pressing on his rectum/colon and not allowing the contents to move ahead; or (a bit like the chicken and egg thing, of which came first?) he was constipated, which gave him some abdominal pain (expected) and that pain had the added effect of causing urinary retention – anyways, after passing the catheter and draining all that urine the patient felt quite comfortable, and the surgeons took him away to do their wonderful things.