Respiratory Bedside Emergencies

Source: ICU FAQ.org

Non-intubated:

63: What if my patient becomes short of breath?
64: What if she has COPD?
65: Is acutely hypoxic?
66: What if I gave her too much oxygen?
67: Is acutely hypercarbic?
68: When should I get a blood gas?
69: Suddenly starts wheezing?
70: What if my patient is “flashing”?
71: What is “guppy breathing”?
72: What if my patient stops breathing?
73: Obstructs her airway?
74: Has sleep apnea?
75: Plugs?
76: What does a pneumothorax look like?
77: Should we needle the chest or not?

Intubated:

78: What if my patient codes during intubation?
79: Bites the ET tube?
80: Extubates herself?
81: Extubates herself and runs down the hall extubating everyone else?
82: What if I can’t get the ET tube cuff to seal?
83: How do I know if she needs to be reintubated?

Respiratory
Non- Intubated:

63: What if my patient becomes short of breath?

This is almost never going to happen out of context with the underlying problem – does the patient have heart disease – did she flash? Did she aspirate? Does she have her air boots on? (Why am I asking?) Did she plug? Anaphylax? See Vin Diesel on the TV? (My daughter explains these things to me.)

You won’t go wrong by calling for help – get the team, get respiratory, get the resource nurse. Does the patient need to be suctioned? The good thing is that - as always - you don’t have to work the problem by yourself. Let me restate this central principle yet again: get help. Ask questions. Work with the team, of which you are a part.

Not actually to be filed under the “short of breath” category, but a nice story anyhow, is the time that I was working on a floor, I think it was during the Pleistocene era (I try to remember which dinosaurs were around then besides myself), and a woman gave me a frantic wave from down the hall. Her roommate, a nice enough lady who never stopped talking, ever, under any circumstances including sleep, had done the classic aspiration thing of a piece of her dinner – just like they teach you in CPR. Obviously before the days of central sat monitoring. She was a very interesting color. I slid into the bed behind her – she was sitting up – did the Heimlich, and out it popped. So that works, anyhow. Or it did then. Good to know.

64: What if she has COPD?

These patients carry around their own set of problems. Oftentimes they’ll come in with something that’s pushed them over the edge – they’re usually sitting there with their feet hanging over the edge anyway. Maybe a URI, maybe pneumonia, maybe a COPD flare. Remember that these folks won’t tolerate much oxygen. Nebs, steroids, antibiotics maybe, and remember too that any sedation you give them may be just what they need to stop breathing…

65: Is acutely hypoxic?

Is he wet? Did he plug? Throw a PE? Come disconnected from the vent? Try to think of the possibilities, and try to fit things in with the diagnostic picture: “Oh, he needs to be diuresed again.” Or: “Oh, he’s just put his chewing gum over his trach again – you can always tell.” You'll never go wrong by calling for help, and getting an EKG, a blood gas, and maybe asking for a stat chest x-ray.

66: What if I gave her too much oxygen?

Ah, big deal. So she has COPD and stopped breathing, so what? I mean really, this preoccupation with trivial details…

67: Is acutely hypercarbic?

C02 narcosis is definitely for real. A COPD patient will become unresponsive if they “retain” CO2 when they get too much oxygen. Everybody understands how that works, right? No?

In five minutes or less: When you hold your breath, and your brain begins to scream "Breathe, dopey!", it’s the chemoreceptors (also in the brain?) that are doing the yelling, because why? Because your pC02 is rising, up into the 50’s maybe. So, you breathe.

Now – if you’re dealing with a COPD patient, he probably walks around with a pC02 in the 50’s all the time. "50?", he says, "Ha! It is to laugh! I don’t worry about no stinkin’ CO2! I got plenty of CO2! How about that, huh? What you got? You talkin’ ta me?" Taxi driver, is he? Personality might be giving you a clue here…

Of course with a pC02 of 70 he might not be breathing much anyhow, because he’ll be narcotized – patients with COPD will still do this – and will become unarousable, barely breathing. Time for a tube? Narcan? Romazicon? Sometimes you can head off intubation with something like a bipap mask – they work, but I hate them. The patients often hate them. And all they need to do is vomit into them…can you imagine? The word is that it takes 20cm of forward pressure from a mask device to start pushing air into the esophagus, inflating the stomach…I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

Anyway. In the case of COPDers, walking around as they do with a chronically high pC02, the chemoreceptor thing is deactivated – doesn’t work any more, exactly because of that continually high C02, as though they had become saturated, which maybe they are. So these people use a backup system (apparently it was the Great Biomedical Engineer up above who invented redundant systems – I mean was that smart or what?) – they get a stimulus to breathe when they become hypoxic, rather than hypercarbic. You’d think hypoxia would be the primary drive, but it ain’t.

"So okay, they breathe when they’re hypoxic, big deal." Well, the problem is, see, that if you then give them all the oxygen that they seem to want, why, then they may have no drive to breathe at all, ‘cause they aren’t hypoxic any more. Which is what they were depending on. And they may stop. Right in front of you. Because you put 100% on them. Bummer.

Actually it seems to be a progressive thing – they’ll breathe less and less as they get a higher and higher FiO2. This is called "retaining", because they retain CO2 in response to getting oxygen - they exchange less gas, breathing more and more shallowly. You can actually document the rise with a series of blood gases, and it can be very abrupt: "Look, on 40% his pCO2 was 62, but on 60% it was 104!" "I guess that was when he stopped breathing, huh?" Narced. Sometimes these patients want something like 1.5 liters/minute of oxygen and no more. Strange but true.

68: When should I get a blood gas?

Our rule is to get a blood gas anytime we make a vent change (about 20 minutes later), or if there’s a clinical change in the patient. Here’s a story: not too long ago we had a patient with respiratory failure, looking kind of tenuous on 100% face mask O2 (not a CO2 retainer… even some people with COPD, just aren’t) – and the intern had sent a blood gas which looked pretty good. The patient became increasingly agitated, which was treated with some Ativan, then some Haldol. He then became unresponsive, and pale, and wasn’t breathing much, if at all – when we asked the intern to send another gas, (he was in the room with us), he told us that the last one had been fine – what was the problem? Audience – what was the problem? Actually, more than one person in that room had a problem.

69: Suddenly starts wheezing?

Did the patient just get a new med? Is she having an allergic reaction to something? Is she halfway through her first dose of a new antibiotic? Stop giving whatever it is she’s getting, get the team, get some benadryl, maybe some IV hydrocortisone…then there are the people who "flash" in CHF and wheeze – they call this "cardiac asthma": get an EKG. It always depends on the context.

70: What if my patient is "flashing"?

This often comes under what we looked at before under the heading of the "acutely ischemic" thing. The basic rule for any acute situation always applies: get the help you need into the room right away (this always includes the resource nurse.) Try to think ahead a bit: is the patient going to need intubation in the next five minutes? Three minutes? Half hour? Try to remember "LMNOP", ekgs, blood gases, an x-ray, things like that, and suggest them at appropriate times. Then make sure they happen if they need to.

71: What is "guppy breathing"?

It doesn’t a whole lot of ICU experience to figure out that a patient breathing shallowly at a rate of 60 isn’t going to last very long before needing some kind of intervention: mask vent support, suctioning, diuresis, intubation – maybe all of those, depending, but guppy breathing shouldn’t be allowed to go along without some kind of decision about treatment.

72: What if my patient stops breathing?

Well now that doesn’t sound very good, does it? As always, it depends on what’s going on. Your 92-year-old DNR patient dying of terminal whatever is probably not going to be leaped upon. A patient with too much narcotic on board might get the oral airway-mask-bag plus narcan treatment (don’t forget the restraints.) Your task is to see it coming. If you can do that, then you get to wear the invisible golden badge…some of the most experienced nurses never wear extraneous pins, plates, medals, or whatever – just scrub, name and maybe school pin. They’re hoping you see the invisible badge.

Note to hospital administrators: if you want your ICU to run like a swiss watch, remember that it’s the experienced nurses who are the jewels in the mechanism. Hold on to them.

73: Obstructs her airway?

What with? Did her tongue obstruct? Secretions? Time for a jaw thrust? Oral airway? Nasal airway? Suctioning? All of the above?

74: Has sleep apnea?

These are the people whose tongue will obstruct their airway about 25 times an hour so that they never get any sleep. Tiring. These people often do well with the application of a CPAP mask, or a nasal bipap device – the forward pressure holds things open during the breathing cycle. Sedatives usually a bad idea.

75: Plugs?

This should be the kind of thing that you see coming – the patient who comes in with pneumonia, getting hydrated maybe, who is starting to loosen up all the dry secretions that have been hiding in his lungs for the past week or two. Remember that secretions tend to create a pattern of worsening ventilation – the O2 sat may actually be okay, but the pC02 may be rising rapidly, so the patient’s excellent saturation may be fooling you. Use a nasal trumpet for frequent blind suctioning, and say you’re sorry.

76: What does a pneumothorax look like?

Sometimes young people will walk into an ER someplace complaining of feeling funny, and it’ll turn out that they’ve been walking around with a dropped lung for who knows how long. Patients in the unit tend to be in rougher shape to start with, and a pneumo is usually pretty obvious – something suddenly looks really wrong. Your main clues still come from the context – did they just get a new neck/ chest central line? How many sticks did it take? How much PEEP is your patient on (are his lung apices up around his teeth – easier to hit?)

Once you have some idea of what the problem could be, the clues will start falling into place – oxygenation worsening abruptly? Any kind of abrupt respiratory change should get a chest x-ray; then hopefully you’ll really know.

Another very useful clue is the appearance of a visible pulsus paradoxus on the patient’s arterial line waveform. This is easier to understand than it sounds: the patient’s blood pressure will drop when the pressure in the chest rises during the breathing cycle – if the patient is intubated, that happens on inspiration; if not intubated, it happens on expiration. If there’s a substantial pneumo in there (or a cardiac tamponade – anything that compresses the heart), then the small addition of added pressure during the breath compresses the heart just enough to stop effective pumping – when the pressure comes off, then the pump starts working again. It’s very dramatic sometimes, and it means that the situation in the chest is really becoming critical – soon the pressures will rise high enough that the heart will be compressed all the time. Bad.

77: Should we needle the chest or not?

You wouldn’t want to be wrong about this, right? (My smart-guy best friend says "I thought I was wrong once but, uh, I was wrong.") Needling the chest may produce the pneumothorax that you are hoping to treat – and that patient will be pretty much committed to a chest tube as a result. Wait for the x-ray if you can, but have your equipment on hand. If the situation approaches a code, then giving your patient a chest tube will probably hurt a whole lot less than half an hour of chest compressions…


Intubated:

78: What if my patient codes during intubation?

This may mean that you waited too long to tube him – the team may hesitate to intubate a patient who might respond to other measures. Judgment call. Patients in the middle of some really acute ARDS-like situation may need more and more oxygen over the course of even a single shift – this kind of rapid movement usually means that intubation is coming, or should be. There’s often a great deal of resistance to intubation in a situation that seems crystal - clear to experienced ICU nurses – and who may even be wrong. (I know – hard to believe that ICU nurses can be wrong.) My own feeling is that you can always extubate someone, but if you wait until they’re horribly hypoxic you may get into real trouble.

An example: a patient with a sat of 97 on 100% high-flow mask O2, maybe plus a nasal cannula, or maybe on a CPAP mask is not going to do well if you remove all that hardware to intubate him…as in any acutely hypoxic situation where the sat drops, say, below 70, bradycardia can result. Have atropine nearby, but see if the patient’s rate comes up first after the tube gets in.

79: Bites the ET tube?

Not good. I think we talked somewhere else about patients coding, or biting through pilot lines and deflating their tube cuffs - biting your airway closed is generally not such a good idea. This patient may need sedation, reassurance, a bite block, or all three.

80: Extubates herself?

Not a good thing – the patient can do herself some vocal cord damage this way, even though the cuffs are very soft and inflated to low pressures. Confused patients can be really determined to pull their ET tubes out, and can get very inventive about getting loose from restraints. A better plan is probably to keep the patient safely sedate until she’s ready to extubate. Propofol is a good choice for this situation, as it wears off quickly.

If it looks like the patient might "fly" after a self-extubation, what we do is apply 100% FM 02 (if they’re not a known C02 retainer), and watch them very carefully. Clearly some people are going to do worse than others; a patient intubated for airway protection after an opiate overdose will probably do fine if he’s awake enough to extubate himself, but someone with a bad pneumonia may need reintubation right away. Keep your intubation equipment handy, and make sure everyone knows that the patient may "de-tune" at any time. Set your alarm limits tight!

Jayne: We keep a bag hanging beside the vent, with a mask O2 setup ready in case this happens.

81: Extubates herself and runs down the hall extubating everyone else?

Hmm. Is she an angry respiratory therapist? Ask her to deflate the cuffs first.

82: What if I can’t get the ET tube cuff to seal?

Couple of possiblities: is the tube in the right place? If the cuff is near the cords, it won’t seal because it isn’t big enough to seal the airway up there. Look at the cm marks on the side of the tube: in average-size people the tube is usually in good position at around 22-24 cm of depth from the lip, or teeth. Make sure the tube is secured to the patient’s face and head so it can’t shift in and out. No, you can’t use crazy glue.

Another possibility, but rare, is that something is wrong with the pilot balloon line. Once in a while the valve cracks, which can happen from somebody inserting an inflation syringe with too much force. Another real fun event is nicking the pilot line while shaving your patient. Either way, the cuff won’t hold pressure. The trick: snip the line either at the valve if that’s the problem, or at the place where it’s nicked. You can insert a #19 butterfly into what’s left of the line (try not to poke another hole in it) - hook that to a stopcock and a syringe, inflate the cuff to seal it, tape the whole gadget to a tongue blade, and call anesthesia: the ET tube will have to be changed.

83: How do I know if she needs to be reintubated?

It really should be obvious – she’ll be having trouble breathing, not clearing secretions maybe. Sat will be low, respiratory rate will be too high or too low - you’ll know.

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