The other night, an overhead announcement in the emergency department caught my attention: “Dr. Tad to Room 11, STAT! Dr. Tad to Room 11, STAT!” Since I know my staff would not call me like this unless there was a real reason, I dropped everything and hustled to Room 11.
I got there just as the patient was being moved from a wheelchair onto the bed. I made my way through the crowd of staff filling the room, everyone hurrying to take her clothes off, get vital signs, put her on a heart monitor and start an IV.
When I got to the bedside, I saw a young woman who looked dead. She was pale as a sheet. She was unconscious and not breathing or moving. I could not feel a pulse.
I barked orders to make sure someone was doing each of the many things that needed to be done at once. In situations like this, we use the pneumonic “ABC” to prioritize our actions. “A” is for Airway. Before figuring out what her underlying medical problem was, we first took steps to protect and keep her airway open. I told the respiratory therapist to prepare to intubate her, pass a tube into her windpipe.
After Airway comes “B” for Breathing. Once the airway was open and protected, we would check to see if the patient was breathing well. If not, we would need to breathe for her by putting her on a ventilator.
“C” is for Circulation. Does she have a pulse? What is her blood pressure? Is she bleeding? What needs to be done so that blood is getting to her vital organs?
In Room 11 that night, I soon was able to stop worrying about “A” and “B” because, once she was out of the wheelchair and flat on the gurney, enough blood got to her head that she woke up. She started to complain of pain and asked for water. Airway and Breathing were good.
It was now obvious that Circulation was her problem. Along with the pallor I already described, her blood pressure was low and her pulse was fast. These are all signs of hemorrhagic shock. Since she was not bleeding on the outside, my assumption was that she was bleeding internally. I took a quick listen to her heart and lungs. I felt her abdomen, which was tender and distended. More orders were given in response to this new information.
As the rest of the team pressed to get IVs started and get blood work for the laboratory, I turned to find out who had brought her in. I went into the hall and found her concerned husband, a young Vietnamese man. His English was weak, but there was no time for a translator. I was able to learn that she had been complaining of abdominal pain and might be pregnant.
As soon as I heard that, I instructed a clerk to call the obstetricians and tell them to come to Room 11 immediately. I then ran an ultrasound probe over the patient’s belly and found just what I was expecting. Her abdomen was full of blood.
I called for Type O-negative blood to be rushed up from the blood bank so a transfusion could be started. This blood can be safely given to anyone if there is not time to check the patient’s blood type. The blood bank keeps some available for just this kind of situation.
About this time, the obstetricians came rushing into the room. I quickly told them what I had found and what we were doing. One stayed to help with the resuscitation and to try to get more information from the husband. The other called the operating room to say they were bringing the patient straight up.
The pregnancy test came back positive just as they pulled her gurney out of the room, headed for the operating room. There, they found her abdomen full of blood from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.* She had a rough go of it but they were able to stabilize her by stopping the bleeding and giving her more fluids and blood. She left the hospital a few days later. She had a scar on her abdomen and was missing the fallopian tube in which the pregnancy had established itself. Otherwise, she was no worse for wear.
Reviewing this case fills me with gratitude. This lady was dying. It makes me glad I knew what was needed to keep that from happening. It also makes me glad we have the facilities to provide the care she needed. In times gone by and in many places in the world today, if this happened to a woman, she would be dead. I am really appreciative of my team. They did just what was needed when a life was on the line. I am also grateful for good luck. If the patient and her husband had delayed in coming to the hospital or gotten stuck in traffic or lost, we might not have had the chance to give her the services we trained hard to provide.
*If you are interested in reading more about ectopic pregnancy, here is a reference frpm my favorite medical resource: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ectopic_pregnancy
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