How do you remember the emergency department (ED) that trained you? Could it be that you have learned a lot more than just medicine there? Between worrying about the delayed laboratory report and explaining the need to rule out a myocardial injury to a visitor of a patient with peptic ulcer disease, you might have picked up other attributes. Subtle traits that have nudged your personality. Remembering the ED where I did my internship sparks nostalgia and makes me want to speed up my typing. As if I need to attend to something else right after this. Hopefully, I’ll give you a glimpse of what putting on different lenses can show even when we look at the same object.
Peeling yellow paint, some old cracks in the wall, and an acute sense of urgency lingering in the air are what I remember of the department. Patan Academy of Health Sciences has an ED where confused students scratching their heads to the witty professors’ question takes you to your own golden days. A subtle grin on the wise face of a grey-haired professor eagerly waiting for the next wrong answer makes you want to reach out to your old mentor. A know it all student on the verge of blurting out the answer physically holding himself behind makes you wonder what that one classmate of yours is doing these days. It is a place where teaching, helping people, running against time and having fun while at it, blends into an experience of a lifetime. Stories of eased pain, dodged suffering and narrow escapes from grave aliments enrich the history of the department.
One fine evening in the department as an intern I found myself seated in the doctor’s station, a rare but insightful experience. I found myself pondering about the lessons I can take from this part of the hospital: not just medical knowledge but lessons I can share with people from different facets of life. Below I list the common situations or sayings used in a typical ED and try to translate it for use in day to day life.
Think horses before zebras but watch out for zebras that can fly
A patient with mild fever, chest pain, and some respiratory distress probably has some sort of URTI. But the very fact that he/she landed up in the ED makes the doctor order an ECG because of the chest pain. The doctor will, of course, be leaning towards a more common diagnosis. Ruling out a diagnosis with grave prognosis, however, will be among the top priorities.
This can translate into studying common exam materials while also being aware of the zebras. Zebras show up rarely, but when they do, they tend to be stubborn. Be aware of the topics that don’t usually show up in your exam but impact the outcome when they do. We can also borrow this idea while thinking about anything in general. We tend to assume the worst, but when your date is late to dinner, it probably is just the busy traffic.
Communication is the key
A medical officer reads the patient’s history to the professor using as few words as possible, pertinent negatives and a precise format. The information and condition of the patient are conveyed very accurately. When reporting history, we aim for effective communication at its best.
I wonder how many day-to-day problems can be solved if only we communicated that efficiently outside of history taking and reporting. Using clear words, very few fillers and addressing what we don’t mean beforehand can help in getting the intended message across.
The most critical patients that visit Patan Hospital head for the ED. Recognizing them and treating the ones who need immediate attention is the second nature of a good emergency physician. Likewise, being able to focus on the most critical aspects of one’s life can be an attribute worth borrowing from the department.
How many times do we complain that we just do not have enough time to do things that are important to us? It’s mostly about deciding what comes first.
This sort of ties into the previous one. Most experienced physician attends the most critical patient. More nurses are allocated to and the best USG machine is used in the red triage area. Time, money, physical or mental effort all are resources we use to get tasks done. Sometimes success differs from failure, not in how much effort is put but where it is used. Determining which task is most resource-intensive or most productive can be a worthwhile idea to learn from the ED.
Did you check your tools?
Monitor connected to a gradually stabilizing patient beeps rapidly, indicating a sudden collapse. As you run towards the patient with your ACLS neurons firing at a rate more rapid than the patient’s declining pulse, do take a look if the pulse oximeter is connected correctly. Translated in the world where things go south more frequently than not, decide if it is a perceived problem or a real one. How many times have you let yourself go into flight or fight mode only to realize that the threat wasn’t even there?
Give thiamine before glucose
Hypoglycemia kills. Glucose save lives. Even then, giving thiamine before glucose is the norm in most EDs. The biochemistry behind is simple; thiamine is a cofactor used by many enzymes in glucose metabolism and depleting more thiamine can cause Wernicke Korsakoff disease. Look at it with the lens of a student who needs to start preparing for an exam. Determine your thiamine (proper sleep, good food, exercise, enough water and probably mindfulness). Only then glucose supplementation (studying) will yield results.
The loudest screamer isn’t always suffering the most
“How do you triage when there are more people than you can attend to?” asked a professor. The answer was funny but made a point firmly. “You should ask the most critical patients to come forward. Then you attend those that are left behind!”. The idea being; sickest of them all won’t even be able to advocate for themselves. Similarly, we can be tactful when overwhelmed by problems. Try to come up with ideas to segregate the screamers (problems that seem to be the biggest) from the sickest (actual problems).
Know your limits and ask for help
We manage acute exacerbation of COPD in the ED. Not all patients that feel relieved are discharged from there. Some patients require medical consultation and transfer. This, in no way, means that the ER physicians are incompetent in managing the disease throughout. Rather it is the evidence of understanding the job description and trust in the system as a whole. Asking for help when need be is critical to our wellbeing. Being able to ask for help shows courage and humility above all.