Friday, September 15, 2006

Illinois ER Death Ruled as Homicide

Being an ER nurse, I tend to fasten my attention onto cases such as this one.

According the the AP story, a 49-year-old woman came into the ER complaining of chest pain, nausea, and shortness of breath. (Okay, all you nurses out there: pipe down and let the laypersons catch up.) She is triaged, classified "semi-emergent," and instructed to wait for her name to be called. Two hours later, when the woman's turn to be seen had arrived and her name was called by the triage nurse, the woman did not respond, The nurse approached the woman and found her unresponsive and pulseless. (That's medical-ese for "dead.")

The ensuing coroner's inquest ruled the woman's death a homicide. No details are available at this time regarding exactly who is to be charged with this woman's death.

Here is my view of the matter.

At the emergency department in which I am employed, there is a simple standard of practice that governs the treatment of any person who complains of chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea, whether the person is 18 or 90 years old, and it is as follows: Treat it as a heart attack. That means get them into a treatment room, Give them oxygen, stick a large-bore (20 gauge or larger) IV needle into them, draw labs including troponin I (a marker for cardiac injury), slap cardiac monitor leads onto them and perform a 12-lead electrocardiogram. If their blood pressure is stable, we may also give a spray of sublingual nitroglycerine and four baby aspirin.

(One may say that 18 years old is a bit young to be having a heart attack, and it is. But it happens; not very often, mind you, but just often enough to cause us to keep our guard up. So we don't take any chances.)

The rationale for all of these drastic measures (all of which occur within minutes of admission) is that if we act on the assumption of the worst-case, we will already be ahead of the curve. We can always back off on treatment strategies if it turns out to be something other than cardiac-related. But if it turns out to be a heart attack, then time is of the essence. And if the ER staff was caught flatfooted, the patient can die and the staff can be in a lot of trouble, as is the case with this Illinois ER.

Now, I was obviously not there to see all that went on in this woman's case, and therefore I will not point fingers. But I suspect that the error occurred because of an inexperienced triage nurse. On the other hand, triage nurses as a rule have to be experienced nurses before given that duty, in order to avoid this kind of tragedy. I think that in such a case, the only thing that could throw off the triage nurse's assessment would be whether or not the patient drove herself (or was driven by a friend or loved one) versus calling 911 and being transported by ambulance. Even then, given the victim's symptomology and the fact that she showed up in an ER in the first place, I am having a very hard time giving this staff the benefit of the doubt.

The moral of this story for the nurses who read this is: chest pain + shortness of breath + nausea = heart attack until proven otherwise.

And the moral of the story for my non-nursing readers out there is: chest pain + shortness of breath + nausea = heart attack until proven otherwise. So if you have these symptoms, don't be stupid. Do not drive yourself to the hospital or even ask a friend or loved one to do it. Call 911 and sit tight. You will get there faster, and you'll be taken a lot more seriously than if you were to walk in under your own power like so many frequent flyers with anxiety attacks do. We are skilled and trained, but you have to help us out here.

Somebody in the Illinois ER is going to pay with his/her license and maybe even some jail time before this is over. The hospital will likely be out millions of dollars. I can't really defend that, and I won't even try. In my heart of hearts, I know that there is no excuse for allowing a chest pain patient to sit for two hours when an EKG and labs can be done on a stretcher in the ER hallway in five minutes and the patient can at least be monitored.