The patient was crying and shaking her hands when she rolled through the doors on the ambulance stretcher. She had been sitting at work and developed severe chest pain. There was also a little shortness of breath thrown in because she felt as if someone was sitting on her chest. She said she had been upset over something that happened at work and was “stressed out.” The pain was right in the middle of her chest and felt a fullness in her neck. She was starting to get tingling in her fingers and thought that shaking her hands would help. Paramedics gave her aspirin and nitroglycerin which she said may have helped her chest feel better.
The nurse gave the paramedics a stink eye. “Come on, now. She’s 27 years old. She ain’t having a heart attack.”
Even though she wasn’t having a heart attack, the nurse still ordered an EKG. Doesn’t it figure. Something didn’t look quite right. Little bit of ST elevation in Lead I and aVL. May just meet criteria for MI. Also a little elevation in V1 through V3. Not the tombstones you typically see. Just a hint of elevation. And there’s some T wave inversion in the inferior leads as well. Since she’s 27, there’s obviously no old EKG for comparison.
“That’s concerning. She has some EKG changes that may be ischemic.”
The nurse was quick to counter. “Yeah, right. She needs some Ativan, not a cardiologist.”
“Well, you can give her some aspirin, some morphine, and a milligram of Ativan also. If nitroglycerin helped in the ambulance, give her another dose of that as well.”
Decision time. I’m moonlighting at a rural hospital and there’s no cardiologist available. Do I treat her like an 80 year old diabetic and fly her to the medical center 60 miles away? Or do I treat her for her anxiety and watch her? She technically meets the criteria for an MI, which puts you in a no-win situation. If you send her to the referral hospital and her pain goes away, everyone thinks you’re an idiot. If you keep her at your facility, on the outside chance there’s something serious that you didn’t act upon, you get tarred and feathered by everyone who looks at the case.
After receiving some morphine and Ativan, she’s a little out of it, but is still crying and having pain that she rates as a 4 on a 1-10 scale. I call the Metro General referral center and ask to speak to the cardiologist.
“There’s a 27 year old young lady with typical sounding chest pain and EKG changes that look ischemic. Can I fax you the EKGs to look at?”
“Family history? Smoker? Drug use? Other medical problems?”
“Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Can I fax you the EKG?”
“Hey, you’re there seeing the patient. I’m not. If you believe that the patient is having an acute MI, just send her here. What I say about the EKG doesn’t matter.” Actively avoiding looking at the EKG. In other words, “If I look at the EKG and say it looks like a 27 year old is having a heart attack, then I look bad. If I rely on your interpretation, then you get left holding the bag.”
Labs have come back and of course they’re all normal. Not even a little bump in the cardiac enzymes. Normal d-dimer as well. Chest x-ray looks fine. She is still crying in pain.
“Okay, let’s call the helicopter,” I told the nurse . “Grab some heparin and Plavix. We’re going to treat her as if she is having a heart attack.”
“Holy sh*t. Are you kidding me? She’s 27 years old.”
“Hey. Cardiac disease doesn’t discriminate. Let’s get this show on the road.”
I walked back into the room to talk to the patient. She was crying and talking on her cell phone.
“Your EKG looks like you may be having a heart attack. We’re going to have to send you to Metro General by helicopter.”
She stopped crying immediately.
“Holy sh*t. Are you kidding me?” I wanted to say “No, I’m serious as a heart attack” but cheap blog humor didn’t seem appropriate at that point. I explained to her what was going to happen and had her sign the necessary paperwork.
I went back into the office and completed her medical records which took about another 10 minutes.
I went back into the room, the patient’s mother was standing there. She looked at me and said “Can I ask you what is going on?”
“Sure. You probably heard the unexpected news. Your daughter has changes on her EKG that make it appear she is having a heart attack .”
“Hole-lee sh*t .”
I’m getting kind of sick of hearing that phrase by now.
About 20 minutes later, the helicopter crew was walking through the door. The nurse began giving them report. The patient was still having chest pain, so we repeated her EKG. It hadn’t changed from her initial presentation. The helicopter nurse gave me a quizzical look out of the corner of his eye. I gave the same quizzical look back at him.
Now I’m getting ticked off. Just be quiet and take your damn notes. You’re getting paid regardless of whether or not I know how to read an EKG.
They loaded patient on their stretcher and wheeled her back to the elevator leading to the helicopter pad on the roof.
As I heard the helicopter blades start spinning, I started to wonder whether or not I had documented the chart well enough to survive the inquisition by retrospectoscope that would be occurring the following day. We met all of our “quality” indicators including aspirin at time of arrival and EKG within 10 minutes. But how many people would still be sitting around the conference room table the next day asking what I was thinking?
Oh well, that part of the job. Everyone’s a genius once the diagnosis is known.
Just to rub it in, during my next shift, the nurse mentioned that she had seen the patient in the grocery store two days after we transferred her.
Such is the life of a pit doc, I guess.
This and all posts about patients may be fictional, may be my experiences, may be submitted by readers for publication here, or may be any combination of the above. Factual statements may or may not be accurate. If you would like to have a patient story published on WhiteCoat’s Call Room, please e-mail me.