Tag Archives: experience

the n of 1

We’d like to think that medicine is entirely evidence-based, but it’s not. Some of what we do has a great amount of evidence behind it, but sometimes the evidence is a little more shaky. Sometimes there’s practically no evidence. As a paramedic put it to me in an ACLS class one day, aside from this short list of drugs, as far as the evidence goes, we could put mayonnaise in that IV and there’d be a similar amount of research to support it.

I mean, we try our best to operate under what we think to be the best. We read consensus statements from working groups, we go by clinical practice guidelines published by a committee of experts, and when we aren’t sure, we go by conjecture that we base on previous clinical experience and whatever tangentially associated evidence we happen to have packed away in our brains. We usually get pretty close, but the truth is that we could get a lot better. A lot of the time, we basically run on nothing.

In truth, we don’t really run on “nothing” — clinical experience isn’t irrelevant, and recommendations from those with more experience than us, while not exactly evidence, isn’t exactly nothing. But there’s lots of situations, especially with the sort-of new-frontier type medicine, where the answer to the question of what the best thing to do is honestly that we don’t know.

So imagine my joy when I find a document on a subject that I know has gotten little research. Somebody (in this case the Canadian Thoracic Society) has compiled all of the best available information into one document and made recommendations based on it. I skipped off to the printer (sorry, trees) and pulled out my highlighter and began swiping away at passages I found most relevant. I got two swipes and three paragraphs into the actual recommendations before I found this gem:

“Unfortunately, each of these techniques suffers from the lack of well-designed prospective trials. As such, recommendations were informed by observational studies and professional consensus.”

Professional consensus and observational studies. So clinical experience (times a lot of clinicians) plus tangentially related evidence (with a small sample size and no controlled conditions) are literally the best evidence we have. Like I said, it’s not exactly nothing, but when you consider the way things tend to fall apart under close scrutiny in this field, it’s about as close to nothing as you can get while still having a half-assed idea what you’re doing.

In school they teach us to operate on this version of ‘nothing’. They teach us models and give us context and try and assist us in developing the skills necessary to work outside the textbook. Very few patients are cookie-cutter. We operate like that a little bit when we’re brand new, but as we gain experience we learn things that are unteachable. We learn how much wiggle room we really have — that it’s not necessarily the end of the world if we try something and it doesn’t work. We learn that the limits we were given are margins of safety, and that there’s a lot of space between the margins.

Enter the patient. I’m lucky, I say — so many of my patients are heavily sedated and won’t remember what I did to them — I have a sort of list of things I can try in order to achieve the result that I want. It’s a common refrain in health care that patients don’t read textbooks, and it’s true. It’s exactly because no two patients are exactly alike that no two treatments are exactly alike. It’s the nature of what I do that I intervene and look for a particular patient response; when I don’t get the response I want, I change my intervention. In this way each patient is its own isolated experimental model: a kind of so-called n-of-1 trial.

I think if most people knew how much of my job (especially with regards to ventilating people) is “well, let’s try it and see what happens,” they’d be a little concerned. The truth is that that’s the essence of a lot of medicine. The beauty of ventilating someone with a piece of equipment that retails for more than a small condominium is that I get the benefit of immediate information about how my experiment is working. I don’t have to wait for days for antibiotics to work or steroids to kick in. I don’t even have to wait the minutes it can take for sedation to kick in. I will usually know in under 5 minutes if what I want to do is going to work or not, and because things respond so fast, unless I do something exceedingly stupid it’s actually very difficult for me to harm somebody with an experiment of this kind.

Sometimes I get another kind of immediate data: sometimes my patients are awake and talking. The home ventilator stuff I linked up there is so interesting precisely because of that. 99% of the time when I ventilate a patient, they’re out cold and I’m left to do the guesswork based on some animations and a few fluctuating numbers on an LCD screen. When the patient’s awake, they can tell me what they want and how they feel, and if they’re articulate about it and it’s a problem I can solve, in a way this gives me far more fine-grained control over what I end up doing.

He asks me questions, and the answer I have is an honest one: we don’t know, there’s not a lot of research to support this, we don’t have a lot of good models for what we’re doing, it depends on how you respond. It sounds terrifying to somebody who wants the patriarchal model of medicine to hand down a pronouncement from on high about what their therapy will entail. Sometimes we do that, but we try not to. Care plans shouldn’t be about what I think is best for you. I don’t live in your body for 24 hours a day and once you walk out those doors the life you live is your own. If I’m going to come up with something that you’re going to be able to live with day in and day out, it’s far better if we can come up with something together.

It’s easy 99% of the time with my heavily sedated patients. The tube comes out, they come to, (sometimes not in that order,) and what I’ve done is something that was profoundly uncomfortable and yet saved their life. They don’t have to live with the therapy on a day-in-day-out basis — it was a short term thing and once over, it can be forgotten.

With someone who’s vented at home, it’s an entirely different story. Their life is my therapy and without it their life would be shortened considerably. They can’t ignore what I’m doing if it’s uncomfortable and they can’t forget about it because it’s ever present. I need his feedback to do my job properly: the equipment I use in the home is 1/10th the sophistication of the equipment I use in the ICU. I lose my raw data and get subjective information and I have to glean a course of action from that.

The benefit to this is his subjective response is just as quick oftentimes. He knows his body and I can trust that. He gives me far better data than I can get off of an LCD screen and it allows me to individualize his vent settings in a way that I would never dream of doing with an acutely ill patient. Admittedly it helps that most chronic ventilator patients have healthy lungs, and I’m using settings that are far gentler than anything I’d use on someone really sick, but an experiment is an experiment and it can still go awry.

It depends heavily on the patient too. Some people become very uncomfortable if they think you don’t know. Some people are anxious and when you say “we’ll have to try it and see how it goes” they hear you say that you’re not confident in what you’re doing. (Those are times you have to be part salesman.) But most people actually respond really well to an authentic voice, when you tell them we just don’t know and in a lot of ways we have no way of knowing. I tried hard to be honest without being wishy-washy, and I think they appreciated my lack of fatalism and my willingness to be flexible.

Even inasmuch as the n of 1 is a terrible way to conduct scientific research, it’s a great way to conduct patient care. We are all individuals and what works for one of us will likely not work for the next, and applying cookie-cutter approaches doesn’t always work. At some point a really good clinician will be willing to go beyond the textbook, to look at the data they have, to try new things and to see how they work out. The ability to think critically in this way is what separates out those who really know what they’re doing from those who use the paint-by-numbers or recipe-book method of healthcare, and not just for their critical thinking skills. Some of the most valuable things to come out of such an experiment is the experience of having done it in the first place, of learning those things that are unteachable. We shouldn’t fear experimentation. It’s how we become truly great at what we do.

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the man and the machine

Gear comes up so often as an RT that a day where I don’t do at least some troubleshooting is a boring day indeed. Where most of the other equipment other team members deal with are either ways of gathering patient data (lab analyzers, patient monitors) or ways of giving drugs to the patient (IV pumps), there are relatively few situations where the patient is directly interfacing with the machine in question. It is, after all, somewhat frowned upon for patients to adjust their monitor alarms or change their IV rate.

For many RTs, though, it’s a daily thing. I can think of two examples in particular, and they’re polar opposites: the spirometer, and the ventilator.

Spirometry is a difficult test to do sometimes, as it’s almost 100% effort dependent on the part of the patient. This is in contrast with blood analysis by the lab, where the major difficulty regarding the patient is whether or not you can get blood out of the person. (Sometimes it takes the lab tech who can get blood from a stone. Sometimes it takes four strong staff and five point restraints.) The most accurate results will only happen when a patient can understand my instructions, will cooperate and follow my directions, and when they try as hard as they possibly can.

They emphasize to us in school how important it is for us to coach the patient enthusiastically, since a major portion of getting the best effort out of someone is coaching them to try their hardest. It’s not uncommon for me to look at a patient’s results on the screen or watch a patient blow and go, “you can do better than that.”

Then there’s the interface itself: I’m trying to make a person do a very specific thing to a machine, and if I can’t make that person do what I need them to do, the test is nearly useless. This is a classic example of troubleshooting the patient. I made sure at the beginning of the testing day that my machine is working correctly, so unless something catastrophically fails, the problem is almost universally one with the patient. It’s my job to look at the output the machine displays, and try and explain to the patient I’m testing what I need them to do differently in order to get the output I want. This includes noticing things like air escaping the system at the mouthpiece (and therefore not being measured,) a lack of effort on the part of the patient (meaning the results appear as if the patient has terrible lung funtion to the untrained eye,) or some things the patient has no control over, like whether their dentures are loose, whether that stroke they had five years ago means they can’t make a mouth seal at the mouthpiece, whether they can’t understand what I’m saying but are smiling and nodding anyway, or whether they’re just not going to put the effort in and I’m wasting my time trying to teach a pig to sing.

I can’t stare only at the machine and ignore the patient: the forced exhalation maneuver can cause a transient decrease in blood pressure and a transient slowing of the heart rate, especially towards the end of exhalation, where the patient is forcing against airways that are empty of air and for the most part, closed. In this way it resembles a valsalva maneuver and I need to pay attention to my patient, because if they faint and fall off the chair and bounce their skull off the concrete floor, well, I have a bigger problem than poor test results. If I don’t notice that air is leaking out the side of the patient’s mouth, I’m gonna have a really hard time figuring out why I can’t get decent results. At the same time, I can’t only stare at the patient and ignore the machine. The whole trick to the success of the test is ensuring that the patient is interfacing properly with the machine. Ignoring the machine is to ignore half of the system.

The other major example I have, the ventilator, is somewhat the opposite sort of system. In this case, the patient is often, but not always, passive (rather than with the spirometer, where the machine is passive.) With the ventilator, I’m trying to make the machine do this very specific thing, and if I can’t get the machine to do what I need it to do, then I’ve got some serious problems. The confounding extra factor, for bonus fun, is that sometimes the patient isn’t passive. Sometimes, I’ve got this machine that’s supposed to be breathing for a patient that’s trying to breathe, and a major limitation to this is that they don’t share a brain (though they’re working on that.) Sometimes the patient’s trying to breathe and the machine is trying to breathe and they end up fighting each other, or what some people call “the patient fighting the ventilator.” The term we prefer to use is ‘patient-ventilator dyssynchrony’ or, more colloquially, “hypo-sedation-emia.”

In an ideal world, the patient would initiate a breath and the ventilator would detect this and deliver a breath in synchrony with the patient’s efforts. This is called ‘triggering’ the breath. Then, when the patient is done inhaling, the ventilator can also detect this and, depending on the mode of ventilation, can stop delivering the breath near the same time the patient stops inhaling. This is called ‘cycling’ the breath.

Being as, from a gas flow physics standpoint, the sensors that make these detections are a considerable distance from the patient, sometimes the ventilator isn’t able to detect what the patient wants the ventilator to do. Accordingly, the ventilator is more likely to have a harder time the sicker you are and the worse your lungs are. The ventilator is, after all, a machine, and one of the major downfalls of machines is they don’t think, they only do what we program them to do. Sometimes we can program them with complex algorithms designed to eliminate some of the thinking, but that does not obviate the need to think.

This is where I come in. I observe both the machine and the patient and try to tweak what variables I can tweak in order to get the machine and the patient to agree with each other. I try and see what the patient is trying to do and try and manipulate the variables I have to try and make the vent do what the patient is trying to get it to do. It’s a magical sort of alchemy, and sometimes I can’t make it work. Most of the time, though, I can manage to find the sweet spot between the totally passive patient who “rides” the ventilator and the dyspneic, agitated, desaturating, magical self-extubating patient.

The opposite is also true: sometimes the patient is so sick and so short of breath that they consume so much oxygen trying to breathe (and doing so only ineffectively) that they’re better off anaesthetized so I can take over and make the patient’s lungs do what want them to do so they get some actual gas exchange going and they can get better.

The trend with new ventilator modes is to try and make it so the machine can adjust itself continually according to what the patient appears to ‘want’ according to a software algorithm. This seems like a good idea in theory, and it can work pretty good for some patients, but us RTs tend to hate these newfangled modes for one reason and one reason only: we can’t tweak them. “I can’t make the stupid thing do what want it to do” is what we think, trying to find that sweet spot. I can see what the patient is trying to get the vent to do and the software algorithm can’t.

It’s alchemy, it’s guesswork, it’s “let’s try this and see how that works”, it’s tweaking and a process of elimination. Half the time the process is a series of judgement calls and failed experiments until something works.

I’m the respiratory therapist, and when I troubleshoot a system, it’s got both a machine and a person in it, and I have to troubleshoot them both at the same time. It leads to a unique set of skills and challenges, and I don’t even think these systems are unique to my profession. I think these systems are visible in many disciplines where people interact with machines. I think most of us are just not used to seeing the person as a part of the system.

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learning to take it seriously

I’ve had asthma ever since I was a baby, I think. I won’t lie and say that it didn’t factor into my decision to get into respiratory, either — I wanted to have control.

I’d always hated games with running. I remember hating tag in elementary school — I could never outrun anybody. Eventually my chest would get tight and hurt, and I’d cough and feel like I couldn’t breathe. I’d have to stop and then I’d get tagged, and I couldn’t tag anybody else. So I just didn’t play.

Mom put me in soccer. I hated it instantly, with its constant running after the ball. Other sports seemed like more of the same. This continued until I was about 13, when I walked into the doctor’s office (by myself) and demanded some kind of testing. I got a Ventolin inhaler and a referral for some testing. The testing showed airway obstruction with reversibility — a hallmark of asthma.

I had a problem, though. My parents had never taken me seriously about this (“You’re just out of shape” is something I heard a lot) and I had some real misconceptions about severity and proper treatment. I ended up at one point taking a steroid inhaler but I ended up with a lot of hoarseness of the voice (I later learned this is a common side effect) and eventually stopped taking it. I had no idea how severe I was.

It wasn’t until I was older, several years older, and looking to get into respiratory, that I had a second spirometry and learned to interpret what it means. I was a bit taken aback by the degree of impairment it showed — I had always thought I was relatively mild, that my asthma was “well controlled” with just my Ventolin inhaler to take when I needed it. (The truth was, my asthma had always been poorly controlled, and would remain poorly controlled for years afterwards.) It was the first opportunity I’d had to print out a copy of the testing and show it to my parents — “See, I’m not making this shit up” — and interpret it for them. I showed my family physician a copy — he was a bit tickled and compared it to the one I’d had done before — and he immediately adjusted my medication to better control things, seeing that my lung function had declined significantly since the one I’d had previously. It would be a few more years before I would learn that this was a bad sign, a negative effect of poor control, that poor control would sabotage my lung function slowly until I ended up like somebody who’d smoked for years.

Even after I’d gotten into respiratory, denial is somewhat of a strong impulse. I see these people who are wheezing and struggling, I do PFTs on the asthmatics who have even poorer control than I do (and perhaps, still smoke,) and I get the groove carved into my brain that this is what ‘severe’ looks like. My daily symptoms, my inability to participate in any kind of real ‘cardio’ without symptoms, my exacerbations which would have me wheezing for weeks on end, those didn’t register as ‘severe’. I had had poor breathing for so long that attacks didn’t frighten me. I could breathe through them and limit my activity. I could suck on cough drops and take my Ventolin only when the coughing was paroxysmal, with me gagging, doubling over, seeing stars.

Beginning work as an RT probably was the best thing for my asthma. I had peer pressure from coworkers when my tight cough manifested itself at work. I figured out something that worked for my symptoms — and ended up taking a fairly large dose of it to remain in some semblance of ‘control’ — but wasn’t exactly compliant with it. (I’m not alone, rates of nonadherence to medication are really high and is the main reason for severe exacerbations in asthmatics.) It wasn’t until I sought investigation for allergy testing that I got appropriately slapped for this.

Little did I know, the allergy specialist I was booked to see is also an asthma specialist. I didn’t expect my (terrible) spirometry to be put on display in his office, but there it was. I also didn’t expect to have to detail, in mortifying detail, my lack of adherence to my prescribed medication regimen.

I endured, hanging my head, my scathing lecture about how I should know better, about how my spirometry was all chronic changes, about how he should not have to belabour this point, about taking it seriously. I don’t know if it was internalized ignorance, I don’t know if it was mostly denial, but I do know I took this guy seriously.

I went home with a renewed conviction to take this seriously. I was adherent to the medication regimen properly for the first time since ever, and around about six weeks of this I had an epiphany. I could breathe. I could breathe and I was simultaneously amazed at how used to not being able to breathe a person could get. I had always thought that constant symptoms were normal, and I had a high tolerance for feeling awful all the time.

During this time, I took up running. I had always resigned myself to never being able to run. I amazed myself and conquered running, and found that after a small uphill battle training period I began to enjoy it. I began to become very sensitive to changes in how I felt and I learned to respond quickly to symptoms instead of suffering through them. When I had a significant exacerbation, I went to the doctor and went on Prednisone, instead of digging my heels in, instead of deciding that a month of feeling terrible was worth not having to take five days of oral steroids. I was shocked at how fast I felt better from the bronchitis that had me exceeding the recommended dose of bronchodilators.  I found the side effects were not as terrible as I had been led to believe.

I know now that I was playing with fire. I don’t entirely know why I did it, if it was denial or if it had more to do with not wanting to be seen as malingering. I do know that if I hadn’t done something about it, it very well could have killed me or left me critically ill. Now, I make it my mission to knock some sense into those like me, those lulled into the fog of thinking they’re not as severe as they really are, those that think they’re in control when they’re really not. Somebody saved my life once, by making me take this seriously. I feel the need to pay it forward.

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on being called “a hero”

There’s a hazard to having a friend that’s a sociologist: she forces me to think about why things are the way they are. In this particular case, she’s turned me on to some interesting reading material that seems never to fail me for something to think about.

I am not unaccustomed to risky jobs, and the people who work in them. I work with paramedics, firefighters, prison guards,  the most commonly thought-of “life is on the line, he’s such a hero” sort of stuff. The book they’re talking about is right on the money: for the most part, they don’t think of themselves as anything other than ordinary people in control of an extraordinary situation. Any mishaps that laypeople consider to be risks inherent in the job (a cop getting shot, a firefighter dying in a fire) are not seen as particularly risky to the people engaging in them. I’ve spoken to cops about going into buildings armed against people who have gone totally butternuts and are armed to the teeth — the risks they talk about aren’t that they might get shot at — it’s the fact that butternuts in the shed over there isn’t predictable. They’re trained to predict what the rest of us think are unpredictable.

This, of course, thanks to the grooming of my friend the sociologist, makes me think of the times when I’ve been told I did something “heroic.”

Usually what happened is there was a very sick person in a very bad way, and I was part of a team of people who predicted the unpredictable and then responded. The response is to perform a number of different interventions in order to change the course of their illness or injury. I don’t think what I’m doing is heroic. I don’t think about how people are going to die if I screw up. I don’t feel the pressure, really. What I am is in control.

I can see the signs. I can measure and quantify how bad the situation is using specific parameters which allows me to manipulate those parameters with drugs or pressure or gas. I can control the oxygen or the respiratory rate. Sure, there’s a bit of a scramble trying to get to the point where you’re in control, when you’re on the move from prediction to execution, but you know what to do, so instead of being stressed about how it’s do or die time, you just stop thinking and do.

I find us RTs especially tend to think in “the worst thing that could happen is” sort of parameters. When others are afraid to extubate the patient we’re shrugging our shoulders going, “the worst thing that could happen is she/he gets reintubated.” To us, it’s no big deal. We’re trained to predict what the worst possible scenario could plausibly be, and then be prepared for it. We controlled the airway by putting in a tube, we did it once, we can do it again. If I can’t do it personally, there’s someone close by who can.

I remember a couple of these do-or-die situations happening to me and there was a lot of muscle memory in that st0p-thinking-just-do. A sick neonate thrashes a bit on the overhead warmer and self-extubates, and there’s no pediatrician within a shout’s reach? I’ve been trained for this. They taught me how to intubate precisely so that I could respond to this situation. Paralyzing myself with fear and waiting for the pediatrician to haul his ass into the room is an option, but the worst thing that could happen is I try and I miss. I’m also trained in what to do in that case: the patient would be no worse off for me missing. Besides the fact that I’m qualified and trained and skilled in intubation — the patient needs it right bloody now. If I waited for the pediatrician I’d feel like I had chosen the wrong line of work and would probably quit soon and go become an accountant. What I did was grab the (conveniently located) necessary equipment and make with the intubating. I know what has to be done, and I’m qualified to do it, so I do.

There are those times when despite your best efforts you lose control of the situation. Just like the firefighters do, I find we look for something to blame. Somebody screwed up, somebody didn’t notice the alarm, the monitor was malfunctioning, I gave up too soon and should have kept trying, we didn’t get there in time, they waited too long, and so on, and so on. I failed to predict the outcome. I failed to respond accordingly to the situation in the way in which I was trained. I look for how I could have gained control, therefore, I don’t really fear the loss of life that happens due to variables that are beyond my control.I learned very long ago as an RT that there’s some parts of the clinical situation that you just can’t change.

I’m scared of screwing up or missing something, I’m scared of missing the prediction or failing to respond. I’m also confident that the longer I spend in control and the more I refine my muscle memory, the more I lift the mental weights that allow me to consider more of the situation, the more that muscle memory allows me to automate simple tasks so I can spend more mental energy being observant to other signs, the less likely it will be that my simple screwup results in somebody’s death.

It’s happened in the past: I’ve failed to notice a sign that the patient was in cardiac arrest and then the patient died. That said, so did everyone else in the room fail to notice, and given how sick the patient was prior to going into cardiac arrest, the chances of us being successful even if we’d caught it were pretty slim anyway. No one person killed that patient. The culmination of many factors did, and some of them were beyond our control. Did I learn a hard lesson? Yes, I did. That one’s a notch on my proverbial shield that I’m not ever going to forget — and the next patient will benefit from it.

Therefore, by the same token, no one person involved in saving another’s life is “the hero.” The collective sum of our teamwork and brains and muscle memory and situational awareness and skills are the heroes. We just predicted the unpredictable. We executed our plan for how we were going to gain control. We gained control of the situation quickly and effectively, and then we held on to it. It holds no mystery to us.

We are comfortable.

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“practicing” medicine

I have to chuckle at how much “being good at my job” in this field involves simple skills. Either muscle memory, fine motor control, or quick reflex. In school, they cram your head with facts and lab demonstrations. They try to get you to show that you can do what they teach you … it’s still not the same as doing it on a person. And then they throw you into practicum, and you have to poke ten (or so) people before you get signed off on the skill. You will miss a bunch. Theoretically, you could pass the course having only poked those ten people. (It never happens that way, of course.)

I don’t think I’ve met one person who freshly graduated who felt like they knew Exactly What They Were Doing. (At least, not anybody who I would let touch me in a medical sense.)  I was probably on the job for months and dozens of shifts before I began to poke people and assume I wouldn’t miss. This isn’t to say I missed a lot prior to that — just that prior to that point, I wasn’t confident in my skill.

It took months and months of practice before I began to feel confident — and months (and months and months and months) after that before I began to truly get “good”. Some of being “good” at it is individual. Experience, steady hands, a particular technique that works well for you, and even just having a good day. I’ve had days where I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Some of the skills involve where you work. I had never attempted an arterial line until I moved from the (not-so-affectionately-nicknamed) Center of the Universe to a little hospital in the boonies. In the Center of the Universe (University Center for Excellence I think was its formal title in some permutation) we were of the type that tended to believe that those country bumpkins? Those hicks in the boonies? Their experience could in no way ever compare to my experience, here in the land of too-much-money. Now that I am one of those hicks in the boonies, I realize that there is pretty much no way in which I could have been more wrong.

Prior to moving, intubation practice was a theoretical exercise, done in the OR under the supervision of an anaesthetist. You had your choice of: the gruff ex-military guy, who once barked at me that “putting the tube in is a bar trick, I am not signing you off unless you can tape it and throw him on the vent by yourself,” the lady from down east who hated you up until the point where she discovered you were intelligent, and only then could you be friends, the head of anaesthesia who I think was compensating for something, the tiniest skinniest woman I have ever met, whose capacity for niceness and overall cheer definitely outweighed her entire body soaking wet, and the various other anaesthetists who would rotate through all of the hospitals in the health region, a process I once jokingly referred to as “the rock stars going on tour.” You went through the OR and did your six or ten or what-have-you intubations and got signed off and then left, every year, without fail. You pretty much never intubated outside of the OR, because there were always 835 residents or ICU doctors or somebody who wanted to be a hero who wanted to secure the airway. I demured, partly because it was entertaining, and partly because I didn’t much relish, as a young RT, being the object of scorn to miss an intubation (because it was generally understood that even if an RT were to try, if you didn’t get it on the first attempt, you would be quickly elbowed out of the way by someone ‘more experienced.)

I will never forget the moment at the small-town hospital when, during a code blue in the middle of some department completely unfamiliar with code blues, the only doctor in attendance gave me a funny look from the foot of the bed. I, at the head of the bed, bagging my little heart out, had gathered my things and was waiting for him to come up to the head of the bed and assert his heroism. Apparently in the country they don’t believe in being Big Damn Heroes, because he kind of just gave me the eyebrow until it dawned on me: “OH! You want ME to intubate!” He laughed at me and nodded. I intubated. It felt amazing to get to use a skill I’d practiced nine thousand times and never gotten to use before. Without the nine thousand times of practice, however, I doubt I would have been even moderately successful. Those anaesthetists, when not chuckling at my struggle with bagging via the circuit on the anaesthetic gas machine, were a veritable font of tips and tricks. I have used many an anaesthetist’s dirty trick since.

I had never attempted an arterial line prior to coming here. I remember one anaesthetist here, regarded as a bit of a comedian, giving me the eyebrow when I said I didn’t think I was certified to do one. Apparently here, the certification procedure consisted of “show that you know how to do it.” I have since impressed him with my ability to put one in on the patients with blood pressures so low that the textbooks say they shouldn’t have a radial pulse. (Not gonna lie — some of them didn’t and the only reason I got it was because I’ve poked that artery 9000 times before, and know pretty much where it’s gonna be. I’ve also missed my fair share of those, so no hubris here either.) I have somehow earned myself a bit of a reputation as The One Who Never Misses, which is utter hyperbole — I miss occasionally — but the only difference, apparently, is practice.

It’s not just me, even. The residents and their (sometimes sisyphean) struggle with the subclavian line, out here in the middle of nowhere always positioned without the use of an ultrasound device, a device which, I feel, is a bit like a back-up camera on a small family sedan. Can you please learn to parallel park without the camera before you start to rely on the damn thing? Over-reliance on gear seems to me to be a handicap moreso than an asset — those who are excellent at the primary skill are often far better users of the gear anyway. (I will never forget the day I watched our comedian-anaesthetist intubate a lady with a fractured C2 — move her neck too much and you might be able to see, but you will also kill her — with practiced ease and proficiency with a glidescope. I declared myself a member of his fan club. He replied with a grin, saying he loved being African, because “I’m blushing, and you can’t tell!”)

The practice-practice-practice paradigm shows very clearly why the best are often the ones who’ve been around since dust was invented, and how old are you, again? They’re the ones who could get blood from stones, who could put IVs in even the most hardened IV drug user veins, who could intubate the guy you’re terrified to even try on, who can say, with confidence, “I will get it,” and then they do. They’re the ones with the dirty tricks. The ones who make us better, by making us into amorphous collections of piecemeal knowledge and dirty tricks. There’s an old joke about practicing medicine and “maybe someday I’ll get it right” … I don’t know if it’s possible. Much as it’s not like they come out with a new model of the human body every year, they come up with enough new information and new gear that that’s all we’re ever going to be doing … practicing.

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