Critical Values (Niki ponders on the job training for nurses)

Chapter 38

The chart notes written by the pediatric nurse caring for the little boy who died are scant. However, by searching the lab values, medication administration record, and the vital signs flow sheet in his medical record, I piece together a story of wrong assumptions combined with missed critical assessments.

The ER got the ball rolling well enough by drawing diagnostic blood work and admitting the boy to the pediatric unit, based on a phone consultation with our client, the pediatrician Dr. Straid. This small community hospital typically reserves a handful of beds designated “pediatric” for stable admissions, otherwise transferring unstable or critically ill children to larger, nearby children’s hospitals like the one I work for. Of course, someone would have had to recognize how sick this child was to trigger that response.

As I suspected, the results of the blood cultures drawn in the ER confirmed the severe bacterial infection, which ultimately killed the boy. These results were not available when he coded though, because it takes hours, sometimes days to grow out the killer organism. However, the complete blood count (CBC) results were available, including the differential, the cell-by-cell roadmap of the patient’s immune response. It’s white blood cell count (WBC) indicated a battle against infection, but it was the elevated number of new, immature white cells (bands) telling the story of the boy’s exhausted immune system. I searched the medical record to find documentation that this critical value was brought to Dr. Straid’s attention sometime before the child coded, but it wasn’t there. This is where the ball was dropped the first time: the nurse did not call in this critical result to the pediatrician if she had been aware of it. No one had, according to the patient’s chart. It’s the ancient law of the medical record: “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” I noted this on the yellow legal pad Grant had provided, to share with him later.

The nurse had entered a brief admission note, documenting the patency of the IV started in ER, administering the IV antibiotic, and that the bedrails were up. Her next entry described being called to the patient’s bedside by the parents, who were concerned about a pinpoint rash forming on their son’s trunk during the antibiotic infusion. The nurse called Dr. Straid at home, receiving an order for IV diphenhydramine and a steroid to treat what everyone assumed was an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. No mention of the CBC results during the phone call is recorded.

Of course, Dr. Straid could have taken it upon himself to come in from home to see his patient, I think to myself.

There are no further notes until the end of the nurse’s shift, when she recounts calling the code, and the failed resuscitation. I cringe for her while reading it. Poor woman. Was a lack of experience the reason for her failure to report the lab results, and the absent suspicion of an unidentified rash? I wonder how much pediatric training does this hospital provide its nurses? Cases like this one often become the catalyst for additional staff education, after the fact. Other times, nurses learn things the hard way, when a more experienced nurse catches their error during change of shift report, or from watching another nurse make a similar mistake.

I think about how Liz took it upon herself to mentor me when I was new to PICU, becoming a human safety net providing a layer of protection for my patients and me as I learned. I doubt this nurse had a Liz, at least not on this particular shift.

Poor patient. Poor nurse.

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