I know. There are a lot of awkward moments in my job. So I’ll be quick to clarify.
That awkward moment when…you save someone’s life and no one else* knows it.
(This does not include the responding nurses/physician!)
I had my first postpartum hemorrhage the other day. It was terrifying. Again, I don’t tell you that as a new nurse whose experience barely extends beyond the imaginative, scenario-based world of training. And while the scene was unforgettable–arguably, indescribable, as after several edits, I still don’t feel I’ve captured the full chaos of the situation–one thing will always stick with me.
I was the only one who realized what was going on.
I’ll set the stage for you. I’m about at the end of a recovery after a fairly difficult vaginal delivery. The patient is doing fine. Baby is doing fine. The mom has some visitors in her room and they’re casually chatting while I’m giving her some pain medication. However, as I’m pushing the med, the patient starts to feel sick. I hand her a bucket and she is very clearly nauseated, retching but unable to produce anything. I think to myself, perhaps she’s simply naïve to narcotics. That could be the case. Some folks are extremely sensitive to narcs and will become sick quickly after an IV push. However, it was just as I was starting to think that this was pretty intense to be a reaction to a narcotic, it happened–
A loud splash, as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on the floor. I look down to see the biggest puddle of red I’ve ever seen creeping rapidly toward my shoes. And then, a family member’s reaction so misplaced, I can barely believe what I’m hearing…
Now, let me pause here to explain to you how delivery beds are made. They have a bucket underneath them that is specifically designed to catch blood during a delivery. That bucket was in the path of this gush. Delivery beds aren’t thin, either, meaning there is a lot of distance, including mattress and metal pieces, to travel through in order to reach the floor. That’s a lot of stuff between the patient and the floor–plenty of material to slow down a fluid spill. For blood to have hit the floor hard enough to splash…wow. That’s a lot of blood.
All of this crossed my mind in the span of a few milliseconds before I reached for my poor patient’s boggy uterus and hit the emergency bells.
If, by some strange coincidence, you realize as you read this that you were among the family members who were sitting in the room when this happened, I really didn’t mean to be rude. Let’s just say I was stunned–flabbergast–appalled at the thought that you were sitting at bedside during a massive postpartum hemorrhage and laughing as your family member was bleeding to death.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect those guests to be medical experts. But there is something strange and unsettling about people who laugh at of a volume of blood that is rarely shown in appropriate circumstances on TV, much less seen in a real-life situation involving a loved one. I argue not for the medical proficiency of her guests, as this was not necessary to deduce that serious trouble was amiss. Rather, there was a sickening lack of basic concern for the crimson pool that grew by the second and the simultaneously dwindling consciousness of the woman in bed.
At any rate, after an initial moment of stunned silence, the family members left the room, and in a matter of seconds, the cavalry arrived. The patient was barely conscious, her blood pressure so low that the machine couldn’t read it. I had pulled back the blankets to reveal a pool of blood in the bed, soaking the mattress and sheets from foot to waist. One nurse was starting a large bore IV while another opened up the pitocin and fluids that were already running, infusing them in at full blast. Another nurse put an oxygen mask over my patient just as the doc came running in, slid a hand into my patient’s uterus and pulled out some of the biggest clots I’ve ever seen.
In all, we estimated somewhere around 2.5 liters of blood lost in less than a minute. Really, 2.5 liters. Consider that te average human adult has somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 liters of blood circulating. Approximately half of my patient’s blood had exsanguinated and now lay in the bed or on the floor.
After stabilizing my patient and cleaning up the veritable mess that remained, we let the visitors back in at her request. I felt bad for the poor girl. She had been up for over 24 hours, had gone through hell in labor, and now looked like death warmed over (and that is no exaggeration). Her blood levels, even on the CBC immediately after the bleed, were low. I expected she’d receive a blood transfusion before my shift was up.
But when her visitors came marching back in, to my amazement, they seemed to have forgotten the events that led to their abrupt eviction and instead, peppered my patient with comments like this:
I know what you’re thinking. They’re probably just being nice, you’ll say. They’re probably trying to make her feel better, you reason.
Simply put, no.
I only wish their reaction could be attributed to some benevolent desire to make this patient feel like less of a train wreck than she was. In fact, I made every effort to believe they were only being nice until I was eventually confronted by the uncomfortable facts: they were nothing short of completely sincere.
To boot, even my patient didn’t seem to understand the fact that she had done the Texas two-step with death that night and come out on top, even when I explained to her the extent of her bleeding, the meaning of her CBC results, and the fact that she might get blood to prevent spontaneous bleeds that could result from extremely low blood counts.
So it was an odd night to say the least. I headed home feeling a bit off, knowing that I had done something incredible, but with very little acknowledgement. It’s happened before, and I know it will happen again. It’s just strange to be the one who experiences it in full: the crash in vital signs, the blood, the near-fatality, the incredible response of the staff…
…and to go from all that adrenaline, action and real-life heroism to a patient and family whose biggest concern is…when the mom can have something to eat.
However, as one of my more thoughtful coworkers pointed out, maybe it’s better that way.