Saturday, October 8, 2011

Code Blue

Warning: This is not a funny hospital story. Please skip this blog post if you are prone to fainting at slightly graphic medical stories. 

Recently I watched my first code blue at this hospital. 

A code blue is your classic CPR situation--someone whose heart is not beating or who is not breathing.

It is the kind of thing you see on TV all the time. And in some ways, it is like TV. It feels dramatic. People keep pouring into the room in droves. There are syringes flying and orders being called and chest compressions and the beeping of heart monitors. It is 15 people all working together to try to save a life when every minute really does count. 

And yet, it is utterly unlike TV. The patient's spouse is shuttled out of the room white as a sheet. This is a real person, not an actor. If things do not turn out well, this day will be life-altering and remembered with remorse. The patient is disrobed and blood drips on the floor in a puddle as new IV's are started. Chest compressions are hard and fast and make the bed shake. Students and medical residents take turns doing them because it is exhausting work. The patient receives a breathing tube down the throat to assist in giving breaths. 

Every 2 minutes we pause everything to watch the heart monitor return again and again to a flat line, called asystole. This means there is no electrical activity in the heart at all. It means the patient is probably not going to come back. It means all our efforts will probably be in vain. 

I stood in the corner holding a clipboard and wrote everything down, calling out when more medication could be given and keeping track of how long we'd been working. Doing this allowed me to participate in the code but mostly observe first hand what happened. 

I watched the heart rate come back for just a moment. A pulse! We have a pulse! A new hopeful energy entered the room as doctors gave new orders and we excitedly started preparing to take the patient to the ICU. 

Then, just as quickly, the pulse left, replaced once again by that terrible flat line. 

I watched as the room gradually became more and more quiet. Compressions continued but no one spoke a word. We all knew. Finally I called out for the last round of medication. Someone gave it. 


And so, reluctantly, we stopped. The room emptied in near silence. In a moment we cleared the room and covered the patient with a fresh sheet and wiped up the blood. The drama of the moment fizzled out into a quiet sadness. Nurses rarely cry in such moments. Maybe it's the adrenaline. But the experience still cast a pall over the rest of the day, sobering us all. 

And yet, there lingered some small comfort in the nearly 30 minutes we'd spent trying to preserve a life. We gave life the best chance possible at lingering here. Everything we could do we did. Life is tenacious, but sometimes, so is death. When it's really truly our time to go, we go. For this patient, it was truly time.


  1. wow Camber, what a story. You are an amazing writer!

  2. I've never thought before about how much chaos there could be in that kind of situation. Your job must have been a pretty important one. I can almost imagine what might have happened when Dave's grandma died in the hospital. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I saw you there looking quite calm (and a bit worried). I came a little too late to be involved, which is akward, standing at the door feeling helpless, wondering what you can do, if you should stop gawking or if they may need your help, and then just awkwardly going back to your normal day. Too bad it didn't work out this time for the patient and family.

  4. Very well written Camber. And so true. When it's time, it's time. Thanks for posting this.