In 2007 Elaine Bromiley went in to the hospital for an elective sinus surgery. Thirteen days later she died. If you are unfamiliar with the case, there is a reenactment video of what happened in the OR here. Be forewarned, it is not an easy video to watch.
Recently we discussed the case at work. Providers expressed their disbelief over the events. “I don’t get it. How could that have happened?” was asked. Before doing quality assurance (QA) in EMS for several years I know I could tell you the answer, it is glaringly obvious to anyone with or without any medical knowledge – THEY ARE INCOMPETENT IDIOTS! For good measure I might also throw in some pseudo-intellectual comment about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For the coup de grace I would add they should lose their license to practice medicine.
Doing QA is hard. Sure you can just read reports and dole out sanctions for protocol violations like some sort of EMS SVU. “In the EMS justice system, QA based offenses are considered especially heinous. In the agency, the dedicated QA officers who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Chung-chung. It won’t make your system better or safer, but you can do it. It happens all the time.
To do QA right requires you to either have natural talents in things like emotional intelligence (I don’t) or to learn about yourself and come to some unpleasant realizations, things like you are wrong a lot. Even worse, after doing QA for some time you might come to find the root cause of some of the problems in the agency also involves you. The notion that second ago you were sure the providers were morons and now you are contemplating that you are perhaps a causative factor in the incident can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Growth is hard and to be honest not all that fun. It kind of sucks, actually.
Going back to the Elaine Bromiley case it is easy to be the judge, jury and executioner when we view the events that occurred with the benefit of hindsight.
The thing is if you were to present the scenario in the Bromiley case to anyone of the people that were there in there that day in the form of a question, “your patient is circling the drain, the 02 sats are in the shitter, should you keep trying to intubate?”I guarantee every single person would say “hell no!” But the truth is the people in the OR that day may never have even considered there were other choices. There probably was no choice presented in their minds. The only solution they could think of was “get the tube.” Or maybe they did have choice but the best solution from their perspective was to “get the tube.” Perhaps they though in another five seconds that tube would go through the cords and the disaster would be averted, certainly better to spend another five seconds in the airway than to cut the neck and scar this woman, right?
But they could not know that. Only with hindsight can we tell them that it would not be just another 5 seconds to get the tube. If we had the foresight to say you are never going to get the tube I assure you no one would still be mucking around in a person’s airway when their spo2 is south of 40%.
It is easy to watch the Bromiley video and believe your inner monologue, “IDIOTS.” It is harder to look at things from the provider’s perspective. It takes self-restraint to not jump to conclusion. It is very hard to look at things from their perspective and try and understand what they thought was going on then and why they made the choices they did that day. I think this is referred to as empathy.
From the outside perspective watching a fixation error unfold is a baffling ordeal, it boggles the mind how people could do what they are doing.
Fixation errors are very real. I made one once. After you experience one the world is different. You will be left with lingering doubts about your skill as a clinician. Are you a shit paramedic? How the hell did that happen in the first place? From the calm of your kitchen typing away on your computer it seems almost impossible to understand what occurred that day. You know the facts, you know what happened, but the why of it is much more elusive. Like some half remembered drunken evening you have bits and pieces of went on. What led you astray that night was not just one thing, and you know this. You know the holes of the Swiss cheese lined up just right to set the trap and you took the bait. Hook, line and sinker.
Given enough time, you can begin to understand exactly what did happen. Given enough time, you can be okay with a lot of things. You can begin to understand how others can get lulled down the same shitty path. There are few things in life as seductive as just taking one more “quick look” in your patient’s airway when you know at that moment that an ET tube is the solution to all your problems.
I think there is another component to the issue of fixation. Failure. There is a subtle sense of failure when you place a supra-glottic airway after you could not get the ET tube in, especially in a patient you paralyzed. But you do it. You put that supra-glottic device in, because that is what is needed, that is what is right and correct and should happen, has to happen, but it still stings. It still feels like failure.
But the goal was never intubation, was it? The goal was managing the airway. Or was it? It seems when every cardiac arrest is tried by a jury of our peers the burning question is “did you get the tube?” or “Who got the tube?”
Of course, talking about this is probably going to be frowned upon be some. We are supposed to be bigger than this when it comes to ego and our own biases and patients.
On the other hand, preventable medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the USA. Maybe it is time we start looking at some human related factors.
Let’s have the uncomfortable talk about how our cognitive biases, ego, and sense of pride might be playing in to killing a bunch of people. If you do not think this is a huge problem in EMS, I would refer you to the post about the ET tube petition. Right next to ET tubes on the NASEMSO document was a call for the removal of PEEP. Now, the thing is there is not a ton of evidence about EMS ET tubes, and what evidence there is paints the practice in a questionable light, but PEEP on the other hand seems to be pretty soundly based in science and evidence. Out of the save intubation crowd there was virtually no science or data or evidence given, only anecdote and an appeal to emotions.
Where was the petition to keep PEEP? There wasn’t one.
- Number of people who signed the petition to keep intubation in the paramedic scope: 26,476.
- Number of people who signed the petition to keep PEEP in the paramedic scope: What petition?
You can ask yourself why no one cared about the PEEP issue but I suspect you know the answer, you have known it all along. We, as an industry, have some weird emotional attachment to intubation; it has somehow become an integral part of our identity as a paramedic. This is not to say that intubation does not have a place in EMS, I think it does, but I think it might be time to start the conversation about why we are so god damned emotionally invested in intubation. Myself included.
How did our value as a paramedic come to rely on a 30cm piece of plastic tubing? How does self-worth hinge on shoe-horning a two dollar piece of plastic several inches in to a patient? I do not know.