1 Reading EKGs, II – a scary situation, and a big save.


The usual disclaimer goes here: this article is not meant to be an authoritative reference in any way – instead, it’s supposed to reflect the thinking and experience of a couple of rather “overexperienced” ICU nurses. Please check with your own local references and authorities on any questions about our content – and let us know what you think! Special thanks go out on this one to our latest guest editor, daughter #1, Nurse Ruth, RN, who provided criticism, questions, comments, and patience with the project in general! Here’s a really nice example of applied EKG-reading. This was a totally scary, unexpected, outof-the-blue situation, which we thought would go well as an example of what ICUs are all about. The scenario was terrifying to start with, although pretty straightforward; young woman comes in through the ER with an acute meningitis: the bad one, turned out to be neisseria meningitidis, which kills at a mile unless treated absolutely as soon as possible. So: young person, not a college student as sometimes happens, but who works in a popular coffee shop. She picks up the big bad bug, which maybe had colonized some customer of hers without causing the disease, and rapidly gets sick: complains of a headache to her roommate at about 5pm, and is found by the roommate, incontinent of stool, at about 10 that night. A side story: the roommate is a student from somewhere – Bolivia? They’re good friends – she literally picks up the sick girl and washes her down in the shower, and then with the help of another friend who also was here from somewhere on foreign exchange - Bulgaria? - the two of them, with about 100 words of English between them, one of which isn’t 911, carry her down five flights of stairs, flag down a cab, get in with her with the $25 that they have in the world, and manage to say “hospital” to the driver, who brings them to us. One of the friends apparently carried the girl into the ER in his arms… In the ER, she’s pretty unresponsive, seizes, gets intubated, gets CT scanned, then LP’d. (Somebody in the group tell us: why does the scan need to be done first?) – then started on antibiotics. Comes up to us – an ugly scene. Apparently acute DIC likes to accompany this disease entity: she had little areas of purpura growing in spots all over her; she’s gone on a couple of pressors, bacteremia, sepsis…she’s very sick. Couple of days go by. She’s still intubated, weaning off her pressors, still on propofol, since every time they lighten her she starts to become uncontrollably agitated, pulling at equipment, lines, not responding to voice…this is actually really good news, because at least she’s moving everything. Now the plan is to get keep her safe, finish her antibiotic regimen, and then try to wean her from the vent as – hopefully – her head clears up. I come in, take report, and notice something odd on the monitor… Ok new ICU nurses – something’s wrong with this picture. What is it?

Yup. that’s bigger! Anybody see the thing that shouldn’t be? Are these normal looking complexes? This is where a lot of people get a little lost: they’ve learned some arrhythmias. with helpful arrow added… See it now? What’s the arrow pointing at – which segment? And what’s up with that segment? Elevated? Depressed? Cone-headed? So who remembers what ST elevation means? Holy s&*t! This is alarming – here is something that is really not supposed to be: ST elevations on the monitor. and close the document without saving changes – then everything will go back to the original size. or leave it. Scary wrong – so wrong that the appropriate response from you should be something like: “Holy s&*t!” Here’s a normal one complex… And here’s the problem one. . you can click on any of the ekg pictures. every p-wave is followed by a QRS complex…but this is not an arrhythmia problem.2 Let’s take the image and make it a little bigger: Yeah. really basic observations that you really have to know about when you start working in the ICUs…yes. to see the details more closely… you can then just drag it back. then grab a corner and drag them bigger. there are p-waves. but for some reason never get a grasp of some of the other. from a 22-year old kid with meningitis? Say what!? So – what do you do at this point? Who said call the physicians? Sounds right to me… Something to remember – if you’re opening this article as a word document. something else here is very wrong.

3 Here’s the first of a series of 12-lead ekgs – the times that they were done didn’t scan in all of them. maybe – not sure what to make of that. Small complex. so since the whole group isn’t showing a problem. but they’re in sequence : Since it’s first in line. the ST elevations are getting worse – next ekg: Ack! Worse! See it now? This is bad. but the other leads look ok. along with 3 and AVF. with a flipped T-wave. ST elevations in…who said two areas of the heart? WTF? . just a little… On the monitor. and V5 and V6. A little suspicious – is there a little ST elevation in the whole group? What’s left: antero-septal leads: V1-2-3-4: v4 might be thinking about something. See the non-pathologic q’s. (Which coronary artery are we looking at here?) AVL is inverted. lets start with lead 1: don’t see much going on. I’d tend not to get very worried just yet. however? Little baby q’s? Hmm… Finished with the lateral group – next comes lead 2. Along with lead one in the lateral group goes AVL.

20 minutes later…you’ve heard of “tombstones” on an ekg? Those there are them. right? Next EKG.4 I’m starting to get really unhappy now. whose response was: “Holy s&*t!” He’s on his way down. right there…this s&*t is really evolving rapidly…the cards guy is here. The junior resident calls “cards” – the cardiology resident on call for the house. Next ekg: even more worse. Let’s try to anticipate him here – what could be happening? How could the kid be infarcting two areas of her heart at once? Something is blocking flow through two of the main coronary arteries… . and inferior/RCA. Everybody sees this. right? ST elevations in two lead groups: lateral/circumflex.

septic.5 There are two main possibilities that occur to my ancient mind: 1: . right? One of the ones that loosens arteries up. because we’ve got a four-hour window here before this acute myocardial injury turns to necrosis…and long before then we’re going to have to decide whether or not to take this kid to the cath lab and start drilling. or…yeesh! We sneak on a little nitroglycerine – straight drip. let’s apply the process here. with an echo machine: if the two coronary arteries are seriously and completely plugged. You’re learning about all those cool intravenous ICU drip meds – some of them tighten up arteries. all that? Uh . I think. or stenting. (der!). we use a lot of propofol! Never seen this! The plan: stop the propofol. two main cores out of three. right? You want to use those here? Nooo. And which one loosens up the tight coronary arteries? Nitroglycerine? Perfect choice! Loosen up those arteries! All of the arteries? Wait a minute – isn’t she on pressors? Bacteremic. or 2: . Sure enough. and had an enormous MI – they cathed her. sort of arbitrarily – this is the middle of our usual dose range. and she had clean coronary arteries…they put it down to severe vasospasm. and that you still have room to give lots more if you want to… . apply some…some what? Come on now. and the kid may have to go emergently to the cath lab. 100mcg/minute. and get it up rapidly to 500mcg. possibly the propofol that the kid is on.yeah…so? So that means that we’re gonna be giving her one drip to make her arteries tighten up – that’s the pressor. maybe for stents… …but they are moving! So the vessels aren’t plugged. The only reason I think of that is that I saw it happen once – years ago. came in. the cards guy thinks this is a vasospastic response to something. new ICU nurses. you don’t. and a couple of her coronary arteries have tightened up so tight that they’re occluding themselves closed. which sort of ensures that you’re both giving a hefty dose. This has all us old ICU nurses scratching our heads…I mean. then the echo will probably show that the two areas of the heart they supply won’t be moving very much. and I think somebody called it “syndrome X”… The cards guy arrives. which is possible.she could have thrown little microemboli to her coronary arteries. A woman in her 40’s. since she’s DIC-ing. You want the other kind. just to see if the kid is going to bottom out her pressure in response to it or not…then we crank. and at the same time we’re gonna give her another drip to make her arteries loosen up? That sense makes? Hope so! The idea is that the nitro is going to specifically loosen up the coronary arteries – does it work with that much specificity? Who the heck knows? We need to try something though.she could be having some totally bizarre vasospastic thing going on.

right? – inferior and lateral. patient moving around.6 Next ekg. Along comes the nitro – what’s supposed to happen? So what’s supposed to happen on the EKG? Thirty minutes .how about now? Why are we not worried about what this might be? . maybe… What do we think? Anything happening? Well – how would you know? What is it exactly that you’re hoping is going to happen? Let’s visualize: two of the coronaries are so tightly spazzed that nothing – hardly – is getting through them. Is anything changing? This ekg is a little noisy. about 15 minutes after cranking up the nitro: what’s happening? You’re looking at the same areas.

moving all fours.the kid went on a low-propofol diet. got extubated. went home! Fabulous! Intensive care! . said a lot of really interesting things. weaned off the sedation. which made things a little complicated for the neurologists and their wakeup regiment – we wound up using fentanyl. the vent.7 And now? About 45 minutes.but nothing works or wears off as quickly as propofol. then changing to versed. all that good stuff). which alllowed us to keep her safely sedate. which makes it ideal for quick neuro checks like that. about 3 hours along…whew! Big save! Never happened again. She weaned off the nitro within the day – weaned off the pressors. went to the floor. Here’s the last in the series. was totally nuts and confused (but increasingly verbal. and last we heard. and to lighten her when needed .

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