A Tour of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

—Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous with Death

The Intensive Care Unit is an uncomfortable place. It is where the sickest patients in
the hospital reside. Because many of the patients require emergency medical interventions or close monitoring, the layout resembles that of the emergency department (ED). Patient rooms encircle a nurse’s station where computers sit on a long table. As in the ED, each room is filled with machines
projecting vital signs, EKG tracings, IV fluid rates, and other information towards the physicians and nurses. And the nurses in “the unit” (as it’s
commonly referred to) are always active, checking in on patients throughout the day and night.

There are many different types of intensive care units: some for patients with heart issues (cardiac ICU), others for patients with neurological issues
(neuro ICU), pulmonary or general medical issues (medical ICU), surgical issues (surgical ICU) and cancers (oncology ICU). What we see in each unit,
however, is equally disturbing. And what follows are the some of the things one might see (and which I have seen) in different ICUs over the course of a

Image via Shutterstock

In the neuro critical care unit, one patient lies unconscious with a massive and deadly brain bleed. In another bed across the room, a patient with a rapidly expanding
brain tumor cries out in searing pain from a headache. In the cardiac intensive care unit, a patient, hours after receiving a ventricular assist device (VAD), a device which helps the heart’s ventricles pump out
blood after being weakened by disease, receives chest compressions from a nurse as he goes into cardiac arrest. Another unconscious patient in the far
corner of the room is on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, after
having massive heart and lung failure. ECMO takes blood out of the venous system, oxygenates it in a machine and then pumps it back into the arterial
system, thus bypassing the heart and the lungs. In the normal circulatory system, blood goes from the veins into the right side of the heart and
subsequently to the lungs where it is oxygenated, flows to the left side of the heart and is pumped into circulation to nourish the body’s tissues. ECMO
temporarily maintains circulation until the patient’s heart and lungs can function on their own.

In the oncology unit, a middle-aged cachetic patient lies face-up in the bed, staring at the ceiling while fungal and bacterial infections cause his blood
pressure to drop and heart rate to increase. Despite the medications used to prevent these infections in cancer patients with very low white blood cell
counts, sometimes the microbes sneak by. And because chemotherapy used to treat cancer destroys white blood cells, the cancer patient has nothing left with
which to fight off the infection. Even the most minor bacterial invasion can be fatal for these patients, as it eventually was for him. Meanwhile, in the next room, another
patient had just passed away and her family crowded around her bed sobbing and mourning their loss while holding the expired patient’s
hand, hoping for the return of warmth.

Unusual sounds percolate from room to room in these dank areas of the hospital. Most noticeably, IV poles beep
constantly as they run out of their fluids or medications. Cardiac monitors sound alarms as patient heart rates dip too low, rise above a normal level, or register abnormal
rhythms. Some patients moan and scream, losing all sense of time and of themselves. Or, perhaps they curse and threaten nurses while withdrawing from
alcohol. Others vomit and pass gas. Some patients demand the impossible: “get me out of here!” or “leave me alone!” Sometimes patients need to be strapped
down to the bed because they pull out their IVs as they wail and moan and thrash about. During the day, minimal light shines into the unit and it is
tainted by the sickness and suffering which pollute the air and tint the windows. Foul smells, which I wrote about here, are most potent in the ICU. Many ICU patients,
though washed by nurses, have not bathed in weeks. The stench of sweat, stool, and blood permeates the unit when nurses change patients’ diapers,
suck accumulating mucous out of patients’ mouths, and clean up blood-stained sheets.

And if you think it’s bad for providers, imagine what patients experience. The ICU must feel like a kind of hell on earth. Sleep is rare when your
neighbors expectorate, choke, vomit, and shout, and nurses and physicians constantly wake you up, draw blood from your veins, and examine you to ensure your
mind still functions correctly. Some patients can’t eat or drink because they need surgery (it is safer to put patients under anesthesia for surgery when
they have not eaten because food will not come up from the stomach and choke the patient or travel into the lungs while they are unconscious) and so they go to bed hungry and
thirsty. A patient may even go to sleep not knowing whether he or she will wake in the morning. You may be one of those who
has a rendezvous with death tomorrow; you may be one of those who survives; you may hang on by a thread for weeks. Who would ever want to end up in an

And yet, it is in the ICU that patients receive the most fastidious care. Nurses watch over only one or two patients and thus can keep a close eye on them.
Physicians trained in the art of emergency procedures, like intubation, are always around
and watchful. Nobody will be more attentive to your medical needs than an ICU team, which monitors every sign of life you emit: breaths, heartbeats,
skin color, blood pressure, electrolyte levels, blood counts, infectious disease cultures from your urine to your spinal fluid. The advantage of being in
the ICU is that you receive the care that you need even if it is in a frightening environment. I hope I never have to be there, but if I am severely ill at
some point in my life, the ICU is the place I would choose to be.

PCP Overdose in the Emergency Department

There was a crowd of security guards, physicians, and nurses in an ED room. The patient inside squirmed and writhed on the stretcher while sweating
profusely, soaking his clothing and the hospital bed. Though slender
and slightly cachectic, the patient had fought off the security
entourage multiple times, like a snake slipping from their grasp,
violently twisting and
turning his body.
As he struggled, a nurse tore off the sleeve of the patient’s dark blue jumpsuit in order to get IV
access and administer medications. The 26-year-old man kept his eyes wide open and stared at the ceiling, which made it easy for me to see his
tremendously large and dilated pupils, empty and frightening at once. Seven security guards held him down when the nurse started the IV.

All this went on for about an hour, and as the time passed the monitor above the patient’s bed, which projected his temperature, blood pressure,
and heart rate, changed. The temperature rose: 99…100…101…102…. The heart rate went up to 120 (a heart rate above 100 is considered fast and is called tachycardia). The blood pressure, too, rose
to 160/100 (normal is approximately 120/80). And the patient continued to sweat and writhe. As he exerted himself, his cells produced molecules necessary
for energy, a process which generates heat and increases heart rate and blood pressure.

The patient was experiencing a PCP, or Phencyclidine, overdose. PCP is a drug that was developed in the early twentieth century as an anesthetic. However, the drug also caused
delusions, anxiety, and agitation and was eventually discontinued because of these side effects. In the 1960s, many drug addicts used it illegally in pill
and smoke form. Because PCP acts partially among dopamine receptors in the brain it can cause both
euphoric and, sometimes, psychotic and violent behavior. On medical licensing exams we are expected to recognize the typical PCP symptoms: violent behavior, dilated pupils, profuse sweating and
tachycardia. Additionally, the drug can cause seizures, hyperthermia (very high body temperatures), severe hypertension or high blood pressure – which can
damage the eyes, kidney, and brain as well as other organs – and rhabdomyolysis,
the breakdown of muscle, which can cause further kidney damage. Unfortunately, no medication exists to reverse the drug once it’s been ingested and
treament primarily targets only a patient’s symptoms.

The resident started treating this particular patient with a type of benzodiazepine, a sedative drug
that acts on receptors in the brain to inhibit anxiety and agitation. This class of medications is frequently used for patients who have prolonged
seizures, severe anxiety, or difficulty sleeping. After multiple doses of benzodiazepines over the course of the hour, as well as IV fluids to counteract
possible rhabdomyolysis, the patient continued to fight and his temperature continued to rise. It was almost as if he had not been given any medication at

At this point, the only option was to use drugs to knock the patient out completely, or paralyze him, so that he would stop struggling and his vital signs would
normalize. To ensure the paralytic drugs do not prevent the patient from breathing, a tube is placed down his throat, keeping the airway
open. The resident injected the paralytic into the IV, and once it took effect he
used a glidescope to pry open the patient’s throat in order to visualize
the airway. Then, he stuck a short plastic tube down into the trachea. The hollow tube allows oxygen to pass into the trachea thus acting as the patient’s
mouth and throat. The tube is then connected to a ventilator that pumps air into the lungs and thus keeps the patient oxygenated. A great video
of this procedure with narration is available here.

This last ditch effort worked. Over the next few hours, the patient’s temperature and blood pressure dropped and he avoided the dangerous sequelae of his
toxic ingestion. Although curious to see what would happen to him next, my rotation ended before the patient was admitted to the hospital and I went home
to sleep off the overnight shift.

How the ED (Emergency Department) Works

Ambulance image via Shutterstock

The Emergency Department is one of the most active and exciting parts of the hospital because it is the hospital’s sieve. The ED physician determines
whether an injury or complaint is life-threatening or not and then treats or admits the patient to the hospital if necessary. Someone usually comes in by
ambulance or private vehicle with a general complaint — referred to as the chief complaint — such as “stomach pain,” “chest pain,” “leg pain,” or “shortness
of breath.”

But occasionally, the first assessment of this chief complaint begins outside of the emergency room. Paramedics or emergency medical technicians who bring
the patient in by ambulance identify someone clearly in need of medical attention. Outside of the hospital they take the patient’s blood pressure, heart
rate, breathing rate, and temperature (collectively known as vital signs). These measurements indicate the seriousness of the situation. For example, if a
patient looks pale and sweaty, and his blood pressure is 80/40 (extremely low), this indicates the need for emergency treatment. However, if a patient calls
for an ambulance but has normal vital signs and looks healthy, then he can wait a bit longer for medical care, and the ambulance does not rush to the

When the patient arrives in the emergency room, he will see a similar setup at many different institutions (I can testify to this because of my days spent
as an emergency medical technician in New York City, where I saw the emergency rooms of many hospitals). The doctors and nurses sit at an open station with
computers in the center of the circular or semi-circular room. The patient beds stand on the outer edges of the circle in small slots separated from each
other by curtains and, in some cases, by an actual wall. Usually, a patient is hooked up to a machine that continually takes vital signs and projects them
onto a screen facing the doctors and nurses.

Once the nurses bring a new patient back to a bed, the resident physician assigned to that bed asks one of the medical students to go see the patient. We
have ten minutes to interview the patient about the chief complaint and do a focused physical exam, which means we only ask about and examine bodily
systems that relate to the chief complaint. If a patient has chest pain, we do not ask about or examine the foot.

Difficulties abound with this assignment. First, some patients come to the ED and want to have all their problems taken care of, which is impossible to do
in a short period of time. Additionally, the ED is only meant to handle emergencies. Someone who has a broken leg, for example, may also want to talk about
a muscle sprain in his shoulder — but a sprain is far less concerning and does not need immediate attention. Second, some patients want to have a long
conversation with a medical student or physician. They may feel lonely at home, or have a difficult social situation, or just want to chat. And while we
must listen to the patient, these conversations may be irrelevant to the chief complaint. Moreover, other patients with life-threatening problems arrive
regularly and need an ED doctor more urgently. Finally, some patients come seeking pain medications because of an addiction, or some may malinger (faking an illness for some type of secondary gain, like getting out of school
or criminal prosecution).

Dealing with these kinds of patients is integral to the art of medicine in the ED. The methods we were taught in first and second year
about how to manage disease and what questions to ask tend to dissolve when dealing with human beings who have different motivations for coming in to the
ED. We need to understand those motivations and, occasionally, quickly work around them in order to address a patient’s life-threatening

After we see and examine the patient, we tell the resident what we think the diagnosis is and what lab tests or imaging we want to get. The resident then
sees the patient briefly and tells the attending physician his or her plan for the patient. The attending finalizes the plan for the patient and the
resident executes it. All this might be clearer with an example from my own experience.

During one of my shifts, a patient presented to the ED with severe back pain. He could not sit still, and cried out every few seconds. He squirmed on the
stretcher, moving his legs up and down, tearing sheets off the bed and clenching his hands to his chest while grimacing. Watching someone in pain is
extremely difficult and can even cause the observer to feel pain. And
there is no question that I felt incredibly sympathetic for this man — so much so that I didn’t want to disturb him by asking him questions and examining

This is another difficulty in the field of medicine. We need to perform certain exam maneuvers or tests even though they cause the patient pain and
frustration. But it can be so difficult to bring oneself, especially in the student role, to swallow that difficulty and foist the necessary exam onto
the patient. How could I bear to push on and examine this man’s back when I knew this would cause immense discomfort? With difficulty, I continued the
interview and briefly palpated the spot on his back that hurt.

Once I finished the interview, I thought about a differential diagnosis. A differential diagnosis is a list of possible diagnoses for the patient given the
signs and symptoms the patient is presenting with, usually listed from the most likely to least likely. This gentleman with left lower back pain, for
instance, had a differential diagnosis list as follows:

1. Kidney stones

2. Herniated disc

3. Pulled muscle

4. Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

5. Spinal abscess

6. Appendicitis

This list may not be complete, but it gives a sense of the kind of approach a physician takes to a medical issue. And as the physician questions the patient, the list changes. A doctor might ask if this particular patient had his appendix removed. If the answer is yes, then appendicitis comes off the list. A
practitioner uses interview questions and physical exam maneuvers to narrow the list down to one or two very likely diagnoses.

As for labs or imaging tests, these are only done to rule out or in diagnoses after narrowing down the list of possibilities with an interview and physical
exam. This man most likely had a kidney stone, as his presentation of severe back pain with an inability to sit still is a classic demonstration of this
pathology. Therefore, a urinalysis (examination of the urine) or CT scan (an imaging study to look for the stone) was integral to the diagnosis.

After deciding on this, I presented the patient to the resident. Across the field of medicine, medical students, residents, and attending physicians
present patients to each other in a standard format with an ordered listing of information. This information includes the age of the patient, history of
the chief complaint, relevant past medical history, physical exam findings, and a plan for the patient’s care. This gives all medical professionals a
concise, relevant, and standardized summary of the situation. In this case, for example, I might present the patient to the resident by saying this:

“Mr. B is a 44 year old caucasian male with a relevant past medical history of previous kidney stones, here today with a chief complaint of severe back
pain. The pain began five hours ago while showering with no apparent preceding incident. The pain is only better when the patient brings his knees up to
his stomach but otherwise remains severe. The pain is sharp and unilateral on the left side and does not radiate anywhere. The patient took ibuprofen
earlier, but that has not helped. He reports no blood in the urine, no difficulty urinating and no change in bowel movements. On physical exam, the patient
is extremely tender to palpation on his left flank but the exam is otherwise normal. My differential diagnosis includes kidney stones, pyelonephritis,
herniated disc, pulled muscle, spinal abscess, and appendicitis. I’d like to get a urinalysis and CT scan of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, and give the
patient morphine for pain.”

That’s not a perfect presentation (and at the time mine was far less comprehensive), but it is the kind of formatted presentation that doctors look for
when they see a patient who has severe back pain.

If the ED attending physician is unsure of what is going on or how to treat the problem, the resident usually calls a consult. If the patient is bipolar,
for example, the ED resident calls a psychiatrist to see the patient in the ED and possibly admit the patient to the psychiatric ward in the hospital. If
the patient presents with a stroke, the resident calls a neurologist, who treats and admits the patient to the stroke service. While emergency medicine
physicians are excellent at figuring out what might be going on and whether it is serious, and while they are meant to know a little bit about everything, they
don’t know as much about specific problems as a specialist in that field. Therefore, it is not the ED physician’s job to treat everything neurological,
psychiatric, or cardiac in nature. It is the ED physician’s job to determine who needs to see which specialist physician, and to treat those urgent problems
that they can treat.