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Lessons One Should Learn From Shehla Sherin's Death

If you do not avoid news like me, you would have heard about the tragic death of a 10 year old in Wayanad a couple of days ago. You can search the name and find the story on your own, but a few facts are established already.

  1. Shehla Sherin had her foot go into a hole on the floor of her classroom and was afraid a snake bit her in that incident
  2. There was delay in taking her to the hospital
  3. Anti-Snake venom was not administered at the local hospital, and the child was referred to a tertiary care center at least an hour away.
  4. Child died on the way.
I won't unnecessarily go into speculations on what other things happened on that fateful day, but having managed emergency department in a rural hospital for over an year, I will use this sad death to illustrate two very important lessons for every doctor.

Lesson 1: Never take any complaint lightly, even if the circumstances lead you to think otherwise

There are two ways patients can come in. There are people who exaggerate, and people who downplay. Take all symptoms seriously.

There are no insignificant complaints. There are no insignificant findings. Whatever the patient tells you has to be taken seriously. Even if the patient asks you to not take it seriously. At the height of experience and confidence you might be able to predict that something isn't as serious as it sounds, but be really really careful before making that decision.

I had once a patient come to the casualty with a swollen foot. The patient had intellectual and speech disabilities and therefore there was no proper history. The bystander (who apparently takes care of the patient) told that "someone must have hit him". My colleague suspected a snake-bite because of the way the swelling looked, but nevertheless ordered a whole blood clotting time test and a foot x-ray to rule out a fracture. My shift was about to start and while I was taking charge from my colleague I inspected the foot of this patient closely (in the x-ray room). I could see two small points of bleeding close to each other - fang marks!

We immediately told the bystander that this is not "someone must have hit him", it is a snake bite, and that the patient will die unless something is done immediately. This bystander did not look like they liked the patient very much because they asked me "please do whatever you can here itself, don't refer us to higher center". We knew that the best we could do was given anti-snake venom (which we immediately started doing) but the patient might require blood products which weren't available and required referral. So, we took a stand and sent the patient as soon as the ASV went in.

There was this other patient who came at noon on a different day with severe chest pain, as if he was going to die the next moment. He was a smoker and alcoholic with a very good chance of having a heart attack. He wouldn't even lay still for us to get a proper ECG, and whatever leads we could obtain looked like there were ST elevations all over. The MI protocol kicked in, we gave all the painkillers, anti-coagulants, and sent the patient to the nearest cardiology center. News later was that he was just having severe gastritis due to alcoholism. But, we did what we should have done.

We've had a patient with vague headache/chest pain admitted for observation die on us under strict observation. I've had a patient with diarrhea go into dehydration and shock. I've had a lady who could perceive fetal movements but have no fetal heart activity on ultrasound. We've had a person with cellulitis of lower limb go into septic shock and die while we were on rounds. We've had a bystander who missed anti-epileptic medication die after getting seizures and aspirating. I've examined a kid with high fever who had febrile seizure on the way out. We've had a kid admitted for being dull after vaccination die in front of us, despite our best efforts. We've had a child in waiting area who wasn't breathing well arrest by the time they were identified by a patient care worker to be requiring urgent attention. I've had a patient with vague thigh pain turn out to be deep vein thrombosis and die next day.

Always have the worst outcomes in mind when making decisions. Be mindful about patients who you haven't even seen yet. Communicate a lot. Err on the side of cautiousness.

Never be afraid to wake seniors up from sleep. When in doubt, ask for help. If you are not sure about something, check it again. If something happens while you could have done something which you didn't, you'll regret that your entire life. And that is a pain.

Lesson 2: It is a privilege to have access to the miracles of modern medicine. When you have the power to use things, please also have the courage to.

There is always going to be a risk. It is risk that makes the work of a doctor exciting. If you've chosen to be a doctor, there is no way you can avoid risk. Even if you become a dermatologist, you can land up in soup. As a doctor, the only way to avoid risk is by quitting professional life and meditating inside a cave.

Risks shouldn't hold you back from attempting something that's required for your patient. I got this lesson the first time when I was still an intern, and was in KR Hospital's Medical ICU. I was trying to insert a catheter into someone's jugular but I was going too superficial. My senior then told me "Always remember, what you're doing is for the benefit of the patient. You're only going to harm them by not doing it confidently. The patient will die if they don't get this line. So you may as well put it in boldly."

There is a definite role for experience and knowledge in being able to build the confidence to do things. But neither of that will come unless you want to do those things for your patient. If you are shy of cutting, you can never be a surgeon. If you are scared of side effects, all the pharmacology you know is absolutely of no use.

Too many doctors think that by not committing something they're keeping themselves safe. But their fake sense of safety comes at the cost of the patient's suffering. Laws of medical negligence apply to acts of omission as well as they apply to acts of commission. With all your training you may as well do something and fail, than be a mean coward. That's what your license is for.

Use anesthesia (ketamine + midazolam, if you will) when draining breast abscess. Give powerful analgesics when people are in pain (don't give diclofenac for MI/fracture. Give something like pentazocine). Use second line and third line drugs when the first line fails. Give aminophylline or magnesium sulphate for COPD/Asthma. Steroids and immuno-suppressants are in various guidelines for a reason - use them when indicated. Even newborns may need anti-epileptics. Benzathine Penicillin is the best available cure for Syphilis. "Higher antibiotics" are not reserved for higher centers. Use vasopressors (and for heart's sake not fluids) in hypotension where failure needs to be considered. Use nitroglycerine to control high blood pressure. Use heparin. Use atropine. Use adrenaline. Use BiPAP. Resuscitate. Use oxygen. Use fluids. Give vaccines. Conduct deliveries. Splint fractures. Suture large wounds. Intubate and bag till the ventilator in referral center. Use all the things you've learnt to deliver care. That's why you're a doctor.

And if you feel you're under-prepared for any of those things even after MBBS, work with sincere people in rural hospitals (like VMH or THI or BHS). Learn the skills. Learn the craft. Understand pain and suffering. Care for other humans. Become a good doctor. Then do whatever you want to.


I had a rule when I was working in ED - "Nobody dies when I'm on duty". The only exception was patients admitted for palliative care. Imagine if every doctor in our country made rules like that for themselves.


Dr.Dinesan said…
Dear Dr.Akshay,

Thank you for such an eye-opener ,

But different situations may need different modus operandi (like in corporate hospitals, treatment without proper diagnostic procedures may take you tobtroubles. Off course in a life n death situation your practical wisdom in managing the patient and common sense in managing the crowd(convincing) are equally
Important. Good
Arjun said…
Great it

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