Stopping the sedation!

Let’s be unambiguous about this – the announcement that Michael’s care team is discontinuing his sedation is the news we’ve been waiting for. It’s the first big transition – from acute, life-threatening head injury to subacute recovery. Followed no doubt, let’s not forget, by a chronic rehabilitation phase. But this is wonderful news.

In terms of how this is done, well it’s actually pretty simple. The electronic pumps driving the continuous infusions of the sedative drugs are turned off. That’s it. But doing that means that the people taking care of Michael have a reasonable expectation that he will not exhibit untoward reactions to the “stress” of these medicines being turned off. The most undesirable of these would be elevations in . . . you guessed it . . . intracranial pressure, but to be honest, we’re now more than four weeks post-injury, and I’d rather think that we’re past that.

So what will happen now that this stuff is turned off?

1) It may or may not be true that, in general, French neurointensivists maintain sedation longer than their Anglo-Saxon colleagues. It doesn’t matter. The people taking care of Michael know what they’re doing.

2) while it’s possible that a long-acting drug may well have been used in the early, “suppressive” phase of Michael’s care, it’s quite likely that if so, it’s been replaced with one or more short-acting substances. These usually allow signs of emergence to appear within several hours of stopping the infusions.

3) What actually happens? Well in general, the first attempt to stop sedation usually gets interrupted by something. The patient gets agitated, the blood pressure goes up, the oxygen saturation goes down . . . something. So you turn the sedation back on, let the situation settle down, and then either try again or wait until tomorrow. It often takes a few tries before everything goes the way it should.

How should it go? Well ideally Michael will start to want to breathe, and allow weaning from ventilatory support. And just as important of course he will hopefully start to show meaningful interaction with his environment. Following simple commands, visual tracking, etc.

Now I’ve heard (from unconfirmed sources), unconfirmed reports (double “unconfirmed” should ring alarm bells of course) that Michael has indeed already done this.

I’d love any neurosurgeons to jump in and comment, but if this indeed is true, it is fairly astonishingly good (but indeed totally conceivable) news. So we need to cross our fingers and hope something like this DOES get confirmed in the future.

Tell you what – let’s not talk about any other alternatives right now, ok, so we keep it positive.

One last thing.

I’ve seen some very heartfelt comments here and there about articles, tv pieces, and blog speculation “hurting” Michael’s family. I wanted to just weigh in for a second.

I’ve been pretty harsh with the tabloid press, and deservedly so. But not because the Daily Mail’s moronity hurts Corinna, Gina Maria and Mick. ARE YOU KIDDING? Could they possibly hurt more? And if so, is it likely to be because of the suffering induced by a British rag? Of course not. I think it’s detestable coz it’s shit “journalism”. I kinda don’t think it’s on Corinna’s reading list, I don’t think their “journalism” could possibly add to their pain, and lastly, Michael’s care team have no doubt been TOTALLY up front with the family. Meaning they have a better idea than any of us of just what the . . . hell . . . is up.

If I thought for a second that anything I’ve written might hurt Michael or his family, I’d not have written it. To be honest, I’ve spoken to you as I’d speak to Michael’s family. I assume you know that, because I think it’s to THAT that you’ve reacted (to my infinite astonishment), more than to the information that I’ve transmitted.

Catching up with questions and comments

I wanted to just reply to a few comments and questions that have appeared here and on Twitter. I’m very gratified that so many people have clearly been thinking about this stuff.

I think we can and should generalise what I said about ski helmets to just about any realm of activity where they are “counted on” to provide protection. Construction hard-hats, bicycle helmets, hockey, Formula 1 pit crews, etc. The injury patterns almost certainly are different in each endeavour, and each therefore probably needs a different helmet. In general, we can’t expect the end user to do anything except have confidence in the equipment he (or she, that’s assumed in all my blog posts) chooses to use, or is obliged to use. That means that those who supply those helmets need to have a good idea of exactly what sort of injuries they need to mitigate. Clearly access to an appropriate level of protection has to be monetarily feasible. I chuckle to hear national-level rally drivers complain about a €2000 helmet (before going out and spending more than that on a set of tires! Helmets don’t make you fast!). I assume that a top of the line ski suit costs at least €800-1200. So that’s a constraint within which the manufacterers will have to work. They’re smart people. They’ll figure it out if the data gets generated.

Measuring g’s at the helmet with accelerometers is interesting, but there are severe enough problems with coupling to the head to make this data almost unusable in terms of BRAIN g’s. The DoD, and the FIA Institute, have been working on earpiece accelerometers for some time. These incorporate tiny 1 x 1 x 1 mm triaxial accelerometers into the part deepest into the ear canal. While this should theoretically give robust values for BRAIN g’s, that’s not happened yet. IRL has used earpiece accels for a while now, but I’m not sure they’re generating clinically useful data . . . yet.

Several people have sent me clippings concerning the effects of fish oil. Apparently someone “woke up” a comatose child using mega doses of fish oil. The explanations given were something like, well the brain is made up of fats, and so we give this good fat and it’s anti inflammatory too. The problem is that the person who administered this treatment published his results . . . on CNN. He should have published them in a peer-reviewed journal. Call me old-fashioned, but in terms of TREATING (not experimenting on) human beings, good quality evidence is the way to be guided, not what you saw last night on Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s show. That said, were I to be the close relative of a comatose head trauma patient, and were i to be  convinced that the risk profile of this kind of use of fish oil was acceptable, it is entirely possible that I’d be willing to have a go. But at the moment, let’s be clear, this is closer to ritual incantation than to medical science.

Lastly, something that’s been bothering me. A lot. As a doctor who practices pre-hospital medicine regularly.

Here goes: why was Michael brought to the hospital at Moutiers initially, and not to a neurosurgical centre? I am not trying to second guess (ok, just a bit) my colleagues who landed there on the 29th of December . . . BUT

  • reliable witnesses report to you that the victim hit his head
  • the victim’s helmet has been damaged in the impact
  • there’s blood on the snow
  • there is obvious signs of an open head injury
  • the victim is agitated (in any event his behaviour is not ENTIRELY normal)

Now I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take a doctor to put this together and figure out, “hey this person may have a head injury”.

Thing is, it is a general principle of pre-hospital medicine to take a patient to the closest APPROPRIATE facility. In a given Emergency Medical System’s territory, if this is applied “conservatively” it pretty much ALWAYS includes, for example paediatric cases and potential head injury. Thing is, there’s no neurosurgery at Moutiers. Why then was Michael brought there?

This question needs to be answered. As devastating as the injuries produced directly by the fall are, any delay in proper airway control and neurosurgical intervention cause further damage and must be minimised.

I raise this point simply because local protocols should be reviewed, and adjusted appropriately, in order to optimise the time it takes to get head-injured skiers cared for appropriately.