Tag Archives: ED thoracotomy

EAST 2018 #9: Occupational Exposure During ED Thoracotomy

ED thoracotomy is performed infrequently, under high stress circumstances, and with high stakes for the victim. Thus, it is a setup for mayhem. If not conducted properly, it can be noisy, disorganized, and dangerous due to the possibility of blood exposure. Unfortunately, we don’t know where these trauma patients have been. Previous data shows that the incidence of HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious agents is low but significant.

Occupational exposure of healthcare providers to these infectious agents via needlestick/cut, mucus membrane, open wound, or eyes can happen during any surgical procedure. But the possibility during the less controlled ED thoracotomy would seem to be greater. So the group at the University of Pennsylvania decided to perform a prospective, observational study at 16 trauma centers over a 2 year period. A total of 1360 participants were surveyed who were involved in 305 ED thoracotomies. They analyzed the data for risk of occupational exposure.

Here are the factoids:

  • Mechanism was 68% gunshot, 57% were undergoing prehospital CPR, and 37% arrived with signs of life
  • 22 exposures were documented, or a rate of 7% per thoracotomy and 1% per participant
  • There was no difference between Level I and II centers or hours worked at time of procedure
  • Those with exposures were typically trainees (68%) who sustained a percutaneous injury (86%) during the actual procedure (73%)
  • Full personal protective precautions were only utilized by 46% of exposed providers (!!)
  • Each additional piece of personal protective equipment reduced the risk of exposure by 32%

Bottom line: The authors concluded that the incidence of exposure to patient blood is the same as for other operative procedures. Hmm. They also state that the fear of occupational exposure should not deter providers from performing thoracotomy.

I certainly agree that one should always follow the accepted indications for performing ED thoracotomy. I’m not so sure about the comparison with non-emergent procedures, since the numbers are fairly low. However, of one thing there is no doubt: wear your personal protective equipment! You never know when you might be exposed!

Here are some questions for the authors to consider before their presentation:

  • What kind of power analysis did you do to ensure that you could draw reasonable comparisons between thoracotomy and non-emergent procedures?
  • Please provide detailed breakdown of how you sliced and diced your numbers in terms of type of provider, hours worked, trainee level, precautions taken, etc
  • I enjoyed this paper and look forward to hearing the details!

REBOA vs ED Thoracotomy: Which One Is Winning?

Many trauma centers are talking about REBOA (resuscitative endovascular balloon occlusion of the aorta), but only a few are actually doing it. And of those, only a handful are doing it regularly and closely studying how it’s working.

The RA Cowley Shock Trauma Center is one of those very few. They have integrated the preparation phase for REBOA (femoral art line insertion) into their initial resuscitation protocols. This allows them to actually perform the technique quickly in any patient who starts to go bad and meets criteria. This center has been using REBOA nearly exclusively since they began studying it  a few years ago. They have actually supplanted ED thoracotomy (EDT) with this technique, and are a leader in producing data and studies on its nuances.

They compared short term outcomes in patients suffering traumatic arrest undergoing REBOA  (2013-2015) to those in patients with EDT (2008-2013). This was a simple study, with easy to understand statistical analyses.

Here are the factoids:

  • 19 thoracotomies and 17 REBOA were performed during the study periods (this shows how uncommon these procedures are, even at a busy center)
  • Average ISS was about the same (31 vs 26). Median GCS was 3 in both groups.
  • Return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC) occurred in 7 EDT and 9 REBOA
  • 13 EDT and 9 REBOA patients survived long enough to get to the OR
  • Mean systolic BP after occlusion was higher after REBOA (80 vs 46 torr)
  • There was only one survivor of the 36, and they received REBOA. This patient actually discharged home. (!)

Bottom line: Shock Trauma is a very busy center, and as you can see, even their REBOA numbers are low. This is why it is so critically important that all REBOA patients be part of a study. We really need to know how well it works, who it works best in, and what the downsides are. In this study, ROSC and survival to OR were statistically identical, but blood pressure was higher with REBOA compared to cross-clamping. Survival was also the same (abysmal), with one excellent outcome in the REBOA group.

The authors believe that REBOA and EDT are equivalent in terms of the variables they looked at. But remember, there are many other factors we need to look at, including things like resource utilization and healthcare worker safety. I strongly urge every center that is performing or considering REBOA to join a multi-center trial and/or report the the REBOA registry to hasten our understanding of this procedure.

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Reference: Paradigm shift in hemorrhagic traumaic arrest: REBOA is at least as effective as resuscitative thoracotomy with aortic crossclamping. ACS Scientific Forum, trauma abstracts, 2016.

ED Thoracotomy Part 3: Clamping The Aorta

Finally, the chest is open and the tamponade has been relieved. But your patient has little volume. In order to conserve any circulating blood and pump it only to the heart and the head, it’s time to cross clamp the aorta. This task is best left to the surgeon, because it is not a simple matter.

First, you have to locate the aorta, ideally somewhere just above the diaphragm. Unfortunately, if the patient is hypovolemic it’s very difficult to distinguish the aorta from the esophagus, which lie right next to each other (see picture above). In order to make them feel different, insert a gastric tube through the mouth or nose.

Next, separate the aorta and esophagus. They are both covered by pleura. The structure nearest you without the tube in it will be the aorta. Sometimes it’s possible to use a finger to dissect through the pleura and around the aorta. However, the younger the patient, the tougher this tissue is. It may be necessary to incise the pleura with scissors while your assistant holds the lung anteriorly, our of the way.

Finally, once you can pass a finger completely around the aorta, use it to guide the placement of a gently curved DeBakey type clamp (see picture on the left). Squeeze it until it clicks once, and you are done! Now rapidly infuse warmed blood into the patient and run to the OR!

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ED Thoracotomy Part 2: The Heart

Once the chest is open, the first item of business is to check the heart. In some patients, the inferior pulmonary ligament may prevent you from pushing the lung laterally and superiorly, out of the way. This ligament is a piece of pleura that attaches the lower lobe to the medial diaphragm and mediastinum. Locate it with your fingers and carefully cut it (blindly) with your scissors.

Now look at the heart. What is the rhythm? Put your hands around it. What is the patient’s volume status? If there is the possibility of a penetrating injury, open the pericardium. This structure is tough, and if tamponade is present it will be stretched tight. I find it very difficult to grab the pericardium with forceps and make the initial incision with scissors. Toothed forceps may work, but I just make a very small nick, carefully and directly, with a scalpel. The incision should be placed anterior to the phrenic nerve and vessels, which are usually plainly visible. See the picture on the left, above. The color of the pericardial fluid will immediately indicate whether a cardiac injury is present.

Next, extend the incision (parallel to the bed) to the top and bottom of the ventricle and eviscerate the heart. This will allow careful inspection of all but the atria. If an injury is present, a finger can be used to occlude it until preparations for a repair are made.

Holding the heart is both diagnostic and potentially therapeutic. The “fullness” of this organ is an excellent indicator of the volume status, and if a finger is being used to plug a hole, the temperature of the blood and infused fluids can be determined quickly. All volume resuscitation in this situation should be warmed fluids. And if need be, open cardiac massage is very effective for augmenting circulation.

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Image from my personal archive. Not treated at Regions Hospital.

ED Thoracotomy Part 1: Getting In

Performing a proper emergency thoracotomy is more difficult than you think. There are lots of details to consider, and the learning curve is steep. I’m going to split the process into three parts: getting in, dealing with the heart, and clamping the aorta.

The most important part of getting in is setting up your team. Someone has to be assigned to make sure the chemical and volume resuscitation part is carried out, because the person actually doing the thoracotomy is going to be busy. The most experienced person in the room will actually perform the procedure, or assist the physician who will be learning the procedure.

Next, protect yourself! This is a dangerous procedure. Emotions run high, and people are holding sharp objects. You don’t know where your patient has been or what is circulating in the little blood they may have left, so be careful and make sure you are wearing your personal protective equipment.

Finally, make the incision. This is usually placed along the fifth intercostal space, which is just under the nipple in men. Don’t start too close to the sternum, or you may cut the internal mammary artery. This won’t bleed until circulation is restarted, but it takes some effort to stop it later. Some people prefer a straight incision down toward the table, but I prefer a curved incision that follows the ribs, as illustrated.

Use the scalpel to incise skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscle. However, stop short of the pleura while you are incising the intercostal muscles. If you try to cut through the pleura with the knife, it’s alarmingly easy to injure the lung, or even the diaphragm. Use scissors instead.

Now it’s time to insert the retractor. I prefer to place it with the handle pointing down toward the feet so it doesn’t get jammed against the arm. This is not nice, polite thoracic surgery. You don’t open it a few turns and wait, trying to avoid rib fractures. Open it fast and all the way. Ribs will break, so be careful from this point onward so you don’t cut yourself on their sharp edges.

Related posts:

Tomorrow, I’ll describe what you need to do with the heart.

Image from my personal archive. Not treated at Regions Hospital.