Episode 39: ECMO for COVID-19 with Kim Boswell

An overview of VV ECMO with a focus on COVID-19, with Dr. Kimberly A. Boswell (EM and CCM) of the University of Maryland, perhaps the busiest center in the country for COVID-related ECMO. We discuss evaluating for candidacy, induction, maintenance, weaning, and general approaches to the COVID patient.

Takeaway lessons

  1. The limited amount of ECMO resources has led to narrowing of criteria. Maryland has reduced their standard upper age limit from <65 to <55, BMI of <40, mechanical ventilation duration <7 days (formerly <10). Also consider other organ failures, as well as duration of symptoms—not just intubation—as a prolonged pre-intubation course suggests a late, potentially fibroproliferative phase of disease which may not be responsive to ECMO.
  2. Almost all COVID cases at Maryland have been VV ECMO; they have very rarely considered VA ECMO. The most obvious indication for the latter would be right heart failure, but in most cases, they would be more likely to use VV ECMO (or other medical therapies, such as inhaled vasodilators or diuresis) to unload the right heart, or else to consider severe cardiogenic shock to actually be a contraindication to ECMO (as it suggests a late stage of disease less likely to respond to aggressive care).
  3. There is no obvious timeframe which is “too early,” but patients already
    at ECMO-ready centers might reasonably wait longer to go on bypass, as it can be done quickly and safely when necessary without requiring interfacility transport.
  4. Cannulation can be done by whomever is skilled and trained, such as cardiac surgery, trauma surgery, trained intensivists, etc.
  5. For VV ECMO, Maryland likes to cannulate the right IJ and right femoral veins, or perhaps the left femoral if needed. They prefer not to cannulate bilateral femorals, and prefers not to use dual-lumen IJ catheters (the Avalon bi-caval catheter), as flow is often not adequate.
  6. Anticoagulate most patients on VV ECMO with heparin to a PTT of 45-55. VA ECMO can go to 60-80. ECMO without anticoagulation can be done if there are bleeding issues, however.
  7. Maryland generally does not titrate FiO2 on the sweep gas. After induction, titrate the sweep; the goal is usually to correct hypercarbia over 6–8 hours, not all at once.
  8. Flow rates at least 4 L/min, unless more is required for hypoxia. RPM <4000 is usually the starting goal.
  9. Prone even while on pump for lung-protective reasons. Chest PT is good too. Prone first for 6-8 hours to ensure tolerance and skin integrity, then do around 4 more sessions of 16 hours each, as a starting goal.
  10. Ventilator settings on VV ECMO can be walked back after induction. Historically they used PEEP 10, PIP 10, RR 10. In heavily consolidated COVID patients, some need more pressure to maintain some degree of recruitment, such as PEEP 15 and PIP 10.
  11. Inhaled vasodilators can be continued or weaned depending on right heart function. Diurese until you develop flow problems (suction events) on the pump, a useful indicator of low intravascular volume.
  12. Have a low threshold to deeply sedate and/or paralyze while on pump to optimize synchrony and facilitate proning. However, Maryland likes to perform “partial paralysis,” with just enough NMB to achieve goals; respiratory rates below 20 or so are considered acceptable.
  13. Early tracheostomy is reasonable, but persistently high requirements for ventilator pressures often pushes it back.
  14. Hypoxemia can occur in VV ECMO patients due to too much flow through the native circulation and shunted lungs. In such cases, beta blockade may actually improve systemic oxygenation.
  15. Plasma free hemoglobin levels may be a useful marker that changing your oxygenator could improve gas exchange.
  16. Decannulate at the bedside when ready, watch them for 24 hours, then boot them out of the ICU; they’re ready.
  17. 65%+ of COVID ECMO patients at Maryland are surviving. Data remains slim, but there seems to be decent results in a well-selected population.
  18. In rare cases, patients who neither die nor recover may become candidates for lung transplant.

Lightning rounds #8: Five things you’re getting wrong

Bryan’s off this week, so Brandon flies solo to explain five wrong-headed notions that many people believe without thinking about them.

  1. Are diuretic infusions more effective than intermittent boluses?
  2. Are antipsychotic (neuroleptic) agents a good treatment for ICU delirium?
  3. Is pressure control or volume control a better form of assist control?
  4. Does renal failure cause chronically elevated troponin levels due to impaired troponin clearance?
  5. If a patient squeezes your hand, does that mean they heard and followed your command?

Episode 38: GI bleeding with Elliot Tapper

Back with returning guest Dr. Elliot Tapper (@ebtapper), gastroenterologist, transplant hepatologist, and director of the cirrhosis program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to talk about critical GI bleeding.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Consider the Glasgow-Blatchford score to stratify risk and need for admission, GI consultation, etc.
  2. Octreotide (or terlipressin) is indicated in every cirrhotic with GI bleeding, i.e. patients with confirmed or probable varices.
  3. Proton pump inhibitors are appropriate for bleeding ulcers. Note they are not needed in variceal bleeding, and are not needed if octreotide is also being given; octreotide reduces gastric pH just as much as a PPI.
  4. Bleeding cirrhotics should receive antibiotics. They have a high risk for inpatient infections, whether from bacterial translocation, instrumentation, etc.
  5. By and large, twice-daily PPIs are as good as PPI drips. The latter is mostly an evidence-free Hail Mary addition.
  6. As a general rule, colonoscopy for lower GI bleeding rarely needs to be done urgently; at most, early colonoscopy (within 24-48 hours) may reduce length of stay, but the yield of finding intervenable findings (particularly in unprepped bowel) is extremely low.
  7. In very unstable patients, it is not very common that you would need to place a gastric tube and perform lavage to prove an upper GI bleeding source; just do the EGD. In less obvious cases it can be quite useful, though. Don’t be misled by trace amounts of bleeding, which can occur (due to stress) even in lower GI bleeds.
  8. NG/OG placement in the setting of varices is safe, unless there’s been recent banding performed.
  9. Early CTA is a good approach for severe lower GI bleeding. It is basically never the first line approach for presumed upper GI sources, however; IR embolization is less effective here (due to the redundant blood supplies), and endoscopy will help localize the bleeding source for any needed embolization anyway.
  10. “Early” EGD usually means within 12 hours and is appropriate for active bleeds that are not catastrophic.
  11. Although massive bleeding can result from varices, with good medical treatment it is actually rare. In most cases judicious transfusion can be used to avoid overly increasing venous pressures.
  12. For truly rapid upper GI bleeds, intubate early (to prevent aspiration and facilitate EGD), ensure adequate IV access, and perform emergent EGD; endoscopy remains the first line treatment. Even when visualization is difficult it provides useful information by localizing the bleeding region. Normal (Hgb >7) transfusion targets are not relevant in active exsanguination. A PPI drip is reasonable but is not particularly high yield at this point.
  13. Balloon tamponade (Minnesota or Blakemore tubes) has its own risks, and few clinicians are expert at their placement. Overall it is rarely needed unless endoscopy is not immediately available, such as if a patient needs transfer to another institution.
  14. EGD can lead to rescue surgery if it visualizes bowel perforation, and to IR if a bleeding vessel is found that can’t be addressed endoscopically.
  15. Repeat endoscopy during the same hospitalization is rarely needed. For ulcers, it is common to re-scope in about 8 weeks to make sure it has healed and is not cancerous.


The Glasgow-Blatchford Bleeding Score (GBS) to stratify risk.

Lightning rounds #7: Operationalizing clinical skill

Discussing a pickle of a topic: outside of academic milestones, how do we recognize, acknowledge, reward, and move towards clinical excellence in medicine after one’s training is complete? In fact… do we?

Episode 37: Airway management for COVID-19

Back again with Dr. Ross Hofmeyr (@rosshofmeyr), anesthesiologist in the Department of Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine at the University of Cape Town, to discuss an expert’s perspective on airway management in the COVID-19 patient.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Good practices for intubating COVID patients are, by and large, good practices for intubating anybody. Using a standardized protocol, appropriate PPE, applying best practices to optimize success, and pre-assigning roles has no downside.
  2. Support each other by using “call/response” checklists and buddy checking PPE.
  3. Ross’s protocol: one attempt at intubation, immediate placement of supraglottic airway if it fails, then proceed to another attempt. First line with video laryngoscopy using a Macintosh blade. No mask ventilation (to limit aerosolization) except as third line if SGA fails. Mask with two hands, two operators, and a PEEP valve.
  4. Patients need oxygenation, and to a much lesser extent ventilation, but not tubes per se. Whatever method achieves that in an emergency is okay.
  5. You need PEEP to preoxygenate the hypoxic COVID patient. High flow nasal cannula is okay, but a BVM with PEEP valve provides real PEEP and usually improves preoxygenation. HFNC with a mask on top is less clear as the large cannula can cause air leak.
  6. Learning to bag-mask ventilate on mannequins teaches bad habits. Learning in the OR with real humans and an anesthesia bag is a better place.
  7. Intubate everyone with head of bed elevated PLUS head in a sniffing position. Blankets are better than pillows. Start with more elevation than you need; it’s easier to remove than to insert.
  8. Move the bed. True 360 degree access to the bed makes a difference.
  9. Proper preparation makes most of the difference to success. Even experienced anesthesiologists have dramatically reduced first-pass success when removed from their usual OR setting, likely due to less preparation.
  10. By and large, different types of PPE should not affect intubation success if the team is highly-skilled.
  11. Ross’s team favors induction with fentanyl, etomidate, and succinylcholine (unless hyperkalemic, then rocuronium). The small advantage in speed with sux is worth it in these rapidly-deoxygenating patients.
  12. Use a verbal call/response checklist to make sure nothing has been missed, slow down the pace, and create a shared mental model among the team (particularly if not everyone is part of the usual group). This only takes a significant amount of time if you actually find deficiencies that need correcting (in which case you’ll be glad you took it), and it adds value almost every time.
  13. Many patients will be dehydrated and hypovolemic at the time of intubation, particularly if they’ve been on non-invasive for some time (often not eating/drinking) and most of all if they’ve been on non-humidified oxygen, such as regular cannula and/or masks.


SASA (South African Society of Anaesthesiologists) COVID-19 protocol and recommendations

Lightning rounds #6: Point of care ultrasound

We chat about focused, clinician-performed point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) in the ICU. How do you learn it? What are our favorite applications? What are some of the particulars and caveats surrounding credentialing, documentation, and billing? All that and more…

Episode 36: Preventing and managing complications

Back in the arena with one of our favorites, Matt Siuba (@msiuba), Cleveland Clinic intensivist and Mr. Zentensivism, to discuss complications in critical care and how to prevent and manage them. Today we focus on atrial fibrillation with RVR and bleeding after thoracentesis and related other procedures.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Rapid atrial fibrillation in the ICU should be considered a “symptom,” not a disease per se. Look for stressors or triggers for tachycardia, such as infection, agitation, etc. Resume home agents if they exist — or don’t hold them to begin with — especially beta blockers, as rebound can occur with discontinuation. Don’t get too hung up about converting the rhythm. Give magnesium early and often, acknowledging that rapid administration tends to provoke rapid loss to the urine and you may be better served to stretch it out.
  2. A-fib with a rate below the 130s-140s is unlikely to be the cause (rather than an effect) of shock, outside of structurally abnormal hearts that need filling time or atrial kick (such as diastolic failure).
  3. Remember that you have time to address rapid A-fib in a stable, minimally symptomatic patient, regardless of the rate. You can only make them less stable. Go slow and be thoughtful.
  4. Good reasons to perform therapeutic thoracentesis include work of breathing. Less common reasons include hypoxemia. If you suspect you may need to re-tap, consider leaving in a drain.
  5. Under ultrasound, put color doppler on the thoracic wall to confirm there are no unexpected vessels at your puncture site; do this in two planes and use a superficial probe.
  6. You do not need to use real-time ultrasound guidance for the thoracentesis puncture unless the pocket is quite small; you can always ultrasound the wire after it’s in place if the wire entry felt weird. It takes some practice to maintain a good relationship to the rib while also guiding yourself under ultrasound.
  7. Anchor your needle hand to the patient so unexpected movement will not shift your position, and use the smallest needle necessary. Consider performing smaller thoracenteses with a micropuncture kit rather than with a larger catheter like a pigtail; insert the micropuncture sheath and use it to drain the fluid. Small needle, small catheter, safe.
  8. A “dry tap” with your thora needle should prompt a different technique, not repetitions of the same one. Change something or check your position to ensure you’re not below the diaphragm. After one or two attempts, consider handing over to someone more experienced.
  9. Finding blood in your pleural tap should make you pause, but not panic. Traditionally you can send it for a hematocrit, but this is rarely very useful. Generally you can complete the tap and see if it clears. Afterwards, reinvestigate the space under ultrasound to ensure no blood is reaccumulating, and monitor the patient closely; occasionally they may need a CTA and embolization. Consider leaving a drain to monitor output, although be sure to flush it regularly to prevent clotting. Investigate for other reasons there may be hemothorax, such as trauma, previous taps, or malignant exudates.
  10. If you suture a line or other device and it won’t stop bleeding, you may have caught a superficial vessel (e.g. the EJ when performing an IJ). Take those sutures out or it’ll never stop.
  11. Complications happen. They should generally prompt introspection to consider whether practice should be changed: could I have been better prepared to do that? Was I rushed? Was my mindset wrong? Should I be using a different technique? And so on. However, sometimes practice is optimal, and complications are simply the inevitable result of intrinsic risk; in such situations, changing practice can only mean worsening it. Errors of omission (failing to perform needed interventions) should not be judged as worse than errors of commission (complications of the intervention).
  12. When everything is done right, and something bad happens, everything was still done right.
  13. Learn from near-misses more than from complications; they are more common and it’s safer for everyone. But to do this, you must acknowledge sticky situations, not ignore them or gloss over them; the tricky or “challenging” case should not make you applaud that you had the moves to recover from it, but to ask how you can prevent it in the future.
  14. Support each other when complications occur, as some amount of self-blame is common, and can easily become excessive and harmful — even when an error truly was made.


A-fib in the ICU: Drikite L, Bedford JP, O’Bryan L, et al. Treatment strategies for new onset atrial fibrillation in patients treated on an intensive care unit: a systematic scoping review. Crit Care. 2021 Jul 21;25(1):257. doi: 10.1186/s13054-021-03684-5. PMID: 34289899; PMCID: PMC8296751.

Lightning rounds #5: Career development for critical care APPs

Conceiving, planning, and building your career as a critical care PA or NP. Determining if this field is for you, finding your first job, pinpointing your interests or “niche” during your early career, nurturing your growth during the mid-career period, and some thoughts on life and priorities in your late career.

Episode 35: When to operate in trauma with Dennis Kim

Looking at trauma from the perspective of a surgeon, with a focus on the perennial dilemma of when a patient needs surgery. Our guest is trauma surgeon Dr. Dennis Kim (@traumaicurounds), associate professor of Clinical Surgery at UCLA and medical director of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center SICU, as well as host of the Trauma ICU Rounds podcast.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Trauma patients who are hypotensive or otherwise unstable should be assumed to be bleeding, bleeding, bleeding until proven otherwise, and should have a very low threshold to proceed directly to the operating room for exploration.
  2. Airway is not the first priority in most trauma patients and can often wait until a patient is resuscitated—in many hemorrhaging patients, it can wait until the OR. Likewise, many penetrating injury patients with palpable pulses can wait for further resuscitation (whether blood or anything else) until surgery. The treatment for bleeding is hemostasis.
  3. The exception is patients with concomitant brain injury, in whom permissive hypotension should not be allowed. However, don’t delay the unstable patient from the OR by getting a CT of the head.
  4. Don’t forget examination of the back, and hair-bearing areas like the axillae and groin, which can easily hide penetrating wounds.
  5. Consider using the shock index, the heart rate/SBP, to detect underlying shock. Over .8 or 1 is highly suspicious.
  6. Operative prep for exploratory laparotomy is usually from the chin to the knees. Although a midline laparotomy incision is the typical starting point, injuries can track more widely than you expect, and there should be the ability to open the chest or access the groin (for femoral exploration, conduits, etc) without repositioning or re-prepping.
  7. Damage control surgery involves evacuating hematoma, packing to provide initial hemostasis, then securing bleeding (by coagulation, suturing, packing, etc), resecting or reperfusing ischemic tissue, and securing injured bowel. In patients with continued metabolic or coagulopathic instability, surgery typically stops there with the abdomen left open and a wound vac (e.g. Abthera) placed. More stable patients may tolerate more extensive initial repairs.
  8. The most expeditious repair for open bowel injury is simply stapling the bowel shut in discontinuity. However, there are some arguments for repairing it early (by anastamosis/stoma creation), as discontinuous bowel becomes edematous, becomes an obstacle to later closure, and may be difficult to eventually reconnect.
  9. Orthopedic injuries should be manually reduced and perfusion ensured, splinted (e.g. pneumatically), then definitively addressed by Orthopedics at their convenience. Traction splinting is usually not done in the ED. In patients planned to receive a contrast CT, perfusion to a threatened limb can often be easily evaluated by simply adding an arterial study (extremity run-off) to your pan-scan.
  10. Ultrasound (eFAST) and plain x-rays (chest and pelvis) are useful tools for rapid evaluation in the ED. Although not as definitive as CT, they are safer and quicker, and can rapidly rule-in many problems needing immediate intervention.
  11. Instead of giving TXA as the CRASH dose of 1 g up front plus a 1 g drip, give 2 g upfront. The drip tends to get forgotten.
  12. Bowel edema noted on CT should raise suspicion for occult bowel perforation, which is very difficult to primarily visualize on CT.
  13. Serial abdominal exams are a valid way to follow a questionable abdomen. These should ideally be repeatedly done by the same person, looking for worsening tenderness, pain, or rigidity, and combined with lab trends (e.g. trending a CBC every 4–8 hours to follow the leukocytosis).
  14. The lungs mirror the abdomen! Worsening respiratory status should raise suspicion for a worsening abdominal process, such as evolving infection. Evaluate such things with a contrast CT; non-contrast scans are very difficult to interpret in a complex abdomen.
  15. When assessing for possible infection in a post-surgical abdomen, antibiotics, patience, and possible IR-guided drainage (after enough time has passed for abscesses to organize) are usually the mainstays. Surgical exploration is helpful only when a specifically surgical process exists, such as a leaking dowel, and becomes increasingly risky as time passes and adhesions develop. Diagnostic laparoscopy or enteral contrast can occasionally be helpful in picking up a surgical leak.

Episode 34: Lightning rounds #4

Wrapping up our series on procedures with a talk about airway management. Who should manage airways in the ICU? What’s the role of intensivists, APPs, anesthesia, etc? What’s the “correct” balance of expertise, distribution of labor, and training? Our general approach to supraglottic airways, mask ventilation, intubation, cricothyrotomy, drugs, assessing airway anatomy, training, and more.