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.

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