The girl was bloated with fluid and her skin was so white that it was nearly transparent. Plastic tubes, secured with grainy tape, invaded her mouth and nose. Prone and lifeless, she looked like a drowning victim washed facedown on a beach. But she wasn’t at the beach and she wasn’t lifeless – at least not yet. She was in Bed Seven of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at UC Davis Medical Center, being kept alive by a machine. Her room reverberated with the sound of a mechanical ventilator – also known as “the vent” – doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot. The rapid beat was maddening, like Chinese water torture on over-drive. This frenzied rhythm was her lifeline, the music of a high-speed oscillator vent delivering oxygen to her lungs. Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot. Each puff of air was so fast, and so small that the girl’s chest didn’t move.
Or perhaps it did, but her body was too swollen for me to notice. If she’d been on a traditional ventilator, there would have been no question of if and when breaths were being delivered. Now in my third year of residency training in emergency medicine (EM), I was comfortable with operating traditional ventilators. They made sense to me. Just like with my favorite remote control, I knew where the important buttons were and when to use them. Traditional vents calmly and predictably delivered breaths, and there were only a handful of variables (namely the percentage of oxygen and the frequency and volume of air delivery) that I needed to consider. Traditional ventilators were reassuring, in a morbid sense; no matter how sick or sedated a patient was, the sight of inhalation and exhalation was comforting. Breath in, breath out. Not so with high-speed oscillators, which dispensed tiny puffs of air ten times each second. Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot. I knew the percussive rate aimed to keep the girl’s lungs from collapsing under the weight of the fluid in and around her chest, but this didn’t change the fact that the body in Bed Seven looked more like a horrible science experiment than a living child.
As I listened to a manicured blonde resident named Lesley present the case, I averted my eyes out the 7th-floor window. It was a grey February morning and mist had settled into the skeletons of the sycamore and maple trees. The streets were wet and lawns brown with winterized turf. I could almost smell the muddy grass and taste the soggy air; it was an excellent day to be on a couch, or at a movie, or in a hot tub. And, I supposed, since I had no choice about it, it was a fitting day to start a month-long rotation in the PICU with a 30-hour on-call shift. As I meditated on the dull day, I felt eyes on me. I glanced towards the chairs by the window – they were squeezed into a corner among boxes of ventilator tubing, blankets and other clutter. The girl’s mother, professional dressed with reddish-blond hair that rested on her shoulders, met my gaze. Her soft hazel eyes held a look of bewilderment mixed with exhaustion. Ashamed, I turned back to the girl, but her barely human form was no less awful. In my two and a half years of residency, I’d seen hundreds of awful things: gruesome injuries, grotesque infections and the blank stares of the newly dead. This was the worst.