CASE: 43-year-old male presents to the ER with chief complaint of vomiting blood and epigastric (upper stomach) pain. Approximately 1 hour prior to presenting to the ER, he finished dinner with his family of 5; became nauseated and sweaty; and vomited his meal mixed with a large amount of dark red blood. His wife states that it seemed “like a gallon!” Pertinent past history included weekly ibuprofen use for chronic knee pain and alcohol use consisting of beer only on the weekends when he is not working. He injured his knee due to playing frequently with his children. On exam, he is afebrile (no fever); has blood pressure of 82/44; heart rate of 122; respiratory rate of 28; and oxygen saturation of 96% when breathing room air. The patient appears pale, sweaty, and has some mild tenderness to palpation over his upper abdominal area.
Immediately, the patient is placed on nasal cannula oxygen with continuous pulse oximetry and telemetry. This allows him to breath pure oxygen through his nose while the doctor can monitor the oxygen level in his blood and his heart rate and rhythm on a screen similar to a small flat screen TV. Two 18 gauge peripheral IVs are placed and O negative blood is ordered, stat, from the laboratory to be given through the rapid transfusion warming unit. Pantoprazole and octreotide boluses and drips are ordered. Pantoprazole is a medicine given through an IV that reduces acid in the stomach. Octreotide is a medicine also given through an IV that reduces pressure in the veins of the esophagus.
This patient is in hemorrhagic shock (low blood pressure due to bleeding somewhere in the body).
His blood pressure is 95/54 after two units of packed red blood cells. His wife brings his children in the room to see him briefly, and the ER doctor walks out to call the gastroenterologist. The ER doctor has a strong suspicion that the patient has upper GI bleeding from ruptured esophageal varices (veins in the esophagus have burst and are bleeding).
This condition often requires emergent intubation (patient placed on a ventilator or breathing machine) by emergency room physicians in order to protect the patient’s airway from the rapid upper GI bleeding that could be aspirated or sucked into the patient’s lungs.
Minutes later, the ER doctor goes back into the room to report to the patient that the gastroenterologist is on his way in only to find the patient has begun to vomit a copious amount of dark red blood.
The ER doctor decides to secure the patient’s airway to prevent aspiration of blood. He suspects this will be a difficult airway due to the patient’s obesity and active bleeding into the patient’s airway. He calls for drugs to sedate and paralyze the patient as well as the video laryngoscope (VL). After the patient is sedated and paralyzed, the VL is inserted into the patient’s oropharynx (upper airway). The VL provides a sufficient view of the vocal cords and trachea but only for approximately a 4 second window. The oropharynx fills up with blood, and the VL has to be removed quickly to be wiped free of the blood that obscures the small camera. To make the airway even more difficult, the patient has a short neck and jaw with vocal cords in a high, anterior position. The endotracheal tube (tube through which the patient will have oxygen delivered) stylet that is made specifically for the VL is insufficient to direct the endotracheal tube between the patient’s vocal cords into his trachea in order to secure his airway. Meanwhile, the patient’s oxygen saturations are falling. He cannot be ventilated (oxygen being pushed manually into the lungs) and oxygenated back up to life sustaining levels due to blood obscuring his airway and potentially being pushed into the patient’s lung with bag valve mask ventilation (mask and oxygen bag placed over the patient’s face to manually breath for him). The ER doctor knows he has one last chance and seconds before having to perform an emergent cricothyrotomy (cutting a hole in the patient’s neck and trachea to insert a tube by which to breath for the patient), which is not best for the patient. With one last chance, the doctor secures the patient’s airway with video laryngoscopy and an ETI (endotracheal tube introducer).
This rigid piece of elongated blue plastic has more likely than not saved this patient’s life. The ETI has prevented an emergent cricothyrotomy from occurring.
ER doctors would benefit to be familiar with the process of securing a difficult emergent airway by using video laryngoscopy with ETI assistance.
- ETI: endotracheal tube introducer, also commonly named “bougie” or “gum elastic bougie” in the emergency room. Calling the ETI a “bougie” is a misnomer when using it to secure an airway. Stedman’s defines bougie as a cylindrical instrument, usually somewhat flexible and yielding, used for calibrating or dilating constricted areas in tubular organs, such as the urethra or esophagus; sometimes containing a medication for local application. Basically, the ETI goes where the endotracheal tube cannot and then provides a pathway for the endotracheal tube to follow.
Endotracheal tube of appropriate size
- Failure at securing airway by traditional video laryngoscopy with ETT (endotracheal tube) and accompanying stylet
Technique: (assuming the patient has been correctly prepared for intubation)
- Bend the ETI to approximately 45 degrees at a point 8 cm proximal to the distal tip and hold it with dominant hand.
- Hold the VL with non-dominant hand.
- Have assistant standing at the side of your dominant hand with the ETT.
- Insert the VL into the oropharynx and obtain clear view of the vocal cords on the video monitor of the VL system.
- While holding the VL steady, advance the ETI into the oropharynx until the distal end can be seen on the video monitor.
- Advance the ETI between the vocal cords and into the trachea until mild resistance is felt, then stop advancing. Resistance is usually met at 24-40cm from the teeth. Make a mental note of the number at teeth or lip level of the patient.
- While viewing the ETI between the vocal cords and holding both the VL and the ETI steady, have assistant thread the ETT over the ETI until the ETT is at the level of the intubator’s dominant hand.
- At this point, have the assistant hold the ETI at the point just proximal to the proximal end of the ETT and grasp the ETT with dominant hand.
- By looking at the video monitor, confirm that the ETI is between the vocal cords. Also, confirm that the ETI is at the previous noted number at teeth or lip level.
- Gently advance the ETT while the assistant holds the ETI stationary. The ETT may become lodged on the epiglottis (a thin plate of flexible cartilage that protects the airway when swallowing). This complication is usually overcome by twisting the ETT along the axis of the ETI while advancing the ETT.
- When the ETT has been advanced appropriately, hold it in place firmly and have the assistant withdraw the ETI.
- Inflate the ETT balloon and proceed with traditional ETT placement confirmation.
Over the last decade, video laryngoscopy has become an invaluable tool to emergency physicians. VL has made the difficult airway as defined by using direct laryngoscopy (viewing a patient’s airway with just the human eye) not so difficult anymore. However, a clinician can still encounter a failed airway with the use of VL. The doctor can reduce his or her chances of failing to intubate a patient by adding the use of an ETI to his or her airway algorithm.
Seth Womack, MD, FAAEM is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician in active clinical practice at a level 1 trauma center. He is licensed in both Louisiana and Texas. Dr. Womack’s undergraduate degree is in biomedical engineering. In addition to his busy clinical practice, Dr. Womack serves as an emergency medicine expert witness. He can be contacted at Seth Womack, MD FAAEM; 16623-C FM 2493, PMB #408; Tyler, TX 75703; email@example.com; (414) 218-4310 (Cell).