We learned that airway comes first in the very first class all of us took in EMS. Up until the recent changes in the American Heart Association guidelines, we had the following mantra stuck in our heads: “Annie, Annie, are you OK?” We were to open the airway, then look, listen and feel. So when it comes to managing the airway in the field, this is the first priority and often the most overwhelming to EMS providers.
Airways can be simple or complex depending on the particular patient, the environment and the experience of the provider. The gold standard for a secure airway, however, the ultimate goal is oxygenation with successful first-time insertion of the endotracheal tube (ETT).We reserve the ETT for a particular patient population in the EMS community. Let’s call them the “who.”
Who & When
The “who or “when” would be those patients who are unable to protect their own airways, who are apneic or who require ventilator support—either manually or by ventilator.
In some cases, selecting this group is obvious. If they can’t breathe on their own, then someone or something needs to do it for them. In other patients, it’s a little harder to determine whether we need to intervene with the airway. This is where we providers need to read the signs or look at tea leaves for guidance. We find signs in our assessment with things like rate and quality of respiration, end-tidal CO2, skin color, work of breathing and pulse oximetry. And sometimes, you’ve gotta ask yourself, “What are the voices telling me?”
Sometimes we providers become a bit anxious, regardless of our level of certifications, licensure or experience, about placing an ETT and controlling a patient’s ability to breathe spontaneously. A good example of this is the provider that doesn’t have the correct medications or the experience to perform a rapid sequence intubation (RSI) on a patient, so they attempt to “snow” the patient with narcotics or try to muscle past the patient’s gag reflex. We’re all guilty of this in some form or fashion at some point in our careers. I sometimes hear providers (including physicians) say, “I did the best with what I had.” Is this really our best? Maybe looking at other options and supportive care that is more time consuming, less glorious and in the best interest of the patient would be the better choice.
“What” are we really attempting to do when we intubate using direct laryngoscopy? The simple explanation would be to place a tube into the patient’s trachea to allow for ventilation. This is easier said than done. It’s simple enough in concept but requires us to displace the anatomy that stands between the oral opening and the trachea. Part of this challenge is m the largest obstacle in the airway—the tongue. We need to move it out of the visual field to be able to see the laryngeal structures. Usually when you encounter that huge floppy tongue, there’s a big floppy epiglottis attached to the base of it. If you don’t see it right away, look in the pool of pizza, beans and beer oozing out of the airway, lying in the back of the posterior oral pharynx.
Complicating the patient’s own anatomy is the fact that we’re trying to place a large metal stick in this small space and make enough room to guide the ETT through it to the trachea without inadvertently placing it in the esophagus. If we understand the anatomical structures and how they move, we can use that to successfully manipulate the airway.
One of the most common mistakes I see is when providers attempt to pry with the laryngoyscope blade as opposed to lifting the structures. Remember that the structures we’re attempting to displace are still attached to the patient by a large hinge joint known as the jaw, or mandible. If we displace the jaw, the soft structures attached will follow. This holds true for correct manipulation as well as incorrect ones. If we pry back toward the patient’s head, then all the structures we’re attempting to move out of our way are simply coming up in our face. You may hear this referred to as rocking or prying. It’s often associated with contact with the teeth and pulling the oral opening closed.
The most common cause of that is holding high on the laryngoscope handle and using the 90-degree angle of the handle and blade as the fulcrum and rocking back. Remember basic physics from high school? “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” If you’re pulling back on the stick, the other end of the stick is going to react as well and pull the structures right into your view. If we lift the stick up and away, say toward the corner of the ceiling, the jaw will lift and the tongue and epiglottis will follow.
“Where” makes a difference—whether it’s on the cot, in the door, on the floor, in the dark on a train and in the rain. (This is starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss book, but it really is true.) We should make our first attempt our best attempt, so we should try to pick a place or modify the conditions to create our best attempt. If we can get the patient to the stretcher and an elevation and position that enhances our ability to obtain direct visualization of the airway, we’re setting ourselves up for success.
One bad habit I see providers have in the field is to slide the patient to the end of the cot and allow their head to hang back or attempting to intubate with the cervical collar in place. Again, think about the anatomy, have you ever tried to talk with a cervical collar on or hang your head over the back of the chair you’re sitting in? Did you notice that your chin was pointing one direction and your airway was going the other? Provide the patient has no cervical injury the ideal position would be to lift the patients head so to bring their ears even with their chest, you may hear this referred to as ear-to-sternal notch or a wedge technique.
Another great trick you might want to think about is a concept that Dr. Richard Levitan introduced in his book, “The Airway Cam Guide to Intubation and Practical Emergency Airway Management”, ELM or bimanual laryngoscopy, where the intubator actually will manipulate the trachea to bring the glottis opening into view. If the patient has a suspected cervical spine injury, hold inline stabilization while another provider secures the airway, allowing the jaw to be manipulated without restriction. We can’t always relocate the patient when we need to control the airway, so try to use gravity and the patient’s own anatomy to assist in locating and securing the airway.
Why & How
That would leave us with two final questions: why and how. The “why” is pretty simple, to oxygenate my patient. However, that is easier said than done because many of the airway adjuncts we use and the oxygen delivery system are subject to human error, failure or misuse result in injury to the patient, hyper- or hypo-oxygenation, so we must constantly reassess to ensure we are providing adequate oxygenation in a safe manner.
Finally comes the “how?” The simple answer is to do things with the easiest, safest and most efficient means possible. Every situation is different; some patients may require a simple oropharyngeal airway (OPA), a few breaths and transport. Another may need RSI, a definitive airway and the use of video laryngoscopy, which uses a camera and a video monitor to visualize the airway and the glottis, enabling faster intubation. A few may even need a surgical airway.
The patient, the situation, the patient’s illness or injury, the provider’s experience, and the resources available will determine the tools and means of airway control. Ultimately you have to have an airway plan tattooed on your brain so it’s right there every time you need to manage an airway. We’ll save that discussion for another day.
I hope the next time you pick up a laryngoscope or an endotracheal tube you ask yourself these simple questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. Hope to see you soon.
Jim Radcliffe, BS, MBA, EMT-P