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Trauma Airway Intubation Is a Team Effort

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Field intubation of trauma patients should be a team effort.

Have a checklist for intubation of trauma patients, and assign your assisting colleagues a role to ensure success on the first attempt. Photo Courtesy Christopher T. Stephens, MD, MS, NREMPT-P


Greetings colleagues!

As the second part of this three-part series on the traumatic airway, we will now focus on intubating the trauma patient case that was introduced in the previous article, “Managing the Traumatic Airway.”

(Missed the first part of this three-part series? Click here to read Part I.)

Why is intubation of trauma patients being scrutinized across the nation, you ask? As an instructor of trauma airway management, I can assure you that it isn’t because you as field providers don’t know how to effectively intubate! In short, there are studies (whether sound or not) that are suggesting worse outcomes in patients who are intubated in the field.

So what, you ask? Sicker patients are sicker and need an endotracheal tube, right? Everyone agrees that there are some patients out there who just need to be intubated. Obstructed airways, vomit, blood and poor anatomy make traumatic airways challenging to manage in the field. In fact, these airways can be challenging in the trauma centers as well. Many patients simply can’t be oxygenated and ventilated effectively with a supraglottic airway—a or bag-valve mask (BVM) and oral airway for that matter, right? These are the cases that get our sympathetic nervous system going and put us in that position where “critical decision making” becomes extremely important.

The Intubation
So you have decided to intubate this trauma patient—who is 110 kg and looks like a small linebacker for your local professional football team. Here are some questions for you:

1. What help do you have?
2. What environment are you in (i.e., street, ditch or ambulance)?
3. Are you able to effectively oxygenate/ventilate this patient with basic tools as discussed previously?
4. Will you plan to do a blind nasal intubation or drug-facilitated oral intubation (rapid sequence intubation/RSI)?

These are some of the questions that must be thought about ahead of time, and a plan must have already been made so that the EMS team can be successful.

I like to teach EMTs and paramedics to think like pilots. Have a checklist and start at the top and work your way down. You will never miss anything this way. Assign your assisting colleagues a role to get the patient intubated successfully on the first attempt.

Ideally, you should have four EMS providers to intubate a trauma patient. The team leader is the one intubating. At this point, the team leader should be assisting the patient’s airway and pre-oxygenating with 100% oxygen via a BVM. Pre-oxygenation is VERY important. It will buy you more time to get that tube in the right hole. You should do this for blind nasal intubations as well. Trauma patients tend to desaturate at an alarming rate because most have been hypoventilating to this point due to pain, semiconsciousness, pneumo- or hemothoraces, etc. And remember, all trauma patients are full stomachs. Some have already aspirated prior to your arrival, which also works against you. All of these conditions make your intubation attempts less forgiving, and you must be prepared to act quickly if the patient becomes challenging and/or desaturates.

Once you have pre-oxygenated your patient for at least 60 seconds, attempt your intubation. If it’s a blind nasal intubation, you may have more time because the patient is still breathing. You also have the luxury to just assist them to the hospital if it fails. If you’re planning a drug-facilitated intubation, then all bets are off. Once you have decided to push drugs, you had better have your skills, colleagues and equipment ready for action.

During pre-oxygenation of the patient, the team leader must assign roles. The second medic will draw up and be responsible for pushing drugs, then handing supplies to the intubating team leader (i.e., endotracheal tube, suction, bougie, another blade, video laryngoscope, etc).

The third provider is responsible for removing the front of the cervical collar (yes, the front of the c-collar MUST be removed PRIOR to laryngoscopy) and holding cricoid pressure correctly. Note: Cricoid pressure needs to be learned correctly and practiced. Some protocols have done away with cricoid pressure; I feel that it’s still an important tool to be used in traumatic airways with full stomachs.

The fourth provider will hold in-line manual stabilization of the cervical spine throughout the intubation. When the team leader states that they’re ready, the second medic should push the appropriate drugs and appropriate doses. This is a decision that has to be made correctly and using expert paramedic critical decision techniques. Understanding the physiology/pharmacology of rapid sequence intubation (RSI) is as important as the skill itself. How sick is the patient? What are their vital signs prior to pushing drugs? Do they have pulses (central or peripheral?) Are they in shock? Do they have signs of a head injury?

Which of roles below do you most often play during the field intubation of a trauma patient?

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These are questions that must be answered during a rapid primary and secondary survey while preparing to intubate the patient. Is the patient combative due to shock, head injury, alcohol/drugs, or all of the above? If able, try and get a baseline set of vital signs prior to pushing drugs. This will help guide your drug choice and dosing. Drug selection and dosing is an EXTREMELY important topic for trauma patients and should be discussed at length with your medical director and training supervisors. Anesthetic agents are powerful and can make patients worse if used incorrectly.

There are many issues to think about when dealing with a traumatic airway, and hopefully you will have some time to work through a good plan of action so if things start to go wrong, your checklist and plan will be there for you to fall back on.

Once the patient has been relaxed with succinylcholine or an alternative paralytic agent, the team leader should perform their laryngoscopy with the blade they’re most comfortable using. Remember, your first shot is always your best shot! I teach trauma airways with a Macintosh 3 blade for most adults because I find it easier for medics and trainees to keep the tongue out of the way with the wider Macintosh blade.

As an alternative, you may also use a video laryngoscope, such as the Glidescope Ranger, for your intubation. The Glidescope Ranger has been useful for managing traumatic airways. It allows everyone assisting to see what the team leader is seeing, which can therefore help them anticipate what the team leader may need to get the job done, such as suction, bougie or a smaller endotracheal tube. As with any piece of airway equipment, there’s a learning curve with video laryngoscopy. You must practice it on mannequins, cadavers in airway labs and on live patients in the operating room, if possible.

I want to say a few words about the intubating stylet or bougie. Since I manage traumatic airways for a living, in my opinion, the bougie is the single most important piece of intubating equipment. This little flexible styllete has been my savior during many a difficult airway in the trauma center. That being said, a bougie and video laryngoscope is a VERY effective combination of equipment to intubate the trauma patient. I encourage each of you to grab an airway mannequin, a bougie and a demo Glidescope Ranger and practice this technique. This is going to be the wave of the future for airway management, especially in the uncontrolled field environment, where help can be lacking.

If you can’t see a view of the vocal cords or confirm the tube to be in the esophagus, you must go to Plan B. This may include changing blades, switching to a video laryngoscope, or perhaps allowing another, more-experienced airway operator to assist. Do NOT forget to attempt oxygenating and ventilating the patient with an oral/nasal airway and BVM between intubation attempts. Do your best to get the patient as close to 100% oxygen saturation as possible prior to your next intubation attempt.

If the second attempt fails, consider either placing a supraglottic airway device or simply performing BVM assisted ventilations with an oral/nasal airway throughout transport. Remember, this technique sometimes requires two rescuers to perform adequately. If you can’t intubate and can’t ventilate the patient, you must proceed to a surgical airway—either a needle or open surgical cricothyroidotomy. We will discuss this in the next article.

The Confirmation
Once the endotracheal tube is placed, it’s important for tube confirmation to be established. This can be done in many ways. Chest rise and bilateral breath sounds are important but can sometimes be misleading. If the patient is warm and still perfusing, tube fogging should be noted, as well as end-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2). Either an easy cap (calorimetric) ETCO2 or continuous waveform capnography should be employed as the gold standard for tube confirmation. Continuous waveform capnography ideally should be used by every medic unit that’s intubating patients in the field. This will be discussed further in the next article.

Once the correct tube location is confirmed, be certain that the tube is secured well, the cervical collar is replaced, and the tube location is reassessed after securing because tubes sometimes migrate into the right mainstem bronchus when being secured. At this point, you’re still not out of the woods! Now that you have successfully intubated the patient, you must worry about their physiology while transporting. This is a point that many field providers dismiss when managing airways in the field and a topic that may prevent medical directors from removing intubation from protocols around the nation. So there you have it—four providers ideally to get the task done correctly!

Stay tuned for the final article in this series of managing the traumatic airway.

Do you have access to a video laryngoscope?

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Christopher T. Stephens, MD, MS, NREMT-P

Completed BS in Biology from Loyola Marymount University. Completed paramedic school at Houston Community College and trained with the Houston Fire Department. Paramedic in Houston, Texas and Galveston, Texas. University of Houston College of Pharmacy (MS in Pharmacology), University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine – (MD, Anesthesiology Residency) Trauma Anesthesiology Fellowship – University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center Currently Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at University of Maryland School of Medicine and Attending Trauma Anesthesiologist - R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, Baltimore, MD. Director of Education, Division of Trauma Anesthesiology, R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. Medical Director, Maryland Fire&Rescue Institute. Instructor for Maryland State Police Aviation Command; Flight Physician, Tactical Physician

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Airway Algorithms

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Airway Management AlgorithmIn my last EMS Airway Clinic article, “How to Make the Difficult Airway Less Difficult,” we looked at situations that can make airway management difficult; one of those situations was not having a strategy. Today, I’ll share with you the airway algorithm that has helped me over the years, and I want to give you some tips for building your own algorithm.

As professionals, we should know our protocols. We should be able to deliver quality patient care without looking up the details. I believe these ambitions, but folks, I’m just not one of those medics who remembers every nook and cranny of the protocol book. My worst example is the Glasgow Coma Scale. What a great tool to objectively record the conscious state of a patient. Let’s see, I know that if I’m dead for two weeks, I get a three, and I’m a 13 or a 14 when I get up in the morning. Otherwise, I’ve got to either look it up or use a memory aid, such as an algorithm.

An algorithm is “a step by step procedure for solving a problem.”(1) Medical algorithms help us deliver better patient care. They standardize treatment therapies, so we collectively deliver similar care in similar situations. They help us successfully navigate low-incidence, high-consequence incidents. They reduce medical errors. In EMS, we typically use two types of algorithms: flowcharts and checklists.

Flow charts guide us through a series of “if-then” situations that help us respond quickly and effectively in critical situations; if the patient is in ventricular fibrillation, then defibrillate them. A checklist is a memory aid to make sure we don’t forget something, especially in a situation that we don’t face regularly. A checklist for rapid sequence intubation (RSI) helps us remember to check patients for all contraindications.

I’ve found several characteristics that are commonly found in good emergency airway management algorithms. First and foremost, the algorithm must be based on your world—your patient population, distance to hospitals, available equipment and staff, as well as your own training, experience and confidence. It’s convenient to borrow an algorithm, but it won’t work if it doesn’t fit your operational environment. Using a hospital-based airway algorithm just doesn’t work in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. A second feature of a good algorithm is comfort. If it’s awkward and unfamiliar, then you won’t use it well if at all. You make it comfortable by practicing and making adjustments. Finally, a good algorithm has to be systematic. It must logically and easily flow from one step to the next.

My Algorithm
I’ve used my current airway algorithm for about 15 years. Now, I didn’t just sit down at the kitchen table one morning and put it on paper. I started out using someone else’s algorithm, and then I gradually changed it to fit my needs. My algorithm will always be a work in progress. When I started, I didn’t consider video laryngoscopy or a bougie. Now, they both sit in a place of prominence.

Every patient receives oxygen at every possible moment. Do everything you can to wash out all of the nitrogen in the patient’s lungs and replace it with oxygen. A hyper-oxygenated patient will tolerate short periods of apnea better than a patient with low oxygenation.

Every EMS provider must be proficient at bag-valve-mask (BVM) ventilation. I think BVM ventilation is so important that it’s mentioned six times in my algorithm. I start with BVM to get a feel for compliance and how well the patient responds. Some folks do quite well with a little oxygen, an oral airway and gentle BVM ventilation. If my attempts at laryngoscopy or an alternative airway are unsuccessful, I reach right for the BVM.

Should we intubate?

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I’ve found that more than two attempts at laryngoscopy is usually a waste of a patient’s precious time because chances of success decrease with each attempt. I prepare to successfully place an endotracheal tube on my first attempt. I do everything to make my first attempt my best attempt. I have a second laryngoscopy attempt in the algorithm as an opportunity to make a course correction if I encounter an unanticipated condition, a technique or equipment failure, or I fail to prepare well enough.

I used to have supra-glottic airway placement as steps five and six in the algorithm until a colleague pointed out his success with nasal-tracheal intubation and digital intubation. Out of respect for Steve, I’ve changed these steps to use of an alternative airway. Similar to my experiences with multiple attempts at laryngoscopy, I’ve found that more than two attempts with an alternative airway become futile and detrimental to the patient. If you displace the tongue sufficiently and use adequate lubricant, first-pass success is likely. I’ve included a second attempt in the algorithm to give myself the opportunity to address an unexpected condition or a misstep in my preparation.

Step seven is our familiar friend, BVM ventilation and a quick ride to the hospital.

How long should you spend on each intubation attempt? Wow, that’s a loaded question. I wish I could give you a solid number backed up with a stack of studies, but I can’t. The time spent depends on the patient’s physiological condition, the level of difficulty you experience and your skill level. Many of us were taught to spend no more than 30seconds on an intubation attempt, and I think that’s a pretty safe number. From the moment you insert the blade into the patient’s mouth, it should take you about 10 seconds to locate the glottic structures, and then no more than another 10 seconds or so to place the tube, inflate the cuff and withdraw the stylette. The remaining 10 seconds are a pad for handling any surprises you might find.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. How much time do you think we should spend securing an airway?

Your Turn
Feel free to use this algorithm as template from which you build your own. A word of caution; an algorithm is one tool. It isn’t a replacement for sound clinical judgment. Please let me know how you fare in creating your own airway algorithm. In my next EMS Airway Clinic article, I’ll talk about some of the things you can do to improve your first pass success rate.

Be safe my friends.
Charlie

References
1. Merriam-Webster. www.m-m.com/dictionary/algorithm.

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Charlie Eisele, BS, NREMT-P

Charlie Eisele, BS, NREMT-P has been active in EMS since 1975. After 22 years of service, he recently retired from the Maryland State Police, Aviation Command where he served as a State Trooper, flight paramedic, instructor, flight operations supervisor, director of training, and tactical paramedic. For over 25 years, Charlie has been a collegiate level educator and curriculum developer. He has served numerous programs including the University of Maryland, and its R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, College of Southern Maryland, Grand Canyon National Park, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and Maryland State Police. Charlie is the co-developer of the internationally delivered advanced airway program at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. He is the Airway and Cadaver Lab Course manager for the University of Maryland critical care emergency medical transport program. He’s the co-developer of the EMS Today airway and cadaver lab program. Charlie has been recruited nationally to provide airway management curriculum and education for a variety of private, federal, state and local organization. Charlie is an Eagle Scout and a published author. He serves on the Journal of Emergency Medical Services Editorial Board and is a member of the program board for the EMS Today Conference & Exposition.

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