I survived ACLS

“Your patient is a 58 year old male presenting with chest pain 8/10, pulse is 190, BP 80/70 and respirations 20,” the instructor said. “Suddenly he snorts and collapses; you see this rhythm. What do you want to do?”

I swallowed and looked down at the greyish plastic face of the mannequin and watched as little black lines squiggled their way across the EKG monitor with an impending sense of doom. Somebody call a code, I think I’m having a heart attack!  SVT, V-tach, PEA, Amiodarone, Adenosine, Atropine…my brain raced through a jumble of names and symptoms and algorithms.  Just like an episode of ”ER”, the world suddenly seemed to move in slow motion around me.  The sound of my own heart thundered in my ears.  I was running my first simulated major code!

For the first three days of Christmas break, I decided to tackle the challenge of Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) certification. I signed up for the course eager for a chance to learn more about EKG interpretation and to practice more advanced nursing skills. I was not disappointed.  The challenge on day one was absorbing a mountain of information and forcing myself to sit still for the better part of 8 hours. After deciphering what must have been miles of rhythm strips, I was still at a loss to identify runs of PAC’s from third degree heart block. I left, slightly disheartened (pun intended) with rhythm strips and terminology scrambled in my mind and all over my notebook. I had even drawn a bundle branch block on the back side of my hand when the margin of my paper was full.

As we settled into day two, things picked up. We were no longer sitting in desks and squinting at squiggly lines on graph paper. No, this day we would practice! I was eager for some hands on learning, that is, until I was I was handed the leg of a mannequin and told to pick up a drill. I stared at the large bore needle and again at the leg…this was going where? Don’t we need an anesthesiologist first?  I felt for the flat space on the bone just below and slightly medial to the knee cap.  Squeezing slightly, I started the motor. I inhaled as I felt the slight resistance of the tibia against the needle’s edge, then exhaling, I felt it give way. Ok, breathe. I had just started my first intraosseous catheter!  I decided that was possibly the scariest, coolest experience in my nursing education thus far!

Day three began where we had left off on day two, minus the drill. Simulated codes and various scenarios were run time and time again until our arms hurt from repeated compressions and our reactions to “code blue” were immediate. It was time to test. I was the first to be called for the check off. Taking a breath, I began to mentally rehearse my H’s and T’s and then I heard my instructor ask…

“What do you want to do?”

I knew, despite my pounding head, that H’s and T’s didn’t stand for” headache” and “tired” but somehow that’s all that came to mind.  It all moved very quickly then.  I heard my own voice saying, “We have V-tach, that’s a shock-able rhythm, charge 200…can I get 1mg epinephrine and have 300 Amiodarone on hand in case we need it?”  That fast, I passed my first simulated major code. I sighed with relief; my mannequin would live to arrest another day. Leaving the room on the last day of ACLS, I have more confidence than when I went in. In no way do I claim to be an expert; far from it. In fact when I witness my first actual code, I think I’ll probably still feel like I want to heave.  I figure that’s normal.  The confidence comes from having pursued something I was intimidated by and succeeding despite the fear. That has changed the way I look at things. I learned two very important lessons from ACLS.  First, only defibrillate dead people.  Second, I can’t possibly know what I’m capable of until I’m willing to risk disappointment. This course taught me the benefits of experience are worth more than the fear of failure. In the mail today was an envelope with my official certification inside.  Staring at the little red card I smiled. Christmas came early this year!