Category Archives: Pre-Hospital

Tracheal Trauma

When I was a young lad, one of the things that would excite me was stories of pirates and murderous ‘cut-throats’. At the age of ten, the idea of a ‘cut throat’ was somehow synonymous with a quick death. Fast wind forward a decade or so (ahem, well maybe more) and I’m reflecting on some of the more interesting cases of 2011.


One was a young man involved in a ‘glassing’ in the local pub. He presented to the ED via ambulance, maintaining his own airway but with an obvious zone 1 neck injury. Now, I teach in the animal lab on EMST courses and it amazes me how difficult it can be to identify the appropriate place to perform a tracheostomy. We aim for the cricothyroid membrane, but I’ve seen FACEMs bugger it up completely and transect the trachea (even once the oesophagus and damn near severe the vertebral column!)


Anyhow, this chap’s assailant had obviously either been on an EMST course or had performed percutaneous tracheostomies in the ICU – because with just a broken beer glass, he’d managed to make a perfect incision in the victim’s trachea, between 2nd and third tracheal rings. OK, not the cricothyroid membrane, but otherwise a damn near perfect tracheostomy!


So we took him upstairs and performed an awake fibreoptic intubation with a surgeon scrubbed and ready to perform a tracheostomy. And the patient did OK (had an injury to posterior tracheal wall with oesophageal perforation confirmed on oesophagoscopy, but no mediastinitis and injury healed over time in ICU).


So I’ve been thinking about these sort of injuries and how best to manage them with my (limited) kit back in the bush. Although reasonably rare, both blunt and penetrating laryngotracheal injuries present difficulties for the rural GP-anaesthetist…as the airway needs to be secured ASAP.


And this is not a hypothetical – such injuries are not uncommon in the bush – the classic is ‘clothes-line’ injury where a quad or trail-bike rider impacts a fencing wire at speed, sustaining tracheal injury. Add to that ‘robust’ sports, the usual gamut of farming and motor vehicle injuries..so the rural docs needs to have some form of game plan on how to manage these. And the ‘exam answer’ for ANZCA may not be applicable for the rural doctor, with limited equipment/backup.


The danger of course is that attempts at direct laryngoscopy may cause complete tracheal disruption, with subsequent passing of the ETT tube down a false passage, development of subcutaneous emphysema, failed ventilation and a spiral down into demise.


Every now and then, one hears of paramedics just popping a suitably sized ETT tube through the hole made in a traumatic tracheostomy – a fine strategy for the penetrating injury, but not available for blunt injury or small penetrating wounds.


How then to approach this? There isn’t a great deal in the literature and my FANZCA colleagues fall back on the ‘awake fibreoptic intubation’ answer…which is fine in the tertiary centre, but impractical in a small rural hospital.


So, what to do when faced with a patient with tracheal injury and needing emergent intubation (let’s assume they are becoming obtunded or failing to keep SpO2 up). My thoughts?


– direct laryngoscopy. May seem controversial, but this is what I am best at and the equipment is readily to hand (ETT/bougie). However DL risks disruption of the larynx/trachea and a false passage, making further attempts at intubation impossible.


– do a formal tracheostomy under local. Sounds fine, especially if can delegate to a surgeon. If I am in luck there may be an ENT surgeon visiting for a fishing trip, otherwise it’s going to be a messy scrabble with a patient who may refuse to lay flat/be combative. Nasty, but potentially do-able with equipment to hand (betadine-gloves-drape-local anaesthetic-scalpel-lots of gauze-retractors-ETT-lots of light-assistant)


– indirect laryngosocopy using videolaryngoscope. I like this idea, as intuitively seems to involve less mechanical distraction of the larynx…and the KingVision allows easy passage of a bougie, then railroad ETT over the top. Parker-tipped ETT to try and avoid any ‘hang up’ at the arytenoids…


– use an iLMA to maintain oxygenation – then intubate with ETT through this using either AmbuAscope or a malleable intubating stylet such as Bonfils or Levitan. To my mind the Ascope seems to offer an advantage here as could use iLMA as a conduit then follow down to carina…ensuring no false passage – then railroad ETT over the top. The shaped intubating-stylets allow one to visualise the laryngeal inlet..but not to insert down to carina, so potentially will intubate through the cords, but suffer false passage further down.


– topicalise the airway and perform an awake fibreoptic intubation. Preferred technique of my FANZCA colleagues, but it’s hard to do enough AFOIs to keep ‘current’. Now is not the best time for a relative novice to be trying!




What do other’s think?


– any thoughts on above?


– gas induction or classic RSI?


– what kit do you have available to assist you, either now..or planned.




Bring it on…

Essential Equipment

I’ve long struggled with the ideal contents of my prehospital pack. Time was that I carried enough gear in the back of the ute to perform an emergency laparotomy at the roadside…as time goes on I’ve slimmed things down…even more so on kayaking expeditions where weight and space are at a premium. Indeed, my minimalist approach to medical kit caused a small stir in the Australian sea-kayaking community, not least for the reliance on duct tape, superglue and suggesting the rectal route for treatment of dehydration and/or hypoglycaemia.


I’ve touched on thoughts for minimal standards for prehospital kit and a move towards similar standards in equipment and infusion protocols between small rural hospitals and retrieval services elsewhere in this blog. However, I was surprised to see the inclusion of a rubber chicken in Minh le Cong’s essential prehospital kit. You can read more over at Cliff Reid’s Resus.me site. But this of course raises the issue of what other ‘unique’ piece of kit that you feel you cannot function without.

Choking the chicken – an essential prerequisite for retrievalists?



For me, it’s always been a six-pack of Dr Tim Cooper’s Pale Ale (or Dr Tim’s) – I usually slip a six pack in the vac-mat for the retrieval team when they take away a sick patient – in thanks for their efforts and as a reward to enjoy back at base.



What weird extra kit do you carry in your prehospital or emergency bag?

Back to BASICS

South Australia is huge & not surprisingly this poses problems providing a response to serious trauma in the country. Thankfully rural doctors are mostly well-trained and thrive on the challenge of delivering excellent emergency care in their local hospitals…and if needed, can call upon the retrieval service to transfer critically unwell patients. The Statewide retrieval service has been re-invented in recent years, with MedSTAR now offering a world class service rivalling other States. Certainly the improvement in service delivery has been noticed from where I stand, as a rural doctor in country SA.


However, I wonder if there’s scope to improve things even further? In the UK, an entity called BASICS (British Association Immediate Care Scheme) enlists the skills of doctors with an interest in prehospital medicine & trauma to provide medical expertise at the roadside. BASICS personnel don’t replace paramedics or retrieval services – rather they “value add” to a situation – particularly when paramedic skills are exhausted and retrieval services have yet to arrive (see the BASICS DOC blog for more details). In Australia, the failure to call local doctors (many with critical care/anaesthetic skills) has been slammed in the response to the Kerang train crash disaster in 2007.


If the UK, with it’s small landmass, huge population and plethora of aeromedical and land-based retrieval services has a need for a service like BASICS, surely there’s more of a need in rural Australia where distances are greater and retrieval may take hours, not minutes? I posted on this recently on RRMEO, the excellent educational resource from ACRRM.


Currently, most trauma cases are dealt with by paramedics (and in the bush, these are often volunteers, not paid personnel) and a decision made to either retrieve direct from the scene (primary retrieval) or else transfer the victim to a rural hospital (where they may require secondary retrieval to definitive care). On occasions, local rural doctors may be called to assist at the roadside. Or not, as in Kerang. It’s an informal process which invites problems.


There’s a potential problem with relying on the local doctor. Emergency Medicine training in rural Australia is not formalised. Some doctors have a wealth of EM experience – some have barely any. Calling the local doctor may be a good thing…or it may not add much. Dr Peter Arvier in Tasmania has championed the need for EM training in rural Australia (demonstration of training is needed for rural docs practicing obstetrics, anaesthetics and surgery). Improving EM training is probably a good thing for the bush, although I hope old farts like me can be grandfathered if they bring in a rural EM diploma!


On top of this, a doctor attending an incident as the ‘oncall’ is still responsible for patients presenting to the local hospital. I’ve been called out to incidents 60km away from the hospital…and whilst happy to attend, I’ve had to ensure that someone else can cover in my absence.


In South Australia there has been an embryonic scheme developed by Dr Peter Joyner, known as RERN (Rural Emergency Responder Network) drawn from the ranks of rural doctors. These guys make themselves available to be called by SA Ambulance at the roadside, in addition to their usual oncall responsibilities. It’s a good idea, but I think doesn’t go far enough…the rural doctor workforce represents a hugh asset which is underused. Sure there are ad hoc arrangements (‘Help! We need a doc’) but without formalised training and equipment appropriate for the prehospital environment, doctors risk becoming ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ (I’m one!).

KI DOC is ready and waiting for your trauma call!





Whilst many rural doctors keep up-to-date by attending courses such as EMST, APLS, MOET, RESP etc, it has to be acknowledged that the prehospital environment is quite different to operating in the safety of a resus bay in the hospital. Prehospital doctors need to be familiar with rapid response driving, radio use, scene safety, extrication and working in austere environments etc. The UK BASICS scheme recognises this, encouraging training such as the UK’s DipIMC (although having read what’s involved, I reckon this could be more of a disincentive to us rural docs…better to just ensure they’ve got the right kit, understand the prehospital environment, then get them out there making a difference!)


I’ve alluded to the need for more crossover in training & equipment between various services (ambulance-retrieval-rural workforce) elsewhere on this blog (see Keeping It Simple). On RRMEO this topic was discussed with John Mac, who felt that it would be resisted by State ambulance services. I think this then begs the question – how much is the rural workforce integrated with State/National resources when a disaster strikes? As Dr Chris Swan recently opined in Australian Doctor :

“GPs form a vital, invaluable component of the emergency response resource in a disaster. Yet they too often are an afterthought, considered somewhere beyond the police, fire services, SES, hospital response and the military. Their clinical skills are broad, and they may well have facilities and staff at their disposal, but they are not as easily marshalled and they may be spread out”



I am particularly interested in how this sort of scheme would be received in rural Australia. What do others think? Has this idea got legs?


Bottom line – rural doctors are not infrequently called to attend to backup the ambos. Better that the doctors attending are well-trained, well-equipped and enthusiastic…not the present ‘we don’t need you…oh hang on, yes we do‘ approach which relies on the oncall A&E doctor. 


That’s just not good planning.