This is a question Dr. Atul Gawande explores in the December 10 issue of The New Yorker. “The Checklist” is a shocking story, it’s an important story—and it’s also very long. I, of course, would be the last person on earth to criticize someone for “writing long” but it occurs to me that many of HealthBeat’s readers may not have the time to peruse the full nine-page story, so I decided to offer a capsule summary here. (To read the story in its entirety, click here).
Gawande is the author of one of my favorite healthcare books, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, and he writes wonderfully well. This piece begins with a riveting tale of a three-year-old who falls into in icy fishpond in a small Austrian town in the Alps. “She is lost beneath the surface for 30 minutes before her parents find her on the bottom of the pond and pull her up.” By then “she has a body temperature of 68 degrees—and no pulse.” A helicopter takes her to a near-by hospital.
There a surgical team puts her on a heart-lung bypass machine. She now has been lifeless for an hour and a half. Gradually, the machine begins to work. After six hours, her core temperature reaches 98.6 degrees, but she is hardly out of the woods. Her lungs are too badly damaged to function, so the surgeons use a power saw to open her chest down the middle and sew lines to and from an artificial lung system into her aorta and beating heart. “Over the next two days, all of her organs recover except her brain. When a CT scan shows global brain swelling, the team drills a hole into her skull, threads in a probe to monitor cerebral pressure, and adjusts fluids and medications to keep her stable. “
Slowly, over two weeks, she comes back to life. “Her right leg and left arm [are] partially paralyzed. Her speech [is] thick and slurry. But by age five, after extensive outpatient therapy, she has recovered her faculties completely. She [is] like any little girl again.”
“What makes her recovery astounding,” Gawande writes, is “the idea that a group of people in an ordinary hospital could do something so enormously complex. To save this one child, scores of people had to carry out thousands of step correctly; placing the heart-pump tubing into her without letting in air bubbles, maintaining the sterility of her lines, her open chest, the burr hole in her skull; keeping a temperamental battery of machines up and running” all the while “orchestrating each of these steps in the right sequence, with nothing dropped . . .”
This, Gawande says, is what happens in intensive care units, every day of the year, all across the country. “Intensive care medicine has become the art of managing extreme complexity—and a test of whether such complexity can, in fact, be humanly mastered.”