The Tracheostomy Patient

Questions one needs to ask before one yanks the tracheostomy out are:

  • Why is it in there, and has that indication resolved?
  • Is the cuff down, and how well has that been tolerated?
  • Is the respiratory function good enough to clear secretions?
  • Is the cardiovascular health satisfactory, can the increased work of breathing be sustained?
  • Is the patient alert enough, and is their muscle power up to the challenge of unsupported breathing?

Previous hot cases with this sort of theme to them can be found below.

Assessment of Readyness to Decannulate a Trachestomy

The standard introduction

  • The examiner will give you a history.

The prelude to the dance

  • Wash hands.
  • Gown and glove.
  • Ask, if relevant:
    • "Can I turn on all the lights?"
    • "Are there any movement restrictions? Can I sit them up, or roll them on their side?"
    • "Is there a language barrier?"
  • Introduce yourself: “Hi Mr or Mrs Bloggs, I’m Dr So-and-so. I’m going to examine you.”

Look around the room. A prolonged ICU stay leaves artifacts around for you to notice.

The Monitors

  • Rhythm
  • Rate
  • Morphology: QRS width,
  • MAP and abnormal morphology of the arterial waveform
  • CVP and abnormal morphology of the CVP waveform
  • Ancillary waveforms eg. the PA catheter waveform
  • Oxygen saturation measurement, and the quality of the waveform
  • End-tidal CO2 waveform and level

A pacing box?

  • Pacing mode
  • Set rate

Sensitivity and pacing threshold may not be relevant.

Essentially, the monitor screen guides you to decide whether oxgenation is adequate, and whether the patient is hemodynamically stable.

The Ventilator

One can ask the examiners the following questions:

  • How are we oxygenating this patient?
  • How are we ventilating this patient?
 

One should ask about the following parameters:

  • FIO2
  • PEEP
  • Peak pressure
  • Plateau pressure
  • Tidal volume and minute volume

One should ask to look at the pressure-volume loops.

If the patient is on a blow-over T-piece or something similar, ask about the gas mixture: what is the FiO2? How long has the patient been on blow-over?

Urine catheter

  • Unusual colour
  • Anuria

Drains (surgical, intercostal, etc)

There may be surgical drains (what is in them? How much of it?). Asking how much has been coming out may be relevant in a hot case which focuses on the diagnosis of a shock state; in the evaluation of decannulation readyness one should focus on the amount of pain being caused by the drain, and whether there is a plan to remove it in the near future.

The pleural catheters are also interesting. One should make a mental note of whether the ICCs are on free drainage or on suction. The content of these drains could be informative, especially if one notices blood or chyle.

Dialysis

A CVVHDF or SLEDD process may be in progress. The savvy candidate may wish to ask the following questions:

  • Which modality is being used?
  • What is the dose of dialysis?
  • What is the rate of fluid removal?
  • How is the circuit anticoagulated?
  • How long has this filter lasted?

These questions may go unanswered.

Infusions

This stage is critically important. The drug and fluid infusions which are currently in progress give a clue as to what problem is currently being addressed. One should not neglect the labelled bags; the choice of antibiotics gives one some idea of where the source of sepsis is thought to be.

The sedation should be off, or minimised.


The physical examination

Expose and observe

Ideally, one should get the patient sitting up to 30-45°. This may not be possible. However, one should still ask for it.

Ideally, the patient should be exposed from the waist up. The candidate can then stand back and look for anything externally obvious:

  • Skin colour, eg. jaundice or the discolouration of chronic renal failure
  • Muscle wasting, obesity, Cushingoid appearance
  • The evidence of trauma, wound dressings, etc
  • The pattern of breathing (eg. whether there is a characteristic chest flail)

GCS

Performing the GCS should be the first step.

The level of consciousness is an important determinant of decannulation success.

A traditionalist, who is examining Mr Bloggs, would approach the GCS in the following manner:

  • Grab hold of both of the patient's hands.
  • "Mr Bloggs!" One pauses to observe for eye opening.
  • "Can you squeeze my hands?"
  • If hand squeezing and eye opening is not observed, one administers a painful nail bed stimulus to both hands, to observe the response to pain.

Hands, nail signs, pulse and the arterial line.

One has just performed a GCS assessment; one is still holding the hands.Now, time to look at them more closely.

First, one should spent a second assessing whether they are warm or cold.

Then, one can focus on the nails. Nail signs are numerous and deserve their own page.

In brief, the nail signs one could look for are as follows:

Done with the nails, one may want to briefly consider (and maybe even comment upon) the presence of any sort of characteristic deformities, eg. assymetrical wasting of the small muscles, or the joint changes of rheumatoid arthritis.

Next comes the pulse. While one still has both of the patient's hands, one ought to try to compare the radial pulses. It would be worthwhile to look up at the arterial line trace at this stage; abnormalities such as the widened pulse pressure of aortic regurgitation may not have been noticed until this stage.

Arms

Tone of the upper limbs

Move up from the hands. While you are still holding the hands, you can perform a sort of gross examination of tone by pronating and supinating the wrists, and by flexing and extending the elbows.

Asterixis

In the conscious patient, it may be possible to assess asterixis by asking the patient to hold both their arms up with the wrists dorsiflexed.

The patient's ability to raise their arms also speaks volumes about proximal muscle power.

Cubital fossa

Examine the cubital fossa for

  • Peripheral lines
  • Evidence of multiple venepunctures
  • Lymph nodes
  • Brachial pulse
  • The presence of an obvious AV fistula

One should then palpate the axillary lymph nodes.

The Neck

  • Inspect any central lines
  • Look again at the CVP

Palpate the neck:

  • Trachea: is it midline? Is there a new tracheostomy there?
  • Thyroid gland
  • Cervical lymph nodes
  • Carotid pulse - one side at a time!
  • Submandibular lymph nodes
  • Pre- and post-auricular lymph nodes

Pupils and the higher cranial nerves

The examination of this patient's cranial nerves should be reasonably detailed.

The upper nerves should also be examined, but the money is in the gag and cough reflexes. It is important to determine whether the patient will be able to protect their airway from oropharyngeal secretions.

Thus, one should go through the full cranial nerve examination:

Visual acuity

A Snellen chart is ideal, but probably will not be available.

The extubated patient should be able to read the time on the clock in the room.

One performs this test with each eye individually.

This tests CN II.

Light reflex

Ask the examiners to dim the room lights.

Open both eyes. Each eye is exposed to light. The opposite pupil should constrict consensually.

This tests CN II (afferent) and CN III (efferent).

Corneal reflex

The cornea (not the sclera) is touched lightly with a moistened corner of a piece of gauze.

A normal reflex is to blink.

This tests CN V (afferent) and CN VII (efferent)

Eye movements

The conscious patient will be able to follow the tip of the candidate's finger.

The pattern of movements should be tracing the six cardinal points: superior left, inferior left, superior center, inferior center, superior right, inferior right.

This tests CNs II, IV and VI.

Facial pain sensation

Typically, this is performed by putting some pressure on the superior orbital notch.

The patient should either open their eyes or localise.

This tests CN V.

Facial movements

The conscious patient will be able to perform a series of grimaces to assess the bilateral motor control of facial muscles:

  • Raise eyebrows to wrinkle forehead
  • Squint eyes to assess periorbital muscles
  • Bare teeth to assess nasolabial muscles
  • Blow out cheeks

Airway and the lower cranial nerves

Now that one has finished with the upper cranial nerves, one can move on to the mouth, airway, and swallowing apparatus.

Gag reflex

The Yankeur sucker is used to probe the posterior pharynx, on both sides. A gag reaction should result from this.

This collectively tests CN X and IX.

Cough reflex

While on the subject of CN X, one may test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.

This tests CN X.

This is also a convenient time to ask about the volume and character of the secretions.

Tongue movements

The conscious patient is asked to protrude their tongue, and move it from side to side.

This tests CN XII.

Uvula deviation

The uvula deviates away from the lesion.

This tests CN X and IX.

Shoulder shrug

The conscious patient is asked to shrug their shoulders against resistance.

This tests CN XI.

The tracheostomy is the final destination in this sequence.

  • What type of tracheostomy is it?
  • How large is it?
  • Is the cuff inflated ?
  • When the cuff is deflated, can the patient speak? Ask the examiners to test this.
  • Is the stoma looking healthy? Is it healed well?

Chest palpation, percussion and auscultation

The objective of this part of the examination is to determine whether there is any sign of ongoing respiratorty pathology, and how severe it is - i.e. whether it will delay decannulation.

Palpation:

One puts both their hands on the chest to assess the symmetry of chest expansion.

Percussion:

One might wish to percuss the chest. If this is done in a slick fashion, it can be forgiven.

Changes in percussion resonance may be worth commenting on.

Auscultation:

One may begin by auscultating the apices anteriorly. Then, one should auscultate as posteriorly as possible. The money is in the bases.

Palpation and auscultation of the praecordium

The objective of this part of the examination is to determine whether the patient has cardiac failure sufficiently severe to delay decannulation. If no pulmonary oedema was found on the auscultation of the chest, the cardiac examination should focus more on the right heart, and on the presence of features of pulmonary hypertension:

  • A right ventricular heave
  • A loud P2
  • Graham Steell murmur of pulmonic regurgitation
  • Tricuspid regurgitation

Palpation:

The clever candidate will make a big show of palpating both the apex and the right sternal edge.

Auscultation:

One should auscultate in the following sequence:

  • Apex
  • Left sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Right sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Both carotids

The various clicks and murmurs one encounters are discussed elsewhere.

Abdominal palpation, percussion and auscultation

For this, one should ask to lay the patient flat.

The objective of this examination is to determine whether sufficient unresolved abdominal pathology is present to delay decannulation. Specifically, unhealed abdominal wounds and abdominal distension are the main concerns.

Abdominal observation

  • Take a moment to behold the abdomen. One may ask the examiners to look under any surgical dressings; one is likely to be denied this part of the examination (they will tell you the wound looks clean and dry).

Abdominal palpation

  • All quadrants should be palpated.
  • Then, feel for the liver edge; observe respiratory excursion
  • Then, feel for the spleen.
  • Then, try to ballot the kidneys. Enquire about renal tenderness.

Abdominal percussion

  • This can double as a test for peritonism.
  • If there is some suspicion of ascites, one may ask to roll the patient, so shifting dullness can be better appreciated. The examiners may not permit this test.

Abdominal auscultation

  • One should spend a good length of time on this, if one suspects bowel obstruction or ileus.

Examination of the pelvis and groins

The pelvic content would have been palpated during the abdominal examination.

The more important part of this examination is the groin.

At this stage, the patient should be re-draped - cover them from the waist up, and uncover their legs.

Observation and palpation of the pelvis:

  • There may be a rash of thrush, or a groin haematoma, or an external fixation device.
  • The posterior pelvis and sacrum should ideally be palpated for pitting oedema.

Examination of the lines

  • One should take notice of anything going into or coming out of the femoral vessels.
  • There may be a vascath, a PiCCO catheter or some sort of angiography sheath. These are important clues. Why did this patient get an angiogram? Wass it recent?

Examination of the genitals and rectum

  • A complete examination would call for the palpation of the testes, and a comment on their size. However, this may not be practical.
  • One should take note of any sort of waste management devices, eg. rectal tube, SPC or IDC.
  • One should definitely ask about performing a PR.
  • If one is forbidden from performing the PR, one should ask about the following features:
    • Anal sphincter tone
    • Size and quality of the prostate
    • Presence of melaena or hard stool

Once one is finished with the pelvis, one should cover it again, so that only the legs are sticking out.

Examination of the lower limbs

One should ask to remove TEDs and compression stockings.

  • One should observe whether the lower limbs are mottled, and whether they are of the same size (assymetrical swelling leads one to suspect lymphoedema or DVT)
  • One should palpate the larger muscles. Muscle wasting - especially of the quads- is an important feature of malnutrition. Additionally, one gets to appreciate the temperature difference between the limbs, which could be important in the assessment of peripheral vascular disease.
  • Pitting oedema should be palpated.

Leg muscle tone

The best way to test muscle tone is by holding the knee. Roll the knee gently to distract the patient; then try to lift it off the bed. In the presence of increased tone, the leg will remain straight and the whole thing will lift up; with normal or decreased tone, only the knee will bend

Calf tenderness

In the conscious patient, one might be able to assess whether a gentle calf squeeze produces the characteristic pain which suggests a DVT may be present.

This brings one to the feet, and to the beginning of the neurological examination.

Feet and the Babinsky reflex

The feet would have already been palpated to assess their temperature, and to look for pitting oedema.

Observation of the feet

One should look specifically for changes suggestive of chronic diabetic foot disease, or chronically poor vascular supply.

Palpation of the feet

This should consist of palpating the dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulse.

Babinsky reflex

One should test the Babinsky bilaterally.

Clonus

One should attempt to assess clonus in both feet.

Power in the limbs

The neurological examination of this patient should focus on power. If there is insufficient proximal muscle power, the patient may fail decannulation, as they will remain bedbound and will have trouble clearing their secretions.

Power of the muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Ankle dorsi and plantarflexion
  • Knee flexion and extension
  • Hip flexion, extension, adduction and abduction.
  • Hand grip
  • Wrist dorsiflexion/palmarflexion
  • Elbow flexion/extension
  • Shoulder adduction / abduction

The measured observations

Ask to see the obs chart. If it is not allowed, ask for the following:

  • Trends of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Temperature
  • Drain output
  • Urine output

The laboratory investigations

One needs to show an interest in the following labs:

  • ABG
  • Routine bloods
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture results
  • Case-specific bloods, eg. CK, troponin, LFTs, pancreatic enzymes, inflammatory markers...

Imaging and other investigations

One should always ask for the following:

  • ECG
  • CXR

A specific issue to resolve is the swallowing. One should ask whether videofluoroscopy or fiberoptic endoscopy swallowing studies have been performed.

 

Case presentation and discussion:

"Mr Bloggs is [ready / not ready] for tracheostomy decannulation."

"I have come to this conclusion on the basis of the following findings: [insert clinical findings here]"

"The following features are in favour of decannulation: [blah]"

"The following issues remain unresolved: [blah]"

"I would like to perform the following investigations to complete my assessment: [insert appropriate investigations]"

"The remaining management issues are as follows: [a brief list of management priorities]"

"To better prepare Mr Bloggs for decannulation, I would approach these issues in the following manner: [list of management strategies; it helps to organise this into an A,B,C,D,E approach if one has a complex multisystem problem to manage]"

Number of previous hot cases in this topic: 2

2015, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Adelaide

59-year-old male, day 25 ICU, having presented with pneumonia on a background of COAD, anxiety and alcoholism. Clinical findings included and alert and co-operative patient with evidence of muscle wasting with preserved strength, an in situ tracheostomy with subglottic suction and reduced breath sounds at the bases.

Candidates were directed to assess the patient and formulate a management plan including the consideration for decannulation.

Discussion points included the management of pulmonary haemorrhage, and the significance of pseudomonas colonisation.

2014, paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Sydney

  • 60-year-old male, 2 months in hospital for H1N1 influenza requiring ECMO complicated by ischaemic bowel, acute kidney injury and critical illness weakness syndrome. Clinical findings included flaccid weakness, more so in the upper than lower limbs: spontaneous respiration via tracheostomy with small tidal volumes and poor cough with copious secretions; abdominal wound with ileostomy.
  • Candidates were asked to examine him with a view to assessing his suitability for ward transfer and decannulation of the tracheostomy.