MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." With the longest day of the year coming up next week, today we're staying up all night. Coming up, we'll go on a crack-of-dawn hunt for alley cats and check out the debate over how to handle feral felines. We'll also hear a very personal tale about what it's like to burn the midnight oil caring for an elderly parent.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, we turn to a group of people who regularly spend their nights performing small and sometimes large miracles. And they do it armed with compassion, a healthy dose of caffeine and quite a bit of medical expertise. They're the doctors and nurses in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children's National Medical Center. Jonathan Wilson spent a night with these folks along with the many families thankful for their help.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
With the proliferation of hospital dramas on primetime television these days, it's very easy to forget just how quiet the nightshift in a hospital can be. But inside the cardiac ICU at Children's National Medical Center, the only ICU in the D.C. area focusing specifically on cardiac patients, it's often quiet and harrowing at the same time.
DR. CRAIG FUTTERMAN
All right. His heart is much better, but he still has diastolic dysfunction. So we're just going to proceed slowly as he continues to recover.
Dr. Craig Futterman is in charge tonight. Right now, he's making rounds getting and giving updates on the 16 children here tonight. He says two or three children are still unstable requiring interventions every 20 minutes or so. But he thinks all are headed in the right direction. But he also says things can change very quickly.
What I've decided over the years, I'm no longer going to be surprised by anything that can happen. I have to be ready to say, all right, I can be awake all night, and I can do it.
Futterman is one of seven attending doctors who rotate through this ICU. He ends up working the nightshift about once a week. He's a small energetic man who sports a closely-cropped salt and pepper beard and he likes talking about cardiology. That's a good thing for Dr. Peter Dean, the cardiology fellow on call tonight. Dean is near the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to doctors here and one of the reasons he's here other than to help save lives is to learn from Dr. Futterman. Dean says the nightshift can be exhausting, but it's actually the slow nights that get to him.
DR. PETER DEAN
The really -- the slow nights or the ones that kids aren't very sick, that's great. That's a wonderful thing. But sometimes that night drags on. It's 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m. whereas if there's a lot going on, new kids coming in, then sometimes you turn around, it's 7:00 and you're ready to go home and it goes by quickly.
Tonight, one child doctors and nurses are watching closely is two-week-old Zachary Wancjer. He was born five weeks premature with a congenital defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot, which affects the way blood mixes and flows in his heart. He's a day removed from corrective surgery and his tiny body seems lost amid all the tubes and sensors surrounding him. Zachary's father Hershel says even though he and his wife Dana knew about their son's condition before he was born, the emotional peaks and valleys of the past couple of weeks have been extreme.
It's a rollercoaster. We're on sort of an uptick. Last night was sort of a downtick. He had a rough first night adapting to all the changes that they made in his heart.
Dana Wancjer said she's actually been getting a few three-hour stretches of sleep while her son is sedated to help him heal.
Once he comes out of the paralysis state and the sedation and he's more awake, I probably won't ever leave this room. So I'm trying to sort of think about that and take advantage of resting now 'cause there will be a time probably soon, perhaps by tomorrow, that that won't be happening.
But while patients and their families can sometimes snatch some sleep and even doctors can occasionally lie down for a few hours, it's nurses who often literally keep the blood bumping here.
Why don't you go now?
Because I -- like, I can't leave you with all this to do.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 2
Can you go? Please go. You need a break. You exit.
Mancci Barris (sp?) is one of the charge nurses in the ICU. A native of the Philippines, she stands less than 5' tall and seems perpetually to have a disproportionately large cup of coffee at her side.
Oh, yes. I can't do nightshift without coffee.
Barris says she likes the nightshift better. There are fewer doctors and nurses roaming the halls and a greater opportunity to focus on patients. And Barris says the sometimes quiet atmosphere means the staff needs to be even more prepared for the worst when it comes.
You need to have a strong staff of highly skilled workers to respond to whatever emergencies that could possibly erupt because we're it.
For all the coffee they may consume, Dr. Futterman says all it takes for the doctors and nurses here to shift into high gear is a patient who needs help. Even after 25 years and even though he's sworn off ever being surprised, a busy ICU is enough to make him a little nervous. And he says that's a good thing.
Sometimes if it's a very busy unit with a lot of unstable patients, all right, I'll have a little bit of angst going into it. But I'll tell you, if it's been a very busy night and I've done my job well, it's a rush. You know, you leave the unit in the morning knowing that everybody's still alive. A bunch of them could've died, but didn't because of the good work that you did. It's a great feeling.
And make no mistake, even on a quite night like this one, lives have been changed and saved in the cardiac ICU. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
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