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Critical Care

Last 50 Critical Care Postings

(Click on title to be directed to posting, most recent listed first, CME offerings in Bold)

July 2019 Critical Care Case of The Month: An 18-Year-Old with
   Presumed Sepsis and Progressive Multisystem Organ Failure 
An Observational Study Demonstrating the Efficacy of Interleukin-1 
   Antagonist (Anakinra) in Critically-ill Patients with Hemophagocytic
Which Half Are You? Almost Half of Pediatric Oncologists and Intensivists
   Are Burnt Out……
Management of Refractory Hypoxemic Respiratory Failure Secondary to
   Diffuse Alveolar Hemorrhage with Venovenous Extracorporeal Membrane
Amniotic Fluid Embolism: A Case Study and Literature Review
April 2019 Critical Care Case of the Month: A Severe Drinking
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: An Unexpected Target Lesion
January 2019 Critical Care Case of the Month: A 32-Year-Old Woman
   with Cardiac Arrest
The Explained Variance and Discriminant Accuracy of APACHE IVa 
   Severity Scoring in Specific Subgroups of ICU Patients
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: Characteristic Findings in a 
   Complicated Effusion
October 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month: A Pain in the Neck
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: Who Stole My Patient’s Trachea?
August 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: Caught in the Act
July 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
June 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
Fatal Consequences of Synergistic Anticoagulation
May 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
Airway Registry and Training Curriculum Improve Intubation Outcomes in 
   the Intensive Care Unit
April 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
Increased Incidence of Eosinophilia in Severe H1N1 Pneumonia during 2015
   Influenza Season
March 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: Ghost in the Machine
February 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
January 2018 Critical Care Case of the Month
December 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
November 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
A New Interventional Bronchoscopy Technique for the Treatment of
   Bronchopleural Fistula
ACE Inhibitor Related Angioedema: A Case Report and Brief Review
Tumor Lysis Syndrome from a Solitary Nonseminomatous Germ Cell Tumor
October 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
September 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
August 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
Telemedicine Using Stationary Hard-Wire Audiovisual Equipment or Robotic 
   Systems in Critical Care: A Brief Review
Carotid Cavernous Fistula: A Case Study and Review
July 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
High-Sensitivity Troponin I and the Risk of Flow Limiting Coronary Artery 
   Disease in Non-ST Elevation Acute Coronary Syndrome (NSTE-ACS)
June 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
Clinical Performance of an Interactive Clinical Decision Support System for 
   Assessment of Plasma Lactate in Hospitalized Patients with Organ
May 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
Management of Life Threatening Post-Partum Hemorrhage with HBOC-201 
   in a Jehovah’s Witness
Tracheal Stoma Necrosis: A Case Report
April 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
March 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: Unchain My Heart
February 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
January 2017 Critical Care Case of the Month
December 2016 Critical Care Case of the Month
Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: A Pericardial Effusion of Uncertain 
Corticosteroids and Influenza A associated Acute Respiratory Distress 


For complete critical care listings click here.

The Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care publishes articles directed to those who treat patients in the ICU, CCU and SICU including chest physicians, surgeons, pediatricians, pharmacists/pharmacologists, anesthesiologists, critical care nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Manuscripts may be either basic or clinical original investigations or review articles. Potential authors of review articles are encouraged to contact the editors before submission, however, unsolicited review articles will be considered.



July 2019 Critical Care Case of The Month: An 18-Year-Old with Presumed Sepsis and Progressive Multisystem Organ Failure 

Robert A. Raschke, MD

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ USA


Critical Care Case of the Month CME Information

Completion of an evaluation form is required to receive credit and a link is provided on the last page of the activity. 

0.50 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit(s)™

Estimated time to complete this activity: 0.50 hours

Lead Author(s): Robert A. Raschke, MDAll Faculty, CME Planning Committee Members, and the CME Office Reviewers have disclosed that they do not have any relevant financial relationships with commercial interests that would constitute a conflict of interest concerning this CME activity.

Learning Objectives: As a result of completing this activity, participants will be better able to:

  1. Interpret and identify clinical practices supported by the highest quality available evidence.
  2. Establish the optimal evaluation leading to a correct diagnosis for patients with pulmonary, critical care and sleep disorders.
  3. Translate the most current clinical information into the delivery of high quality care for patients.
  4. Integrate new treatment options for patients with pulmonary, critical care and sleep related disorders.

Learning Format: Case-based, interactive online course, including mandatory assessment questions (number of questions varies by case). Please also read the Technical Requirements.

CME Sponsor: The University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson

Current Approval Period: January 1, 2019-December 31, 2020

Financial Support Received: None


History of Present Illness

An 18-year-old female student from Flagstaff was transferred to our hospital for refractory sepsis. She had presented with a 2 week history of fever, malaise, sore throat, myalgias, arthralgias and a rash.

PMH, SH and FH

She reported no significant past medical history or family history. She attended cosmetology school, denied smoking or drug abuse and was sexually monogamous. She had only traveled in-state, did not hike or camp and her only animal exposure was playing with her two pet Great Danes.

Physical Examination

The patient had a fever of 38.5°C. on original presentation. HEENT exam was reported as unrevealing. Lungs were clear. There were no heart murmurs and the abdominal exam was unremarkable. No joint effusions were apparent. A rash was mentioned, but not described and it apparently disappeared shortly after admission.

Initial laboratory testing was significant for WBCC of 12.1 K/mm3, creatinine of 1.5 mg/dL and AST of 45 IU/L. A rapid influenza screen, urinalysis and chest radiography were unrevealing. Blood cultures were drawn and intravenous fluids, piperacillin/tazobactam and azithromycin were administered. Over the next four days, the fever persisted and the blood cultures resulted in no growth. Serial laboratory values demonstrated progressive worsening in renal function and increasing hepatic enzymes. The patient became dyspneic and developed rales and progressive hypoxia prompting transfer.

On arrival in our ICU, the patient was alert, in mild respiratory distress and hypotensive to 78/43 mmHg, requiring immediate initiation of intravenous norepinephrine. She reported nausea and severe diffuse myalgia and arthralgia. On examination, she was ill-appearing with blood pressure 101/58 (on norepinephrine at 25 mcg/min), heart rate 104 beats/min, respiratory rate 33 breaths/min, temperature 38.8°C. She had mild oropharyngeal erythema, some shotty cervical lymph nodes, bilateral rales, mild epigastric and right upper quadrant tenderness, and a macular erythematous rash approximately 14 x 29 cm on her left forearm that disappeared within several hours.

Her ICU admission chest x-ray is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Admission ICU portable chest X-ray showing bilateral areas of consolidation.

Her laboratory evaluation showed the following:

  • WBCC: 2,500/mm3 63% segs with toxic granulation/vacuolated segs
  • Hemoglobin/Hematocrit: 7.9 g/dL/26.7%
  • Platelets: 50,000/mm3
  • BUN/creatinine: 23/1.25 mg/dL
  • AST/ALT: 246/189 IU/L (normal 10-40 and 7-56)
  • PT: 20.9 sec
  • Lactate: 4.5 mmol/L
  • Urinalysis: bland sediment, without bacteria or leukocytes
  • ABG: 7.33, pCO2 34, pO2 78 (on 45% FiO2 by ventimask)
  • Transthoracic echocardiogram showed normal LV and RV size and systolic function with no vegetations
  • US abdomen showed hepatosplenomegaly, retroperitoneal lymphadenopathy, and normal kidneys and ureters.

What are diagnostic considerations at this time?  (Click on the correct answer to be directed to the second of six pages)

  1. Rocky mountain spotted fever (RMSF)
  2. Acute retroviral syndrome
  3. Still’s disease
  4. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  5. All of the above

Cite as: Raschke RA. July 2019 critical care case of the month: an 18-year-old with presumed sepsis and progressive multisystem organ failure. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;19(1):1-9. doi: PDF 


An Observational Study Demonstrating the Efficacy of Interleukin-1 Antagonist (Anakinra) in Critically-ill Patients with Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis

Kyle Henry MD, Banner University Medical Center

Robert Raschke MD, University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ USA


Secondary Hhmophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is an underrecognized cause of multisystem organ failure (MSOF) in critically ill adults, associated with high mortality even when recommended etoposide-based treatments are administered.  Anakinra, an interleukin-1 receptor antagonist, has shown promise in treating children with HLH. This retrospective case series describes seven adult patients who presented to our ICU with a unremitting syndrome consistent with sepsis / MSOF, who were subsequently diagnosed with secondary HLH and received anakinra.   Five of seven (71%) survived.  Two non-survivors died secondary to opportunistic fungal infections. Our study contributes to mounting observational evidence regarding anakinra’s possible efficacy in critically ill adults with HLH, and also raises awareness of possible infectious complications of its use. 


Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a syndrome characterized by immune dysregulation, hypercytokinemia and tissue infiltration by activated cytotoxic lymphocytes and macrophages (1-3). Primary HLH is a familial syndrome in which gene mutations causing abnormalities of cytotoxic T-lymphocyte and natural killer (NK) cell function result in a systemic hyperinflammatory state. Primary HLH typically presents in the first years of life, progressing to multisystem organ failure (MSOF) and death unless successfully treated with chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation. Secondary HLH shares clinical features with primary HLH but typically occurs later in life after an underlying illness triggers a dysregulated inflammatory response (3, 4). The diagnosis of primary or secondary HLH is made when five of eight criteria proposed by the International Histiocyte Society are met (Table 1) (5). Heterogeneous groups of patients may satisfy HLH diagnostic criteria, including those in whom HLH is triggered by sepsis, malignancy, and rheumatologic disease (4). Macrophage Activation Syndrome (MAS) is a specific HLH subcategory describing those patients with secondary HLH due to underlying rheumatologic disease (2). The clinical course of secondary HLH is highly variable, progressing relatively slowly in some patients in whom a diagnosis may be made in an outpatient oncology or rheumatology clinic (2, 4, 6-9). Other patients deteriorate rapidly and may require ICU care before the diagnosis of HLH is suspected (3). It has been increasingly recognized that subgroups of patients with HLH have distinctive clinical features, and require special treatment considerations (1, 3-5, 10).

One distinct subgroup consists of adults who present to the intensive care unit (ICU) with sepsis syndrome and MSOF with progressive deterioration despite standard therapy for sepsis (3). Life threatening manifestations in such patients suspected of experiencing HLH may force consideration of presumptive immunotherapy before all HLH diagnostic tests have resulted. Infectious and/or rheumatologic triggers for secondary HLH are eventually found in many, but a clear distinction between sepsis and HLH cannot be made in some (3, 4, 10, 11). The standard treatment protocol for HLH incorporates etoposide – a myelosuppressive chemotherapy agent generally regarded as the standard of care, but has known serious side effects, especially in the setting of hepatic or renal dysfunction typical of sepsis (5, 12). Furthermore, etoposide-based HLH treatment may cause severe immunosuppression leading to opportunistic infections. The mortality of secondary HLH in the adult ICU exceeds 50% (13-16) regardless of the underlying catalyst for the hypercytokinemia. New therapeutic options are desperately needed.

Mounting observational evidence suggests that Anakinra, a recombinant interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra), may have promise in the treatment of HLH (6,17). Naturally-occurring IL-1Ra is secreted by immune cells to inhibit the pro-inflammatory effects of interleukin 1β (IL-1β) – a key cytokine in the pathogenesis of sepsis and HLH (7, 18). Anakinra was originally developed as a potential therapy for sepsis (7), but is now FDA-approved for use in rheumatoid arthritis. A single case-series describes the successful use of anakinra in critically-ill children with secondary HLH and a few case reports describe its use in critically-ill adults (6, 8, 19, 20). More recently, Wohlfarth and colleagues showed that anakinra is a reasonable option for critically ill patients adults with HLH.  At the same time Wohlfarth et al were studying these effects in an Austrian population, we demonstrated similar results in a series of adult patients in the United States who presented to the ICU with sepsis syndrome and underwent treatment with anakinra for secondary HLH.


This retrospective study was approved by our institutional review board. The setting was the medical and surgical ICU at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix – a 72-bed ICU in a 650-bed academic tertiary referral center. We identified consecutive adult patients at least 18 years old admitted with sepsis syndrome (known or suspected infection plus acute organ system dysfunction) (21) who subsequently met five or more HLH-2004 diagnostic criteria (Table 1) and received anakinra as part of their treatment regimen between May 2013 and May 2016.

Table 1. HLH-2004 Diagnostic Criteria for Secondary HLH: At least five of eight criteria needed for diagnosis.

Clinical management of patients was not strictly protocolized, but care was provided by an academic 24/7 on-site intensivist service with strong internal consensus regarding the management of HLH. All patients had at least daily complete blood counts and basic metabolic panels. In our practice, diagnostic workup for HLH generally commences upon recognition of unremitting sepsis syndrome with MSOF and bicytopenia. Such patients underwent workup for sepsis and potential causes of secondary HLH that included at minimum: blood cultures, ferritin, fibrinogen, triglycerides, bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, PCR and/or serological testing for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis viruses and coccidioidomycosis (a mycosis endemic in the region). The decision to start HLH therapy was typically based on clinical suspicion plus consistent preliminary laboratory results such as hyperferritinemia, hypofibrinogenemia and/or hypertriglyceridemia, while awaiting the complete results of bone marrow aspiration/biopsy and send-out tests such as soluble interleukin-1 receptor and NK cell functional assays. Presumptive treatment of HLH began with corticosteroids - typically intravenous dexamethasone 10mg/m2 daily. Additional therapies were added at the discretion of the intensivist with consideration of the rapidity of clinical deterioration and likely intolerance of some therapies due to kidney, liver, and/or bone marrow failure. Choice of HLH therapies was based on the HLH-1994 therapy protocol, and influenced by our prior unfavorable experience with etoposide (discussed in conclusions) and recognition of observational literature suggesting that anakinra might be efficacious in patients with secondary HLH. Anakinra was typically given in a dose of 100mg subcutaneously daily, except in patients with creatinine clearance <30ml/min who were dosed every other day.

We retrospectively performed chart reviews to abstract demographics and clinical features related to sepsis and MSOF including infections present on admission, mental status, acute respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation, acute renal failure requiring hemodialysis, shock requiring intravenous vasopressors, and liver injury (defined as total bilirubin >2 mg/dL and aminotransferase greater than two times upper limit of normal) (22). The sequential organ failure assessment (SOFA) score was calculated for each patient (21). HLH-2004 diagnostic criteria and the underlying disease process thought to have triggered HLH were abstracted. We documented all treatments including antibiotics and immunosuppressive therapy for HLH, including the dose and duration of anakinra. Outcomes included survival to hospital discharge, duration of fever, mechanical ventilation and renal replacement therapy and ICU length of stay indexed to the time anakinra commenced. Infectious complications occurring during admission after HLH therapy started were also documented. Simple descriptive statistics were performed.

The H Score for each patient was also calculated retrospectively. The H Score is a score used to estimate an individual's risk for having secondary HLH and was recently validated in a 147 patient cohort by Debaugnies et al. (23).


Seven patients were treated with anakinra for a diagnosis of secondary HLH in our ICU between May 2013 and May 2016. Patient ages ranged from 22-59 years – three were female. All patients initially presented to our ICU with a febrile illness consistent with sepsis and received broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics. Microbiological testing eventually documented infections in two patients – due to influenza A and EBV, respectively. All patients were encephalopathic, five required mechanical ventilation, four required hemodialysis due to acute renal failure, four had liver injury and three required vasopressors due to shock (Table 2).

Table 2. Patient characteristics and some clinical outcomes.

The median SOFA score was 13 (range: 3-17) predicted poor outcome for the group overall (13-16). H Scores for this cohort ranged from 122-263.  HLH diagnostic criteria and presumed etiologies are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Suspected etiology and positive HLH-2004 diagnostic criteria for secondary HLH in patients treated with anakinra: Five of eight criteria required to diagnose HLH.

Two patients were known to have SLE prior to ICU admission and four others were subsequently diagnosed with underlying autoimmune diseases demonstrating a preponderance of MAS in this cohort.  

All patients initially received corticosteroids (dexamethasone 10mg/m2 or methylprednisolone >500mg every 12 hours) followed by anakinra. Three patients also received cyclosporine, three underwent plasmapheresis and two received IVIG. Only one patient received etoposide and this was later transitioned to anakinra due to lack of response. Anakinra was started a median of seven days after ICU admission (range 2-58 days). All patients received anakinra 100mg daily, but Q48 hour dosing was used temporarily in five patients who transiently experienced creatinine clearances <30mL/min. Duration of anakinra therapy was 10-159 days - we were unable to determine duration of anakinra after discharge in one patient.

All patients appeared to clinically improve after initiation of anakinra. Of six patients experiencing fever at the time anakinra was started, five defervesced within 24 hours. In five patients that had follow-up ferritin levels within two weeks of starting anakinra, ferritin fell from a median of 7,371 ng/L (range 2,217->40,000) to 4,535 ng/L (range 2,137-26,634). Five of seven patients (71%) survived to hospital discharge with an ICU length of stay (LOS) ranging from 6-17 days and an overall LOS of 17-103 days. Once anakinra was started, liberation from the ventilator occurred within 1-3 days, transfer out of the ICU within 3-5 days, discharge from the hospital within 10-32 days and discontinuation of hemodialysis within 10-44 days.

Death in both non-survivors was due to opportunistic fungal infections - necrotizing pulmonary aspergillosis and disseminated mucormycosis (which occurred despite prophylaxis with amphotericin B).  Three other secondary infections all occurred in a single survivor: methicillin-sensitive S. aureus and E coli bacterial ventilator-associated pneumonias and C. difficile colitis all of which responded favorably to treatment while anakinra was continued.


Secondary HLH may be more common in the ICU than previously recognized (3), overlapping with and at times indistinguishable from sepsis (3, 4, 10, 11). Rapid clinical deterioration in patients with suspected HLH may force treatment decisions to be made before full diagnostic test results are available. The risk of myelosuppression due to etoposide-based HLH treatment regimens may be intolerable in critically-ill, possibly septic patients with MSOF (4, 12). A therapeutic agent with a more HLH-specific mechanism of action and better safety profile is badly needed.

Anakinra is a recombinant IL-1Ra originally investigated as a potential immune-modulatory treatment for sepsis (7). Phase I and II studies established acceptable safety for further study in sepsis, but a phase III trial failed to demonstrate an overall survival benefit (7). A post-hoc analysis of data from this trial showed that septic patients with hepatobiliary dysfunction, hypofibrinogenemia and thrombocytopenia, such as often seen in secondary HLH, had significantly improved survival if they received anakinra vs placebo (65% vs. 35% 28-day survival, p=0.0007) (7). Anakinra was later approved for use in rheumatoid arthritis (18). Observational studies suggested efficacy in adult onset Still’s disease and systemic juvenile arthritis (9, 24, 25) and in non-critically-ill patients with secondary HLH triggered by these rheumatologic diseases (9, 25, 26). Case reports described the use of anakinra in critically-ill children with secondary HLH (25, 26, 27) and Rajasekaran and colleagues published a case series describing their experience using anakinra in eight critically-ill pediatric patients with secondary HLH/sepsis syndrome (6). All eight patients survived their initial illness, and no infectious complications were attributed to anakinra.

Fourteen cases describing the use of anakinra in adults with secondary HLH have previously been published (6, 8 ,17, 19, 20, 28).  Four were due to infections (EBV, CMV, MAC, histoplasmosis, four to autoimmune disease (two with AOSD, SLE antisynthetase syndrome), two post transplantation immunosuppression, one due to acute lymphocytic leukemia and three of unknown trigger.  Twelve of 15 (80%) required life support (mechanical ventilation, hemodialysis, vasopressors).  All but two received corticosteroids and just over half IVIg.  Overall survival was 67%, and no complications of immunosuppression were reported. 

The mechanism by which anakinra might ameliorate secondary HLH is not fully elucidated. Secondary HLH (and some forms of sepsis) are characterized by high levels of circulating cytokines including interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor and interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) (2, 4, 7, 18, 29) - constituting what some have called a “cytokine storm”. Many investigators believe that hypercytokinemia is pathogenic in HLH. Renal failure, cytopenia, coagulopathy and cholestasis have been associated with elevated levels of IL-6 and IFN-γ (2, 18, 28). IL-1β activates lymphocytes responsible for production of these same cytokines (2, 7, 18, 28). IL-1Ra is a competitive inhibitor of IL-1β (7, 29). Therefore IL-1 receptor antagonism by anakinra might inhibit the maladaptive hypercytokinemia characteristic of secondary HLH. This brief explanation oversimplifies a complex and poorly-understood process that requires much further research.

The observed survival rate in our adult patients treated with anakinra (71%) appears favorable compared to that described in other comparable groups of patients (13-16) with survival rates ranging from 25-41%, although we cannot definitively attribute this to treatment effect. It is notable that the majority of our patients had MAS, which has a improved prognosis compared to other forms of HLH when it presents in the outpatient setting, but similar high mortality once the patient develops MSOF and requires intensive care (13-16). This finding supports the concept that secondary HLH of any cause is related to a cytokine storm universal to all underlying catalysts, and that after a critical point the inflammatory cascade becomes increasingly difficult to reverse.

We have previously diagnosed and treated a total of 29 cases of secondary HLH in our ICU. Survival among 22 patients who did not receive anakinra was 14%. This group included eight patients who received etoposide, all of whom died or developed severe neutropenia (WBC <0.5 X 109/L) within a week of its initiation. The patient who survived etoposide did so after her regimen transitioned to anakinra. Statistical comparison of patients in our practice who did or did not receive anakinra was not undertaken due to potential bias and confounding. Controlled prospective trials are required to determine whether anakinra will improve survival of patients with secondary HLH. One such trial is currently under way ( Identifier: NCT02780583) specifically in regards to MAS.

Two of our patients died from opportunistic fungal infections. Fatal fungal infections have previously been reported to occur in patients receiving treatment for HLH who did not receive anakinra (28) and are likely a result of multiple risk factors including the underlying immune dysregulation associated with HLH, other immunosuppressive therapies and invasive procedures related to ICU care (30, 31), and therefore these infections cannot be specifically attributed to anakinra. We consider prophylactic posaconazole or amphotericin therapy in selected ICU patients at high risk for fungal infections given the evidence of invasive fungal infection prophylaxis including mucormycosis in similarly immunocompromised patients (30, 31). 


Our study contributes to mounting observational evidence supporting the hypothesis that anakinra may be efficacious in adult patients presenting to the ICU with life-threatening secondary HLH.  In our opinion, it can be considered as first line therapy, in combination with corticosteroids and IVIg, in selected patients for whom renal, hepatic and bone marrow dysfunction put them at higher risk of toxicity due to etoposide.  Vigilance is warranted in relation to opportunistic infections, particularly those due to fungi.  Prospective controlled trails are needed to definitively establish effective therapy of HLH. 


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  30. Lawrence TM, Thabet A, Nishino H. Case 10-2011 - a woman with fever, confusion, liver failure, anemia, and thrombocytopenia. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:1259-70. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  31. Bajwa SJ, Kulshrestha A. Fungal infections in intensive care unit:challenges in diagnosis and management. Ann Med Health Sci Res. 2013;3:238-44. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  32. Cornely OA, Maertens J, Winston DJ, et al. Posaconazole vs. fluconazole or itraconazole prophylaxis in patients with neutropenia. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:348-59. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

Cite as: Henry K, Raschke RA. An observational study demonstrating the efficacy of interleukin-1 antagonist (anakinra) in critically-ill patients with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(6):177-86. doi: PDF 

Editor's Note: The July 2019 Critical Care Case of the Month is a case presentation of HLH with 0.5 Hour CME credit. Click on the link to be directed to the case.


Which Half Are You? Almost Half of Pediatric Oncologists and Intensivists Are Burnt Out……

K. Sarah Hoehn, MD, MBe1

Manjusha Abraham, MD2

John Gaughan, PhD3

Brigham C. Willis, MD4

1Department of Pediatric Critical Care, University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, Chicago IL

2Department of Pediatrics, Section of Critical Care, St. Mary’s Hospital, St Louis MO

3Biostatistics Consulting Center, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA

4Division of Cardiovascular Intensive Care, Department of Child Health, University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Phoenix, AZ



Objective: To study the prevalence of burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and wellbeing among pediatric critical care and pediatric hematology and oncology physicians 

Design: Observational cohort study

Setting: Online survey

Patients: Active American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) members of the section of critical care and the section of hematology and oncology

Interventions: Surveys containing three validated instruments (the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the secondary traumatic stress scale and the Personal Wellbeing Index, as well as questions on demographics and lifestyle) were emailed out via the AAP.

Measurements and Main Results: We had 231 respondents with a response rate of 15.8% among PICU physicians and 26.1% among hematology-oncology physicians. 45.9% of our participants consisted of hematology-oncology physicians and 54.1% of pediatric critical care physicians. The population was a balanced gender mix but was predominantly Caucasian (82% Caucasian and 10% Asian). The overall rate of burnout was 46.6% (47.8% among hematology-oncology physicians and 45.8% among pediatric intensivists). We found significant rates of emotional exhaustion, with 43.0% of respondents scoring high on this subscale.

The prevalence of secondary traumatic stress was 46.8% (42.5% among hematology-oncology physicians and 50.9% among pediatric intensivists). Physicians in practice over 10 to 15 years had significantly higher rates of secondary traumatic stress (p < 0.05). No other demographic or lifestyle variable was significantly associated with an increased risk of burnout or secondary traumatic stress.

Conclusion: Our study reports concerning rates of burnout and secondary traumatic stress among pediatricians in the specialties of Hematology/Oncology and Pediatric Critical Care Medicine. The results raise concern for better screening and prevention for burnout in these high risk specialties. Promoting recognition of early symptoms is crucial, as well as creating a work environment that promotes mental health.


For millennia, physicians have promised to take care of patients to the best of our abilities. In doing so, physicians make personal sacrifices and face challenging situations, including significant administrative burdens of the electronic medical record; all of which may contribute to burnout (1). This led to the AMA supporting a Charter of Physician Well Being, highlighting the importance of building resilience among physicians (2). The topic of physician burnout as one of the leading stories in 2017 (3). Physicians have a have a higher rate of burnout compared to US workers in other fields (4). Burnout has been defined as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind” (5). Burnout syndrome has 3 key dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of personal accomplishment. These problems can affect not only physicians themselves but also patient care. Studies show that burnout is more common among physicians who are 11-20 years in practice (6). A German study suggests that female senior physicians having children are at the greatest risk for burnout (7).  

Along with burnout, physicians may face post-traumatic stress. It has become increasingly more evident that trauma does not only affect the individual(s) directly involved, but also others around them, including healthcare workers. Thus, the concept of secondary traumatic stress has been defined. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is defined as “the natural, consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (8). STS has been studied in a variety of caregiving populations, including social workers, nurses, chaplains, and child life specialists, but there is only limited to no data on STS among pediatric physicians (9-12).

In studying the prevalence of burnout and secondary traumatic stress among physicians, we would be remiss not to also assess the overall wellbeing of these individuals. Wellbeing is defined as “a relative state where one maximizes his or her physical, mental, and social functioning in the context of supportive environments to live a full, satisfying, and productive life”.  The measurement of wellbeing in all Americans is a Healthy People 2020 objective (13).

We used standardized instruments to assess the prevalence of burnout, the prevalence of secondary post-traumatic stress, and the overall wellbeing of high-risk pediatric physicians. We hypothesized that pediatric critical care physicians and pediatric hematology/oncology physicians would have similarly high rates of burnout, STS and adverse effects on overall wellbeing.


The study was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of Kansas University Medical Center via expedited review. Four questionnaires (Maslach Burnout Scale, Secondary Traumatic Stress, Personal Wellbeing Index, demographic survey) were emailed to the section of critical care medicine and the section on pediatric hematology and oncology of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Reminders to complete the surveys were sent out at 4 and 6 weeks after the initial email. No identifiable data was recorded.

Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) was developed to study burnout syndrome, and has 3 sub scales focusing on the areas of emotional exhaustion (EE), depersonalization (DP) and personal accomplishment (PA). It consists of 22 items on a questionnaire that uses a six point Likert scale (Appendix 1). A high degree of burnout is reflected by high scores on the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization scale in addition to low scores on the personal accomplishment scale. The MBI has been shown to have coefficient alpha between 0.70 to 0.80 in 84 different studies that used the MBI to assess burnout, indicating that the MBI has good internal consistency in low stakes testing (14). Since its initial publication in 1980, the MBI has been shown to adequately assess the presence or absence of burnout in a variety of physician groups (15-19). In our study we defined burnout as the presence of at least one of the following: EE ≥ 37 or DP ≥ 13 or PA < 31 (15).

Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS)

The Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) was developed by Bride and colleagues (20) by using the seventeen symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from the DSM-IV, and has seventeen items that are answered using a five point Likert type scale. It has been found to have an overall coefficient alpha of 0.94. There are three subscales and each subscale has a coefficient alpha as well: intrusion, 0.80; avoidance, 0.87; arousal 0.79.

Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI)

The Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI) scale contains 7 questions, each one addressing a quality of life domain: standard of living, achieving in life, health, relationships, safety, community-connectedness, and future security. In regards to reliability, the Cornbach alpha lies between 0.70 and 0.85 in Australia and overseas and the index has shown good test-retest reliability with an intra-class correlation coefficient of 0.84 (21).

Demographic Survey

The demographic questionnaire is a self-constructed survey with common factors (years in practice, hours of sleep at night, hours of exercise per week, healthy diet, marital status, number of children, religion) that can be associated as a risk versus protective factors for burnout, secondary traumatic stress and overall wellbeing. Each factor had a comment section for qualitative analysis.

Data Analysis

Variables measured on a continuous scale are presented as means with standard deviations. Groups were compared using the Wilcoxon rank sum test and ANOVA on ranks. Categorical measurements are presented as frequencies with percentages. Groups were compared using Fisher’s exact test and chi-square. A value of < 0.05 was considered statistically significant. All analyses were carried out using SAS V9.2 statistical software (SAS Institute, Cary, NC).



Our study population consisted of 231 participants, in which hematology/oncology physicians and pediatric critical care physicians were evenly distributed (45.89% vs 54.1%). Initially the study was sent out to 732 members of AAP section of pediatric critical care and 445 members of the AAP section of hematology and oncology. The response rate was 15.8% among PICU physicians and 26.1% among hematology and oncology physicians. We attribute our low response rate to the automated depersonalized email from a website, rather than individual requests to members. Surveys that were started but were determined to be incomplete were excluded.

The population was gender balanced (female 51.8%, male 48.2 %), but predominantly Caucasian. 82.5% identified themselves as Caucasian, 10.8% as Asian, 0.9% as African American and 5.8% as others. With regard to religion more than half identified themselves as Christians (56.1%) followed by 25.3% who chose not to specify their religion. 11.8% identified themselves as Jewish, 3.6% as Hindus and 3.2% as Muslims. Most of our participants (76.8%) were married. 35.1% had 2 children followed by 22.1% who had no children. This study group mostly consisted of physicians who were > 20 years in practice (40.6%). 75.5% sleep 5-7 hours per night and 58.4% exercise 2-3 times per week. Half of this group (53.1%) claimed to consume a healthy diet (Table 1-2).

Table 1. Demographic Characteristics (n=231)

Table 2. Habits (n=231)

Maslach Burnout Inventory

The overall burnout rate was 46.8% (45.8% among pediatric critical care physicians and 47.8% among hematology/oncology physicians) (Table 3).

Table 3: Comparison of burnout, secondary traumatic stress and wellbeing rates between pediatric critical care and hematology oncology physicians

Almost half of the participants scored high (42.9%) on the emotional exhaustion subscale and 20.2% scored high for depersonalization. 50.5% also scored high on the personal accomplishment scale. 52.4% of burned out physicians were female. One third of physicians at risk for burnout had 2 children, but the number of children did not correlate with an increased risk of burnout. No demographic factors were identified as a risk or a protective factor for the development of burnout.

Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale

STS was defined as a total score of > 38. The rate of STS was 46.7% (Table 3). A higher total STSS score was noted for physicians practicing for 10- 15 years compared to those practicing for 5-10 years (p=0.04) with a higher score on the arousal subscale (p=0.03). Physicians who followed a healthy diet had a lower total STS score (p=0.01) and a lower score on all three subscales. The same group also seems to have higher scores on the wellbeing scale (p=0.01).

Personal Wellbeing Index

A Personal Wellbeing Index score of >35 was defined as a positive score, which means that an individual was satisfied with his personal life. The overall rate of satisfaction was 95.3% (Table 3). There was no significant difference for PWI scores for critical care and hematology/oncology physicians. With regard to hours of sleep per night, there was no significant difference in burnout or STS rate. However, physicians who slept >7h had a higher score on the PWI scale compared to those who sleep 3-5h (p=0.008) and 5-7h (p=0.02). Married physicians scored higher on the wellbeing scale compared to single physicians (p=0.04). Neither the number of children nor any other lifestyle or demographic factors were associated with increased wellbeing.


Our results demonstrate high rates of burnout and secondary traumatic stress in pediatric critical care and pediatric hematology/oncology physicians. This is consistent with recent studies showing that burn out starts during pediatrics residency (18). Fields et al studied burnout rates among PICU physicians 20 years ago and found a rate of 14%, which is significantly lower than our findings. Garcia et al reported a burnout rate of 50% among general pediatricians and pediatric intensivists (19), in line with our findings.  Burn out is not unique to Americans. Other studies have reported a rate of 41% at high risk for burnout among pediatric critical care physicians in Argentina (22).  Interestingly, this study also found the highest rates among academic pediatricians working in a university setting. Comparing with other specialties, surgeons had similar rates of burnout, ranging from 39-41% (4).

Interestingly our study shows that physicians that are in practice for >20 years had higher scores on the depersonalization subscale. This is in contrast to prior studies that showed that physicians in the middle of their career (11-20 years in practice) are at the greatest risk for burnout (4). Another study by Downey et al assessed burnout among anesthesiologists and came to the conclusion that doctors who are 5-15 years in practice are at the greatest risk for burnout. In our study, physicians who are 10-15 years into their careers had higher secondary traumatic stress scores. Unfortunately, there is not much literature to compare our rates of secondary traumatic stress to and available data is mainly focused on military physicians (22).

We did find that a number of factors can mitigate burnout and STS rates. A healthy diet, sleep and religion positively influenced wellbeing and secondary traumatic stress rates. A subjectively healthy diet was associated with decreased total secondary traumatic stress scores and increased scored on the personal wellbeing scale. Consuming fruits and vegetables is associated with lower incidents of depression and higher rates of happiness and higher life satisfaction (23-25). Along with a healthy diet, more than 7 hours of sleep is also associated with physician wellbeing. It is well known that sleep deprivation is associated with decreased cognitive function, memory and reaction time (26).

Burnout poses a risk for the physician and the patient. High scores on the depersonalization and emotional exhaustion subscale are associated with alcohol abuse or dependence (27). Oreskovich et al. (28) sampled 25,073 surgeons, out of which 15.4% were identified to have an alcohol abuse disorder. Participants who were burned out (odds ratio, 1.25; P = .01) and depressed (odds ratio, 1.48; P < .001) were more likely to have alcohol abuse or dependence. Other studies have identified a correlation between burnout rates (specifically emotional exhaustion) and patient safety risks. Clinicians who scored high on the emotional exhaustion subscale of the MBI had higher standardized mortality ratios (29). A Mayo Clinic study also clearly linked burnout with self-perceived medical errors in both internal medicine residents and surgeons (30). In contrast, a recent study conducted in the adult ICU setting established that there is an increased rate of medical errors by depressed physicians, but burn out did not seem to correlate with an increase rate of medical errors (31). Another prospective cohort study done in three children’s hospitals on pediatric residents have had similar results. (32). In our study we did not measure depression or assess for medical errors related with physician burnout. More studies are needed in the future to elicit if burnout leads to an increase rate of medical errors and the potential risks for the patients.

One important limitation of this study is that it was sent to members of the American Academy of Pediatrics, where 40.63% of the physicians are >20 years in practice. This could have skewed the outcomes. One limitation in our study may be that respondents to our survey could be those who are more likely to suffer from burnout and more likely to want to report their issues, or conversely, those most severely affected may have chosen not to participate. We also did not separately analyze burnout and STS against each other, and we presumed that the similar rates were in the same respondents, but that may not be accurate.


The rates of burnout and secondary traumatic stress are high in both pediatric critical care physicians and pediatric hematologist / oncologists. It may be that lifestyle factors, such as a healthy diet, sleep and exercise may serve as protective factors and increase overall wellbeing. Further studies need to be done to assess burnout, secondary traumatic stress rates among other pediatric subspecialties and to analyze proper coping mechanisms.


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 Cite as: Hoehn KS, Abraham M, Gaughan J, Willis BC. Which half are you? Almost half of pediatric oncologists and intensivists are burnt out…… Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(6):167-76. doi: PDF 


Management of Refractory Hypoxemic Respiratory Failure secondary to Diffuse Alveolar Hemorrhage with Venovenous Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation

Evanpaul Gill2

Mohamed A. Fayed1,2,

Elliot Ho1,2

University of California San Francisco - Fresno Medical Education Program

1Pulmonary and Critical Care Division

2Department of Internal Medicine

Fresno, CA USA



Uncontrolled bleeding has been a relative contraindication for the use of venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VV ECMO), but current practice is relatively institution dependent. With the recent advances in circuit technology and anticoagulation practices, the ability to manage patients with ongoing bleeding with ECMO support has increased. We report the case of a 66-year-old patient with refractory hypoxemic respiratory failure secondary to diffuse alveolar hemorrhage (DAH) from underlying anti neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA) associated vasculitis who was successfully supported through his acute illness with VV ECMO. ECMO is often used to manage patients with refractory hypoxemic respiratory failure but the usage in the setting of DAH is less known given the risk of bleeding while receiving anticoagulation. Our patient was successfully managed without anticoagulation during his initial ECMO course and his respiratory failure rapidly improved after cannulation. Once managed through the acute phase of his illness and treatment started for his underlying disease process, anticoagulation was started. After being de-cannulated from ECMO and a 3 week stay in the acute rehabilitation unit, our patient was discharged home with complete recovery from his illness. We highlight that patients with refractory hypoxemic respiratory failure and suspicion of DAH as an etiology, ECMO without anticoagulation should be considered as supportive salvage therapy until the underlying process can be treated.

Case Presentation

A 66-year-old man presented with cough, fever, and dyspnea for 1 week. Upon presentation he was found to be in hypoxemic respiratory failure with bilateral pulmonary infiltrates on chest x ray (Figure 1) and positive testing for Influenza A.

Figure 1. Portable AP of chest on initial presentation showing bilateral infiltrates more prominent on the right.

He had an elevated creatinine of 8.1 mg/dl and an acute anemia with a hemoglobin of 7.4 g/dl during the initial work up. He was intubated on hospital day one and transferred to our center for a higher level of care early morning on hospital day two. He developed refractory hypoxemic respiratory failure despite maximum ventilator support as well as standard acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) treatment including neuromuscular blockade. Prone positioning was not possible secondary to hemodynamic instability during the initial treatment plan. Infectious and autoimmune work up was sent. A thoracic CT scan showed extensive bilateral consolidation (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A representative image from the thoracic CT scan showing extensive bilateral consolidation.

At this point a decision was made to apply venovenous double lumen (VVDL) ECMO support as a supportive salvage therapy pending further evaluation into the etiology of his respiratory failure and ARDS. Etiologies at this point included severe influenza infection and DAH from an underlying vasculitis. Anticoagulation with heparin was not initiated given the significant anemia requiring multiple blood transfusions at that point. BUN was elevated, but no other signs of acute gastrointestinal bleeding were identified. Given the underlying renal failure, continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT) was started on hospital day 2 with citrate used as the anticoagulant. After initiation of ECMO, he improved significantly in the next 72 hours, however, he developed bleeding from the endotracheal tube on day 4. Bronchoscopy was subsequently performed and showed bloody secretions throughout the respiratory bronchial tree, consistent with DAH. His ECMO course had been unremarkable with no thrombotic complications requiring changing of the circuit. Target flows were achieved with a Cardiohelp centrifugal pump and his Avalon 31F double lumen catheter was without complication. On day 5, his autoimmune panel showed a positive ANCA, with myeloperoxidase elevated at 82 AU/ml and serine protease elevated at 314 AU/ml. His anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) was also positive with his titer at 1:2,560. After rheumatology consultation, he was diagnosed with ANCA associated vasculitis with pulmonary hemorrhage and renal failure. His influenza infection was thought to be the trigger for the exacerbation of his underlying autoimmune disease. He was initiated on pulse dose steroids and plasmapheresis with significant clinical improvement and was de-cannulated from ECMO on day 8 with extubation following shortly afterward. He later had renal biopsy performed and it showed diffuse crescentic glomerulonephritis secondary to ANCA vasculitis. He was able to discontinue dialysis after requiring 8 days of CRRT and a further 3 weeks of intermittent hemodialysis. A chest x-ray showed complete clearing of the consolidation (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Chest x-ray just prior to discharge showing complete clearing of the consolidations.

He was eventually discharged home after a 3-week period in acute inpatient rehab.  


VV ECMO is increasingly being used as a viable treatment option in patients with refractory acute respiratory failure, especially in patients with underlying ARDS. The ability to allow lung protective ventilation by use of an extracorporeal circuit is of significant value in the acute phase of severe respiratory failure. The general principle of VV ECMO involves removing deoxygenated blood from a venous catheter and passing it through a closed circuit which is comprised of a centrifugal pump and membrane oxygenator (1). This membrane oxygenator takes over the function of the diseased lungs and allows gas exchange to occur, mainly oxygenating the blood and removing carbon dioxide.1 This blood is then returned into the venous circulation and eventually makes it to the systemic circulation to oxygenate the tissues.

Given that native blood is being passed through an artificial circuit, the risk for thromboembolism is thought to be relatively high. The pathophysiology behind this risk stems from contact of blood components with the artificial surface of the ECMO circuit (2). Proteins found in blood, mainly albumin and fibrinogen, will stick to the artificial surface (2). This results in other blood components congregating, which leads to the formation of a protein layer that servers as an anchor for platelet activation and the formation of insoluble fibrin clots (2). Given the risk of thromboembolism, Extracorporeal Life Support (ELSO) guidelines recommend routine anticoagulation for patients undergoing extracorporeal support (3).

The major complications regarding anticoagulation in the setting of ECMO is bleeding (4). The risk generally comes from acquired thrombocytopenia and anticoagulation (2). ELSO has guidelines regarding management of anticoagulation in VV ECMO but the current practice is relatively institution dependent. This was highlighted in a systematic review done by Sklar and colleagues (4) that investigated many different approaches to anticoagulation for patients on VV ECMO. The main anticoagulant used in those studies was unfractionated heparin and the means to measure its effect was activated clotting time (ACT) and partial thromboplastin time (PTT). They concluded that currently there is no high-quality data that can be employed in decision making regarding anticoagulation for patient’s on VV ECMO support for respiratory failure and that randomized controlled trials are needed for high quality evidence (4). Our own institution’s protocol uses unfractionated Heparin for anticoagulation with a PTT goal of 60-80.

The traditional risk of anticoagulation with ECMO has improved as the component technology of the ECMO circuit has progressed (2). Development of heparin coated inner tubing along with shorter circuit lengths are recent strategies that have been employed to help decrease the amount of thrombotic complications (2). ECLS guidelines state that patients can be managed without anticoagulation if bleeding cannot be controlled with other measures and that the use of high flow rates is recommended to help prevent thrombotic complications (3). The strategies mentioned above are non-chemical ways of preventing thrombosis and could potentially allow management of VV ECMO patients without anticoagulation for the initial period. This was demonstrated in a case report done by Muellenbach and colleagues (5). In their case series, they describe three cases of trauma patients with intracranial bleeding and severe ARDS refractory to conventional mechanical ventilation that were managed with VV ECMO without systemic anticoagulation for a prolonged time period. In their situation, anticoagulation could not be given secondary to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and intracranial bleeding (5). They stated that because newer circuits are completely coated by heparin and because circuit lengths have been shortened by specialized diagonal pumps and oxygenators, systemic anticoagulation can be reduced (5)

VV ECLS, as mentioned above, is commonly used in acute respiratory failure but use of VVECLS in DAH is a less known use due to the risk of anticoagulation in this clinical setting. Per ECLS guidelines, one of the relative contraindications for initiation of ECLS is risk of systemic bleeding from anticoagulation (3), and patients with DAH definitely fit this risk profile. But as mentioned above; with improving shortened ECMO circuits, use of heparin coated tubing, and high flow rates, the ability to initially manage patients without systemic anticoagulation until they are stabilized is very important in clinical settings such as our patient with DAH. Many case reports have been published that highlight the successful management of acute respiratory failure due to DAH with VV ECMO (6,7). Our patient was initially managed without systemic anticoagulation and required multiple blood transfusions given the significant bleeding appreciated from the endotracheal tube. Once the diagnosis of ANCA related DAH was made and the appropriate treatment initiated, bleeding significantly decreased and the patient was able to be started on anticoagulation. This highlights that patients with suspicion of DAH as an etiology of respiratory failure not be excluded from consideration VV ECMO as supportive salvage therapy given the potential for great clinical outcome if managed through the acute phase of bleeding.


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  3. Brogan TV, Lequier L, Lorusso R, MacLaren G, Peek G. Extracorporeal Life Support: The ELSO Red Book. Fifth Edition. Extracorporeal Life Support Organization; 2017. Thomas V. Brogan and Laurance Lequier (eds).
  4. Sklar MC, Sy E, Lequier L, Fan E, Kanji HD. Anticoagulation practices during venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for respiratory failure. A systematic review. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2016 Dec;13(12):2242-50. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Muellenbach RM, Kredel M, Kunze E, Kranke P, Kuestermann J, Brack A, Gorski A, Wunder C, Roewer N, Wurmb T. Prolonged heparin-free extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in multiple injured acute respiratory distress syndrome patients with traumatic brain injury. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 May;72(5):1444-7. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Abrams D, Agerstrand CL, Biscotti M, Burkart KM, Bacchetta M, Brodie D. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in the management of diffuse alveolar hemorrhage. ASAIO J. 2015 Mar-Apr;61(2):216-8. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
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Cite as: Gill E, Fayed MA, Ho E. Management of refractory hypoxemic respiratory failure secondary to diffuse alveolar hemorrhage with venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(5):135-40. doi: PDF


Amniotic Fluid Embolism: A Case Study and Literature Review

Ryan J Elsey DO1*, Mary K Moats-Biechler OMS-IV2, Michael W Faust MD3, Jennifer A Cooley CRNA-APRN4, Sheela Ahari MD4, and Douglas T Summerfield MD1

Departments of Internal Medicine1,Obstetrics and Gynecology3,and Anesthesia4

1Mercy Medical Center—North Iowa

Mason City, IA USA

2A.T. Still University

Kirksville, MO USA



Amniotic fluid embolus is a rare and life threatening peripartum complication that requires quick recognition and emergent interdisciplinary management to provide the best chance of a positive outcome for the mother and infant. The following case study demonstrates the importance of quick recognition as well as an interdisciplinary approach in caring for such a condition.  A literature review regarding the current recommendations for management of this condition follows as well as a proposed treatment algorithm.


Amniotic fluid embolus (AFE) is a rare and life-threatening complication of pregnancy; a recent population-based review found an estimated incidence ranging from 1 in 15,200 deliveries in North America and 1 in 53,800 deliveries in Europe (1). Mortality rates vary but have been reported to range from 11% to more than 60%, with the most recent population-based studies in the United States reporting a 21.6% fatality rate (1-4).  Despite best efforts, it remains one of the leading causes of maternal death (1,5,6). However, rapid diagnosis of AFE and immediate obstetric and intensive care has proven to play a decisive role in maternal prognosis and survival (7-9).

In 2016, uniform diagnostic criteria were proposed for reporting on cases of AFE. First, a report of AFE requires a sudden onset of cardiorespiratory arrest, which consists of both hypotension (systolic blood pressure < 90 mmHg) and respiratory compromise (dyspnea, cyanosis, or SpO2 < 90%). Secondly, overt disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) must be documented following the appearance of signs or symptoms using a standardized scoring system. Coagulopathy must be detected prior to a loss of sufficient blood to account for dilutional or shock-related consumptive coagulopathy. Third, the clinical onset must occur during labor or within 30 minutes of delivery of the placenta. Fourth, no fever ≥ 38.0° C during labor can occur (10).

The following case study qualifies as a reportable incidence of an AFE under the above criteria and further demonstrates the ability to successfully stabilize a patient with AFE due to quick recognition, interdisciplinary cooperation, and effective supportive management.

Case Presentation

A 34-year-old gravida 5, para 1-1-2-2, presented at 36 weeks and 1-day gestation for induction of labor. Her past medical history included esophageal atresia at birth and a past pregnancy complicated by preterm, premature rupture of the membranes. Initial labs at admission were significant for a hemoglobin of 12.2 g/dL and a platelet count of 234 x103 u/L. The patient was subsequently started on lactated ringers at 125 ml/hr. As the patient's labor progressed, an epidural was placed 3 hours after admission. Four hours and 42 minutes after admission, an artificial rupture of the membranes was performed.

Eighteen minutes after the artificial rupture of the membranes was performed, the patient was noted to have seizure-like activity. She was given an intravenous (IV) fluid bolus and ephedrine, and the anesthesia provider was emergently contacted. When anesthesia arrived, the patient was noted to be cyanotic in bed. Patient vitals and exam were significant for emesis, a heart rate of 50 beats per minute (bpm), systolic blood pressure in the low 70s (mmHg), and a fetal heart rate in the 70s.

The differential diagnosis at this time was broad and included anesthesia drug reactions such as an intravascular epidural migration, pulmonary thromboembolism, eclampsia, or even an aortic dissection. A pulmonary embolism was felt to be unlikely due to the patient's bradycardia and sudden neurologic changes. Eclampsia was less likely at the time due to no signs of pre-eclampsia in the patient as well as the patient's current bradycardia and hypotension. Given the patient's absence of Marfan syndrome, aortic dissection was not considered to be a high probability. The patient did have signs consistent with an intravascular epidural including altered mental status, cyanosis, bradycardia, hypotension, vomiting, and a low fetal heart rate. However, at the time anesthesia felt she was more likely suffering from an acute embolic process given the timeframe between the artificial rupture of the membranes and the onset of her symptoms.

Given the patient's instability, she was emergently taken for a cesarean section and intubated to provide airway stabilization. The cesarean section began 15 minutes after seizure like symptoms started and upon delivery, the infant was subsequently transferred to a tertiary center for therapeutic hypothermia.

Intraoperatively, the patient was noted to maintain a peripheral capillary oxygen saturation (SpO2) of >90%. However, end tidal C02 was elevated to 54 mmHg despite hyperventilation and peak airway pressures were elevated to 38 cmH2O. Albuterol and sevoflurane were subsequently utilized in an attempt to increase bronchodilation. Following completion of the caesarian section, peak airway pressures normalized to less than 30 cmH2O but end tidal CO2 levels remained as high as 52 mmHg despite hyperventilation. Blood pressure was significant for systolic pressure of 80 mmHg.  IV phenylephrine was administered. Additionally, uterine massage was performed to aid in hemorrhage control and the patient was administered IV oxytocin, methylergonovine maleate, carboprost, and vaginal misoprostol.  A repeat complete blood count was performed one hour after symptom onset which showed a hemoglobin of 10.3 g/dL and a platelet count of 103 x103 u/L.

In this case, the patient’s care team had a high suspicion of an AFE with symptoms that followed the uniform diagnostic criteria for an AFE. The patient had hemodynamic instability, coinciding with the recent rupture of membranes. Her systolic blood pressure was < 90 mmHg and her end tidal C02 levels (in mmHg) were elevated to the high 40s and low 50s. The critical care team was notified of her condition and the patient was subsequently transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on mechanical ventilation and sedated with fentanyl and versed.

Upon arrival to the ICU, a DIC panel was performed revealing DIC. Labs showed a fibrinogen level of 52 mg/dL, A D-dimer greater than 128,000 ng/mL, and a platelet count of 80,000 u/L despite the administration of one pooled unit of platelets. The patient's international normalized ratio (INR) was 1.3 with a baseline INR of 0.9. Due to multiple laboratory abnormalities and a clinical condition consistent with DIC, aggressive transfusions were performed per the standard of care for patients suffering with DIC. A peripheral smear was obtained revealing schistocytes (Figure 1) which verified the DIC diagnosis.

Figure 1. The patient's peripheral blood smear four hours after onset of symptoms which demonstrates schistocytes indicative of DIC.

Hematology was emergently consulted and it was recommended to avoid additional platelet transfusions unless platelet counts dropped below 10,000 to 20,000 u/L. One milligram (mg) of subcutaneous phytonadione was also given five hours after symptom onset in an effort to decrease bleeding.

Cardiology was consulted and performed an emergent echocardiogram to assess the patient’s heart function and rule out any cardiac abnormalities. Given her past history of esophageal atresia, there was particular concern about an underlying ventricular septal defect, patent ductus arteriosus, or tetralogy of Fallot (11). The echocardiogram revealed a dilated, yet functional right ventricle, which was expected in the setting of an AFE. ICU physicians at a tertiary care center were provisionally consulted to confirm that the patient was a candidate for arteriovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (AV-ECMO) should she suffer further cardiopulmonary collapse. Labs, including hemoglobin, platelets, fibrinogen activity, and ionized calcium were drawn every two hours during the acute phase of the patient's management and abnormalities were addressed as required over the subsequent two hours. The patient's hemoglobin was noted to decline to as low as 6.7 g/dL. Of note, lab draws did suffer some sample lysis due to the patient's coagulation abnormalities. The patient did initially require phenylephrine for blood pressure support. Additionally, she was placed on an experimental septic shock protocol which involved the administration of 1500 mg of ascorbic acid every six hours, 60 mg of methylprednisolone every six hours, and 200 mg of thiamine every 12 hours. The patient began to stabilize around 10 to 12 hours after her AFE symptoms began and pressor support was titrated off, at which point blood draws were liberalized to every four hours. The patient continued to improve and remained stable overnight. 

On hospital day two, the patient was noted to be alert and was successfully extubated. Following extubation, the physical exam found her to be neurologically and hemodynamically intact. During her stay in the ICU, the patient received a total of eight units of packed red blood cells, five units of fresh frozen plasma, one pooled unit of platelets, and one unit of cryoprecipitate. The patient was ultimately discharged from the hospital on day four with no long-term sequelae noted.

The patient was informed that data from the case would be submitted for publication and gave her consent.

A Review of the Literature

AFE remains one of the leading causes of direct, maternal mortality among developed countries (1,12,13). Multiple reviews have studied the incidence of AFE, which varies widely, from 1.9 per 100,000 to 7.7 per 100,000 pregnancies, with the reported fatality rate due to AFE ranging from 11% to more than 60%, depending on the study (1,2,4,14). The difficulty in reporting an accurate incidence and fatality rate is likely secondary to the fact that AFE remains a diagnosis of exclusion. AFE is traditionally diagnosed clinically during labor in a woman with ruptured membranes and a triad of symptoms, including unexplained cardiovascular collapse, respiratory distress, and DIC. (1,2,15-18). Additional symptoms may include hypotension, frothing from the mouth, fetal heart rate abnormalities, loss of consciousness, bleeding, uterine atony, and seizure-like activity (15,16,19).

The majority of women who fail to survive an AFE die during the acute phase (median of one hour and 42 minutes after presentation) (2,6). Surviving beyond the acute phase dramatically improves their overall chance of survival; however, survival is not without long term morbidities. Analysis performed in the United Kingdom in 2005 and again in 2015 showed that 7% of woman surviving AFE have permanent neurological injury, including persistent vegetative state/anoxic/hypoxic brain injury or cerebrovascular accident (2,7). Among survivors,17% were shown to have other comorbidities, including sepsis, renal failure, thrombosis or pulmonary edema and 21% required a hysterectomy (2,6).

Despite several decades of research, the pathogenesis of an AFE continues to remain somewhat clouded. Multiple theories have been postulated concerning the clinical manifestations occurring with an AFE and their relationship with the passage of amniotic fluid into the systemic maternal circulation. The first theory proposed described amniotic debris passing through the veins of the endocervix and into maternal circulation, resulting in an obstruction (1,6). This theory has fallen out of favor as there is no physical evidence of obstruction noted on radiologic studies, autopsies, or experimentally in animal models (1,20,21).  Additionally, multiple studies have found that that the passage of amniotic and fetal cells into maternal circulation are very common during pregnancy and delivery (6). Thus, most theories today focus on humoral and immunological factors and how they affect the body (5,22,23).  Current research focuses on the effect of amniotic fluid on the body after it has already entered into maternal circulation. It is theorized that the amniotic fluid results in the release of various endogenous mediators, resulting in the physiologic changes that are seen with an AFE. Proposed mediators include histamine (22), bradykinin (24), endothelin (25,26), leukotrienes (27), and arachidonic acid metabolites (28).

The hemodynamic response to AFE is biphasic in nature. It consists of vasospasm, resulting in severe pulmonary hypertension, and intense vasoconstriction of the pulmonary vasculature secondary to the amniotic fluid itself, which can lead to ventilation-perfusion mismatch and resultant hypoxia (5,6,29). On an echocardiogram, the initial phase of an AFE consists of right ventricular failure demonstrated by a severely dilated, hypokinetic right ventricle with deviation of the interventricular septum into the left ventricle (18). Following the initial phase of right ventricular failure, which can lasts minutes to hours, left ventricular failure along with cardiogenic, pulmonary edema becomes the prominent finding (1,5). This occurs due to a reduction in preload as well as systemic hypotension. These changes may decrease coronary artery perfusion, which can result in myocardial injury, precipitation of cardiogenic shock, and worsening of distributive shock (1,6,30).

DIC is present in up to 83% of patients experiencing an AFE; however, its onset during presentation can be variable (31). It may present within the first ten minutes following cardiovascular collapse, or it may precipitate up to nine hours following the initial clinical manifestation (5,31,32). The precipitating pathophysiology behind DIC in AFE is poorly understood, but is likely to be consumptive, rather than fibrinolytic, in nature. In an AFE it is currently theorized that tissue factor, which is present in amniotic fluid, activates the extrinsic pathway by binding with factor VII, triggering clotting to occur by activating factor X, resulting in the consumptive coagulopathy (1,33-35). Ultimately, it is felt that this coagulation leads to vasoconstriction of the microvasculature and thrombosis by producing thrombin that is secreted into the endothelin, leading to the changes seen in DIC (1,5,6,14,18).

Recommended Management for AFE Based on Current Literature

Early recognition of AFE and immediate obstetric and intensive care has proven to play a decisive role in maternal prognosis and survival (7,8).  In order to survive an an AFE, patients require immediate multidisciplinary management with a focus on maintaining oxygenation, circulatory support, and correcting coagulopathy (1,6).  

A literature review of the current management for patients presenting with AFE recommends standard initial lifesaving supportive care. This should begin with immediate protection of the patient's airway via endotracheal intubation and early, sufficient oxygenation using an optimized positive end-expiratory pressure (FiO2:PEEP) ratio, which also decreases the risk of aspiration (1,5,29). Two large bore IV lines should be placed for crystalloid fluid resuscitation. In the setting of a cardiopulmonary arrest, cardiopulmonary resuscitation should be initiated and an immediate caesarian section within three to five minutes should be performed in the presence of a fetus ≥ 23 weeks gestation (5,18,36-38). This serves several purposes, including decreasing the risk of the infant suffering from long term neurologic injury secondary to hypoxia, improving venous flow to the right heart by emptying the uterus, and reducing pressure on the inferior vena cava to decrease impedance to blood flow, which decreases systemic blood pressure (1,5,31,39,40).

During the initial phase, attention should be paid to avoid hypoxia, acidosis, and hypercapnia due to their ability to increase pulmonary vascular resistance and lead to worsening of right heart failure and recommendations include sildenafil, inhaled or injected prostacyclin, and inhaled nitric oxide (6). Recommendations to treat for hypotension during this phase include the utilization of vasopressors, such as norepinephrine or vasopressin (1,6,18,37,41). Hemodynamic management during the second phase should focus on the patient's left-sided heart failure by optimizing cardiac preload via vasopressors to maintain perfusion and utilizing inotropes such as dobutamine or milrinone to increase left ventricular contractility (1,6,18).

Due to the relationship between AFE and DIC, current recommendations suggest early assessment of the patient's coagulation status. Additionally, in the setting of a massive hemorrhage, blood product administration should not be delayed while awaiting laboratory results (18). Early corrective management of the patient's coagulopathy should be aggressive in nature, especially in the setting of a massive hemorrhage. Tranexamic acid and fibrinogen concentrate (for fibrinogen levels below 2 g/L) are essential in the treatment of hyper-fibrinolysis. Additionally, multiple obstetric case studies have shown fibrinogen replacement to benefit from bedside rotational thromboelastometry if available due to its ability to rapidly diagnosis consumptive versus fibrinolytic coagulopathy at the bedside (5,42,43). Hemostatic resuscitation with packed red blood cells, fresh-frozen plasma, and platelets at a ratio of 1:1:1 should be administered (6,18). Cryoprecipitate replacement is recommended as well due to the consumptive nature of DIC in AFE, and its importance should not be understated. A 2015 population-based cohort study showed that women with AFE who died or had permanent neurologic injury were less likely to have received cryoprecipitate than those who survived and were without permanent neurologic injury (1,2).  Furthermore, due to the dynamic processes of chemodynamical labs, including hemoglobin, platelet count, and fibrinogen must be monitored closely to prevent complications or over transfusion (14).

Uterine atony is a common feature with AFE and it is recommended to immediately administer uterotonics during the postpartum period to prevent its occurrence (5,44). Should it occur, uterine atony should be managed aggressively via uterotonics such as oxytocin, ergot derivatives, and prostaglandins; refractory cases may require packing material for uterine tamponade, uterine artery ligation, or even a hysterectomy for the most severe (5,8,18).

In addition to the treatments listed above, multiple case reports support the use of aggressive or novel therapeutic modalities to aid in the treatment of AFE; however, for many of the treatments, evidence supporting increased survival of an AFE is merely anecdotal (18). Among the best supported ancillary treatments is nonarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation as a possible therapeutic treatment for patients with refractory acute respiratory distress syndrome. However, due to the profoundly coagulopathic state of AFE and the active hemorrhage occurring with AFE, the use of anticoagulation may profoundly worsen bleeding. Consequently, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is controversial and not routinely recommended in the management of AFE (6,18). Similarly, post-cardiac arrest therapeutic hypothermia with a range of 32°C to 34°C is often avoided in patients with AFE due to the increased risk of hemorrhage given their predisposition for DIC (18). However, in patients not demonstrating DIC and overt bleeding, targeted temperature management to 36°C and preventing hyperthermia is an option that should be considered (17,45,46). Factor VIIa procoagulant, which increases thrombin formation, has been utilized anecdotally, but strong supporting data is lacking; it should only be considered if following the replacement with massive coagulation factors, hemostasis and bleeding fail to improve (5,47).  Additionally, it is important to note that factor VIIa replacement is only effective if other clotting factors have been replaced (1,6,48,49). Novel therapeutic modalities mentioned in the literature also include continuous hemofiltration, cardiopulmonary bypass, nitric oxide, steroids, C1 esterase inhibitor concentrate, and plasma exchange transfusion. While there are case reports published to suggest that all of the aforementioned therapies may provide some level of improvement in patients with AFE, the positive results from these cases may be due to their administration during the intermediate phase of AFE as opposed to the acute phase of AFE, where the majority of mortality occurs—once patients have surpassed the early, acute phase, survival chances greatly improve with continued supportive care (1,6).

AFE has traditionally been viewed as a condition associated with poor outcomes and a high mortality rate for both the mother and the infant. However, with quick AFE recognition, high quality supportive care, and interdisciplinary cooperation, patients can have positive outcomes. Based on the success with the patient presented in this case and the review of the current literature as seen above, the authors have proposed an algorithm (Figure 2) for the treatment of future patients experiencing AFE.

Figure 2. Proposed interdisciplinary treatment algorithm for acute management of an AFE.

By following the algorithm, the authors believe that the outcomes for AFE patients can be improved.


PEEP: positive end-expiratory pressure; BP: blood pressure; TV: tidal volume; ACLS: Advanced cardiac life support; ABG: Arterial blood gas; CBC: Complete blood count; CMP: Complete metabolic profile; INR: International normalized ratio; PTT: Partial prothrombin time; ART line: Arterial line; NO: Nitric oxide; ARDS: Acute respiratory distress syndrome; ECMO: Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation; FFP: Fresh frozen plasma; Plt: Platelet; pRBCs: Packed red blood cells; NE: Norepinephrine.


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Cite as: Elsey RJ, Moats-Biechler MK, Faust MW, Cooley JA, Ahari S, Summerfield DT. Amniotic fluid embolism: A case study and literature review. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(4):94-105. doi: PDF