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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)

Severe Accidental Hypothermia in Phoenix? Active Rewarming Using 
   Thoracic Lavage
Left Ventricular Assist Devices: A Brief Overview
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


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.



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.


  1. Brodie D, Bacchetta M. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for ARDS in adults. N Engl J Med. 2011 Nov 17;365(20):1905-14. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  2. Mulder M, Fawzy I, Lance MD. ECMO and anticoagulation: a comprehensive review. Neth J Crit Care. 2018;26:6-13.
  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]
  7. Patel JJ, Lipchik RJ. Systemic lupus-induced diffuse alveolar hemorrhage treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation: a case report and review of the literature. J Intensive Care Med. 2014 Mar-Apr;29(2):104-9. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

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 


April 2019 Critical Care Case of the Month: A Severe Drinking Problem

Francisco J. Marquez II MD

Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine

Banner University Medical Center/University of Arizona – 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): Franciso Marquez, 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

A 55-year-old Caucasian man, presented to an outside hospital with altered mental status.

Past Medical/Social History

  • Severe alcohol and intermittent fentanyl abuse
  • Homelessness

Physical Exam

  • Hypothermic and hypertensive.
  • Patient encephalopathic without any acute deficits
  • Pupils are normal sized and react to light

Which of the following should be obtained or done in his initial evaluation? (Click on the correct answer to proceed to the second of six pages)

  1. CBC
  2. Electrolytes
  3. Give naloxone (Narcan®) and glucose
  4. 1 and 3
  5. All of the above

Cite as: Marquez FJ II. April 2019 critical care case of the month: A severe drinking problem. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(4):67-73. doi: PDF 


Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: An Unexpected Target Lesion

Jantsen Smith, MD

Department of Internal Medicine

University of New Mexico Hospital

Albuquerque, NM USA


A 39-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital for shortness of breath. Her medical history was significant for human immunodeficiency virus infection (not on anti-retroviral therapy), superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome with history of SVC stenting, cerebrovascular accident complicated by seizure disorder and swallowing difficulties, moderate pulmonary hypertension, end-stage renal disease on hemodialysis with past episodes of acute hypoxic respiratory failure related to fluid overload. Shortly after admission, the patient experienced a cardiac arrest due to hypoxia and necessitated emergent intubation. This was presumed to be due to fluid overload. Nephrology was consulted for emergent dialysis (the patient had a right upper extremity fistula for dialysis access). Dialysis was initiated through a right arm fistula. On day three of admission, the patient was noted to have worsening right upper extremity and breast swelling and pain. Physical exam revealed indurated edema of the skin of the breast. Point of care ultrasound was performed of the patient’s right neck, and the following ultrasound was obtained approximately 4cm above the clavicle in the right lateral neck.

Video 1. Ultrasound image of the right neck in the transverse plane.

What is the most likely cause of this patient’s right upper extremity and breast swelling? (Click on the correct answer for an explanation).

  1. Right breast cellulitis
  2. Ascending SVC thrombus
  3. Lymphatic blockage of right axillary nodes
  4. Fluid overload complicated by third spacing in the R upper extremity

Cite as: Smith J. Ultrasound for critical care physicians: An unexpected target lesion. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(3):63-4. doi: PDF


January 2019 Critical Care Case of the Month: A 32-Year-Old Woman with Cardiac Arrest

Sarah A. Watkins, DO1

Geoffrey Smelski, PharmD1

Robert N.E. French, MD1

Michael Insel, MD2

Janet Campion MD2

1Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center and 2Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep

University of Arizona

Tucson, 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): Sarah Watkins, DOAll 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

A 32-year-old woman with history of chronic neck pain and opioid abuse complained of dizziness and palpitations shortly before suffering a witnessed cardiac arrest in her home. She was given bystander cardiopulmonary resuscitation until emergency medical services arrived on scene, at which point intermittent polymorphic ventricular tachycardia with a pulse was noted on the cardiac monitor and physical exam (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Rhythm strips showing ventricular tachycardia (A) and a prolonged QT interval (B).

Which of the following is (are) the most likely cause(s) of the cardiac arrythmia? (Click on the correct answer to be directed to the second of seven pages)

  1. Cardiomyopathy
  2. Coronary artery disease
  3. Drug-induced arrythmia
  4. 1 and 3
  5. All of the above

Cite as: Watkins SA, Smelski G, French RNE, Insel M, Campion J. January 2019 critical care case of the month: A 32-year-old woman with cardiac arrest. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(1):1-7. doi: PDF