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A training program is making surgery easier on veterans and safer for health care staff

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One day at his job at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VA), nurse anesthetist William Pileggi (NURS ’97G) was with a patient who was coming out of anesthesia after surgery. The patient woke abruptly, reached through the side rails of his stretcher and shoved Pileggi to the ground as he shouted, “Get down! You’re gonna get shot!”

The patient had woken up in a disoriented state, unaware of where he was, in an episode of emergence delirium (ED). ED occurs when patients emerge from general anesthesia agitated, confused or — in some cases — aggressive. This patient also was a combat veteran with

a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which research shows put him at a high risk for emergence delirium. The incidence of ED in adult combat veterans has been reported to be as high as 27%, compared to only 5% within the general population.

Pileggi, a veteran himself, has seen patients thrash on the bed, remove their IV line, self-extubate and even injure hospital staff without realizing what’s happening.

“They go to sleep in Pittsburgh but wake up in Iraq,” he says.

The problem has slowly been gaining attention. In the 2010s, two nurses at the VA started a program called Project Golden Eagle that helped to identify patients with PTSD. Those patients were placed in quiet rooms and given a gold surgical cap, instead of the usual blue, so that staff would be aware of the heightened risk of ED.

Still, when Pileggi joined the VA in 2016, he and his colleagues would encounter ED an average of twice a week. It was distressing to the staff, who feared for their own safety, as well as to the patients, who were thrust back into a state of fear and trauma from past experiences. He knew something more needed to be done.

So, in 2017, he teamed up with behavioral health and education specialists David Julian and Michael Boland, as well as fellow nurse anesthetist Amanda Beckstead (NURS ’15, ’20G) to research more, strategize improved practices and create a training program for better assessment and screening for patients with PTSD. Their group — the PTSD/Emergence Delirium Training and Response Team — discovered that certain anesthesia drugs affect the neurocircuitry of the brain in PTSD patients more than others.

In people who have experienced trauma, the amygdala (which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response) often is perpetually hyperactive, and the hippocampus — which controls emotional memory — does not function optimally. Commonly used anesthetics like benzodiazepines and volatile inhalants are particularly dangerous for trauma patients, due to the way they blunt reactions in the amygdala and hippocampus and wear off quickly. Thus, the team’s plan emphasized using alternative anesthetics and tailoring the dosage and timing of particular drugs to each individual’s risk factors.

They also created preassessment questions to identify patients with a history of PTSD (even if undocumented), what triggers might activate a bad response and how to help those patients wake up with ease.

Finally, they compiled the research into a training program that was required for all perioperative hospital staff, complete with recorded demonstrations and hands-on practice.

The effects were almost immediate: The incidence rate of ED plummeted to 2.7% in high-risk PTSD patients, and in 2019 and 2020, there were no cases of staff injuries, lost airways or lost IVs. Pileggi saw patients cry with gratitude that their worst fears about waking up didn’t happen.

In recognition of their impact, the team won a 2020 Gears of Government Award from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a 2021 I Am Patient Safety Achievement Award from Pennsylvania’s Patient Safety Authority. Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country are now requesting the training program. Pileggi also was recognized as a 2020 Excellence in Education awardee by the National APRN Council.

In the end, it’s about patient care. “Our home run is making that wake up better,” says Pileggi.

This story appears in the latest Pitt Nurse magazine, which will be hitting mailboxes soon. Photos courtesy of William Pileggi and the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System