EKG case: Is a patient in shock because of hyperthermia

What's your assessment and care for patient who has no palpable pulse, hypotension and reduced level of consciousness?

Article updated July 28, 2017

You are dispatched to the street corner of a large outdoor street fair, amid a substantial crowd of people. Your patient is a 52–year-old female who complains of feeling dizzy. Having responded to numerous dizzy/fainting calls that are typical of high temperatures, you adjust your preparations to account for this seemingly routine call. You and your partner bring a monitor, oxygen, and IV supplies, leaving the rest behind in the ambulance, which is several hundred yards away from the patient. You think, “Why carry what you don't need?” Fifteen minutes after dispatch, you arrive at the scene.

Patient presentation: Woman in Shock

As you and your partner push through the crowd, someone runs up to you and helps guide you to the patient. You find a fit-looking 52-year-old female sitting down on a stool provided by a street vendor. Her complexion appears very pale, her eyes are closed and she responds to your assessment questions slowly but clearly. Giving your partner a nod, a gurney is prepared for the patient. You reach down to assess her radial pulse.

You find that you are unable to feel a radial pulse, which fits perfectly with her presentation so far. You decide to move her to the gurney right away, thinking that placing her in a reclined position might improve her condition. She is able to make the transfer with some assistance, but appears ready to lose consciousness at any moment. Again, you attempt the radial pulse and do not get one.

Primary assessment:

The patient's skin is pale, hot and dry. Her carotid pulse is thready and her heart rate is too fast to measure by palpation. A pulse oximeter is unable to detect a pulse. She appears to be in moderate distress with a rapid respiratory rate. You connect her to a 3-lead monitor and see an extremely rapid rhythm that appears to be wide and irregular. However, you are unsure due to significant glare caused by sunlight hitting the monitor.

You inform the patient that you are going to check her pulse on her neck. Without saying a word of instruction, your partner slips a nasal cannula over her nose and then spikes a 1000 mL bag of normal saline. Your partner hands you an 18-gauge catheter. You record the following assessment:

Patient's vital signs:

Heart Rate: Too fast to count properly 
Respirations: 28 rpm
Blood Pressure: 78 by palpation 
SpO2: not reading  
Pain: 3/10

Past medical history:

Gall bladder surgery
Two C-section births


No known drug allergies 


Tylenol for occasional pain
Supplemental vitamins 

Feeling unsatisfied with the findings so far, you decide to quickly start an IV in order to infuse as much fluid as possible while moving the patient to the ambulance. It takes two attempts due to flat veins, but an antecubital access is eventually obtained. With the IV running wide open, you ask a nearby police officer to help clear a pathway to the ambulance; you need to get there quickly.

Several minutes later, you push the gurney carrying the patient into the ambulance and your partner starts up the engine to get the air conditioning running and the interior lights powered. The patient’s condition has not changed and after 500 mL's of fluid, she still does not have a palpable radial pulse. You quickly acquire a 12-lead and your partner climbs in the back to assist. The following printout is what you have to work with.

Initial EKG (click for larger image):

You acquire a 12-lead EKG.


Above is the EKG that you are given. The computed interpretation is not available. We encourage you to print out the EKG and use calipers to completely analyze it. Remember to complete your interpretation using the steps recommended by the EKG Club.

Clearly this patient is not responding well to treatment and needs an intervention before she suffers an ischemic cardiac event. Her altered level of consciousness and rapid heart rate should help you determine the urgency with which she will be treated. Your continued assessment and actions will determine the outcome of this patient.

Consider these questions about the patient's condition and best course of treatment. 

  • Was the fluid challenge of diagnostic benefit?
  • What is the rhythm? How do you know?
  • What should be the subsequent steps in her treatment? Why?
  • Would you have done something different up until this point? If so, what and why?

Patient follow-up: Treatment of WPW syndrome

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