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When a patient is described as having “coded,” this generally refers to cardiac arrest. In such a case, urgent life-saving measures are indicated. This can happen within and outside of medical facilities. The benefit of the occurrence in a professional health care setting is that policies and guidelines are in place to address this life-threatening crisis. What follows is the perspective of responding to a code from an ER nurse.

Just as every patient is different, so is every code. The causes and outcomes of every code have to do with the characteristics of the patient in question: the history of present illness and, of course, their comorbidities. Timothy Wrede, RN, is a long-time emergency and critical care nurse in the suburbs of New York City, as well as a former EMT who has seen his fair share of codes. According to Wrede, nothing matters during a code so much as the team that responds to it. “It is imperative to ensure that a good team of doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff are working together efficiently in order to achieve resuscitation of spontaneous circulation (ROSC),” says Wrede. 

According to Wrede, a veteran of level-I trauma care, when it comes to staffing a code, less is more. Studies suggest that thirteen is the maximum number of personnel participating in an effective code. Included in this number are professionals that go beyond those immediately at the bedside, such as pharmacy, lab, and spiritual services. “There’s nothing worse than 25 people crammed into a patient room trying to coordinate resuscitation,” according to Wrede. For him, the minimum is five ‘in the box’, or in direct proximity to the patient, as well as one team member ‘outside of the box’. “One doctor, three nurses, and two aides are more than sufficient to obtain or sustain an airway while maintaining a clear line of vision of the patient, the patient’s monitor, and other team members,” he says. This consists of one nurse on either side of the patient responsible for gaining peripheral IV access, administering IV medication, and obtaining blood samples for lab work. The code recorder, usually an RN, documents everything that occurs, including every medication given, timing, team actions, compressions, defibrillation, and patient response. 

Wrede’s description of the ideal code team is very similar to the American Heart Association’s recommendation for high-quality CPR teams.  It includes a “triangle” of providers doing chest compressions, defibrillating, breathing for the patient, and providing medications, in addition to a code recorder and a physician outside of the triangle.  The physician acts as a team leader by making high-quality treatment decisions, providing feedback, and overseeing team actions.

For Wrede, the most important times for a code are before and after it.  Having a competent team with pre-assigned roles, as well as the opportunity to review and debrief afterward to improve the process continuously, and allow for best patient outcomes. Many hospitals address this by establishing a code team that arrives every time a code is called, with well-established roles, and protocols. Wrede’s experiences describe codes in the ED, although codes are generally run the same regardless of where they take place. The biggest difference is the patient context.

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Nancy Swezey, BSN, RN, CNOR

Nancy Swezey received her BSN from Columbia University. She now practices in New York City in the operating room where she has worked as a staff nurse, and currently as a care coordinator specializing in head and neck surgery. Nancy is also pursuing her advanced practice degree at CUNY Hunter where she assists the faculty as a research assistant, focusing on nurse education and module development.

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