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An introduction to trauma team leadership

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Paediatric trauma call, 5 minutes.

How does that make you feel? What thoughts go through your head?

Most of us will not encounter serious paediatric trauma. So, do you need to read on?

The challenge is that trauma is unpredictable. However good our trauma networks and however proficient our prehospital teams are, we are always faced with the possibility of a paediatric trauma call coming to our front door in the Emergency Department. Whether they need local stabilisation before transfer, whether they’ve been brought in by a parent in their car through reception, whether they weren’t obviously a major trauma at the start but are quickly identified as such (e.g. a non-accidental injury),  paediatric trauma falls under our remit.

We may not be experts, but there are principles we all need to stick to to provide safe and expedient care to those children who unexpectedly find themselves in our Emergency Department. Whilst these are high acuity low opportunity events (HALO), we owe it to our patients to be ready in the same way we are ready for that unexpected premature delivery in the middle of the night shift.  

I, myself am a paediatrician. I came to the Royal London Hospital a year ago as a trauma fellow to ” level up” my near-non-existent trauma skills.

So, what did I learn?

In short, it’s easier than you think. Here is my beginner’s guide, laying out my approach to trauma calls in three phases with my ten top tips on making your transition to trauma pro easier.

TIP 1 – Expect the unexpected

It is easy to imagine the worst. Road traffic accidents, obvious open fractures, active bleeding or a difficult airway. Thankfully, such events are rare. Instead, keep an open mind to the broad spectrum of paediatric trauma…

These are just a few examples. Many are not high acuity. Of course, the (very paediatric) challenge is determining which of the many needs the most. Who needs imaging? Who needs theatre? Also, who needs simple monitoring and reassessment?

Some kids manage miraculous escapes with no injuries. Following seemingly trivial incidents, others require an urgent trip to the operating theatre and intensive care.

No two children are the same. No two incidents are the same.

I’m not suggesting every low acuity case is a high acuity case in disguise. I am saying don’t be caught out. Treat every case the same, at least at the start, for many reasons. As well as picking up subtle clues and not missing an occult injury, you will hone your skills for when the sick child comes knocking at your door. For more on levelling up for every trauma call, listen to the excellent talk Anna Dobbie gave at DFTB19.

TIP 2 – Crowd control

Many hands make light work. Having a team in trauma is essential. Occasionally, you may put out a number of pre-alerts. At the Royal London, we have the following menu…

Adult trauma call – 16 years and older

Paediatric trauma call – 15 years and younger

Code red – major haemorrhage

Code black – neurocritical emergency

Paediatric/neonatal crash call – paediatric/neonatal emergency

At the Royal London, as a minimum, we get an anaesthetist, an ODP (operating department practitioner), a surgeon (or two), an orthopod (or two), a paediatrician (or two), a paediatric nurse and a number of emergency medicine doctors and nurses as available. That’s without including the play therapist, research teams and the myriad of specialists that are case-dependent (neurosurgeons, trauma surgeons and more).

As a teaching hospital, it is common to have even more doctors, nurses and students.

Without doing the maths, that’s A LOT of people. Noise levels and extrinsic cognitive load can quickly escalate. So what do you do?

Establish your presence

Stand tall, know your main players by name and establish roles early. Those taking an active part stand in front of you, and those not involved stand clear and stand behind. Be prepared to say, “Quiet please!” Be prepared to ask people to leave. Expect this, then it won’t phase you.

Establish boundaries early

Large groups of people are gathering in a small space. Before long, people start chatting. It may be nerves. It may be the first time they’ve stood still all day. Whatever the reason, you want to clearly establish that the sick child is their priority. On the one hand, it is useful team orientation to the resus bay and to each other, but on the other, there is crowding. Have limits to the number of people present and further limit those who aren’t immediately needed. Again, have your words chosen ahead of time. For example, “Thank you, but if you are here to learn, I need you to either be quiet or step out.”

The only thing you want to be thinking about when that child arrives is the patient.

Each leader has their own style, but if you are consistent, the team will come to know you. Many of the challenges will melt away.

TIP 3 – Avoid repetition

Having a shared mental model ahead of the child’s arrival is useful. However, what is less useful is repeating the prehospital handover to each person as they arrive. Nerves can get the better of us, but a little silence or, preferably a focus on roles and people’s names goes a long way in the few minutes it takes for everyone to arrive.

Then, clearly and concisely communicate the information you have to your team so they themselves can mentally prepare. Even then, remember words can be spoken but not heard. Your team members may have just been running down a flight of stairs to be there or mentally still dealing with their last patient.

TIP 4 – Use eye contact

Gain eye contact with your team, and communicate so they hear you. That does not mean increasing volume. It does mean gaining a rapport early with your team. It can also mean having the prehospital handover written in large black letters on the whiteboard. This satisfies people’s curiosity as they arrive and serves as a useful reminder.

Much of this constitutes your ZERO-point survey. For more, watch Ben Lawton’s “The First Few Minutes of a Trauma Call” video in the DFTBdigital trauma course or read Professionals Prepare Properly by Shane Broderick.

TIP 5 – Hold the room

As demonstrated at the start of Anne Weaver’s DFTB19 talk on “Maturing your approach to trauma,” we all carry a little anxiety regarding paediatric trauma patients. 

Managing your own anxieties is one thing. “Holding the room” is another. Holding the anxieties of the paramedics, the anxieties of the family, the anxiety of your team. Holding the room means not ignoring the emotions around you, not suppressing the emotional atmosphere, but instead allowing for it, containing it and maybe even using it to your advantage.

In describing how to be a good leader, Komal Bajaj identifies two key traits: strength and warmth. Be strong, know your medicine, know your team and lead calmly. Lead also with compassion, and be warm. The anxiety level will drop, the team will rally, and you will enter that zone. Slow down. Breathe.

TIP 6 – Nail the first two minutes

If you nail the first two minutes, everything that follows will be calmer, and the entire patient journey starts to resemble a formula one pit stop with order out of the chaos. Remember, “the sickest patients need the calmest leadership.”

My thanks again to Anna Dobbie for these words of wisdom. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find your own style, but for example’s sake, these are her words during the first two minutes…

Hello, my name is Anna. I’m the trauma team leader.

f we can get the patient across

Then, we can hear what’s going on.

(thank the team that brought the patient in.)


Right folks

Can we take hold of the head at the top end?

Can we split the scoop top and bottom?

So, we will take the right side of the scoop out first.

So, three people down the patient’s left-hand side.

And we’re going to have all hands over ‘cause we’re bracing.

And we’re going to take the right-hand side of the scoop out first.


The command from the top when you’re ready is going to be ready brace remove

If we can now have those three people down the right-hand side, we’re taking the left side out.


And again, the command from the top is going to be ready brace remove

If we can resecure the head

If we can have some observations, please


If we can have a nice loud and clear primary survey

TIP 7 – The scoop

So you know the difference between a thoracotomy and a thoracostomy, how to insert a chest drain, practised at IV access, and even happy with bag-mask ventilation. But do you know how to break the scoop and remove it? Don’t be a trauma chump. Begin as you mean to go on. Getting the patient off the scoop slickly sets the tone and puts you on a sure footing.

TIP 8 – Have some flexibility, but know your priorities

In medicine, many of us are perfectionists. Applying high standards across your practice, even during lower acuity cases, will serve you well. However, you still need to be flexible. Children are not small adults. They don’t all come in strapped to a stretcher, able to follow instructions and lying nicely in the anatomical position.

A toddler with scalds probably won’t want to leave their parent’s arms.

A child with c-spine injuries may not remain on command and instead needs the consistency of one friendly face or the additional magic of a play therapist.

A stabbed teenager may not cooperate and lie down to be examined, panicking with impatience, thinking they’ll die.

In all the above examples, I have forgone the standard rigid ATLS structure and prioritised regaining calm control. Be prepared to do away with the formality and take a practical approach.

Clearly assert acceptable compromises.

“Let’s get the toddler on parent’s lap, let’s get analgesia, then let’s examine and get photographs.”

Determine priorities and set your boundaries.

“One person stay at the head, everyone step back, bring in the play therapist, the priority is c-spine control, monitoring and primary survey will follow.”

Assert your goals

“Sir,” (I say sir to male teenagers; it’s my authentic style), “I need your help. If you focus on my friend here” (e.g. the anaesthetist), “I can focus on making sure you are ok. We need to perform a thorough stab check before we move on.”

TIP 9 – Set time-directed goals

With so much potential for chaos, it is easy to lose situational awareness and track of time.

This may seem very basic, but keep one eye on the clock.

Knowing the time of arrival, the time of handover, and the time taken for the primary survey does wonders to provide you and your team with a sense of progress. In my experience, setting time-directed goals (for example, I want this child in the CT scanner in 10 minutes) has the amazing ability to focus and give the illusion of time slowing down. Rather than feeling rushed, the sense of purpose and direction aids care and ensures a shared awareness that you are dealing with a time-critical emergency such as a traumatic brain injury.

Use the clock, don’t fight it.

Additional tips when the patient arrives include actively listening to the handover with a focus on the mechanism, thanking the paramedics, keeping momentum and not delaying, aiming to complete the primary survey within five minutes, beginning to think about what happened (mechanism and timing), your findings (the primary survey) and what’s going to happen next…

Once the primary survey is complete, it is time to make some decisions…

This requires knowledge, understanding and experience. Trauma is a team sport, so don’t forget your team and share the conundrum with the collective expertise in front of you (and behind you, assuming additional personnel are in the wings).

My advice for practising such decision-making is to acquire practical knowledge through study and courses such as DFTB Trauma (no conflicts of interest, I promise). Then, test group dynamics around decision-making through simulation for imaging, theatre and beyond. There are many more qualified to discuss decision-making in trauma, so let me finish by revisiting Ben Lawton and his advice to keep things simple…

TIP 10 – Keep it simple

Trauma is fundamentally simple.

Air must go in and out.

Blood must go round and round.

The brain must not be squashed.

With all that is going on, it is easy to lose sight of your goals. It is easy to become overwhelmed by complexity. By keeping it simple, care can be streamlined and time-critical goals set. You do not need all the answers at the start. Reassessment, monitoring vital signs, gathering further imaging as indicated from x-rays or CT imaging, and gathering further collaborative insight from your team are all dynamic processes. What cannot wait are these three priorities.

Is the patient oxygenating and ventilating? Is this a risk?

Do they need a tracheal tube? Do they need a chest drain?

Is the patient perfusing? Are they in shock? Are they exsanguinating?

Do you need to stop the blood loss? Do you need to replace it?

(Remember, avoid the salty stuff in trauma).

Is the brain protected? Has there been a primary insult? Can we prevent a secondary insult?

Is the pressure in the head rising? Do they need neurosurgery? Can it wait for a scan?


I hope you now have a mental model for approaching paediatric trauma. These tips are not intended to make you a trauma pro overnight. They are intended to be a series of practical tips to make your trauma journey a little gentler, to help your learning curve become a little steeper and maybe, just maybe, make the care you provide your next trauma patient just a little bit easier.

Good luck!

Author

  • Carl van Heyningen is a paediatric registrar in the UK, passionate about PEM, parental education, puppies and bad puns. A proud supporter of clinician welfare and an enthusiastic lifelong learner, he is currently working at the Royal London Hospital as a clinical fellow.

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