Medical Mixups: What Common Mistakes Authors Make When Writing Medical Details

People get sick or injured all the time and seek medical care in a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room setting. When story characters encounter these situations, realism will lend believability to the story, even in contemporary fantasy settings. Getting the details right keeps the reader engaged with the story and turning the page.

You Can’t Shock a Flatline

When checking with medical professionals at all levels, the single fact most authors get wrong revolves around when to shock or defibrillate a patient to reset the heart into a correct rhythm. It’s considered the most cringeworthy moment of medical mistakes in a book. Asystole (ay-sis’-toll-ee) is the medical term for a flatline on a heart monitor. The flatline means there is no electrical activity in the heart. This person is dead. Shocking them will do nothing unless your doctor’s last name is Frankenstein.

If you want to shock a person after they go into cardiac arrest (let’s call it “almost dead”), the correct rhythm most often seen on the screen is called ventricular fibrillation (VF). When VF occurs, a medical professional will administer shocks to defibrillate the patient and reset the rhythm to a normal heartbeat.

Also, no one uses the paddles you often see in movies and TV shows anymore. There are now two large rectangular sticky pads about the size of your hand. These are placed on the chest to administer the shock. The paddles started phasing out of use in the late 1980s, which is why it’s so anachronistic when seen in stories occurring in the twenty-first century. To learn more about this, take a CPR class. You’ll learn some life-saving training, and you can pick your instructor’s brain after the class is over.

No Belts as Tourniquets

Another common mistake occurs when the hero slips off their leather belt to apply as a tourniquet to stop bleeding in an arm or a leg. A properly applied tourniquet needs to be incredibly tight. This is accomplished by using a stick or screwdriver as a windlass to twist the tourniquet material in order to tighten it to the correct pressure. Imagine trying to twist a one-inch sturdy leather belt in this way.

Instead, use the fancy silk tie your hero wears or tear the sleeve from a long-sleeved shirt to fashion a tourniquet. Many first responders now carry a small, commercially available pocket tourniquet to use when needed. You can buy them, too, directly online. If your hero is an action-type, consider having them keep one in their glove box.

You Won’t Have to Amputate

Contrary to popular belief, applying a tourniquet doesn’t mean the person will lose their arm or leg. A tourniquet can be left in place to control bleeding for up to eight hours. This leaves plenty of time for a trauma team to begin surgical repair of the bleeding site. Also, once a tourniquet is applied, it should only be loosened or removed by a trained medical professional in a hospital setting.

Here’s a link to the Mayo Clinic video on applying a tourniquet.

Other common medical errors will make a nurse or doctor cringe. Reach out to your circle of friends and acquaintances to find a medical or nursing professional in your community. Many might be willing to go over your scene involving medical care and point out obvious mistakes. Remember to explain not just your scene as written but what you hope to achieve through the use of illness or injury. They might be able to suggest a better option than the one you’ve used. Getting the medical care right makes your story flow better and adds realism to even the most fantastical story.

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Jamie Davis

Jamie Davis is a registered nurse, retired paramedic, author, and nationally recognized medical educator who began teaching new emergency responders as a training officer for his local EMS program. He loves everything fantasy and sci-fi, especially the places where stories intersect with his love of medicine or gaming.

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