The Day I Stopped Eating Ground Beef

You have been warned, this story is quite gross.

Working in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) requires nerves of steel and an iron gut. As a nurse, this is the battlefield where you care for the sickest of the sick. Daily you wage war against chronic disease. Unfortunately, at this stage, there is no hope of winning. You bear witness to what happens when chronic illness reaches the final phases and bodies are ravished with the disease. Sometimes a disease process isn’t that difficult to look at, say someone who is suffering from end-stage respiratory disease. Their skin may have poor color due to low levels of oxygen, or they may have to gasp for air. Sure, not being able to get enough oxygen is the stuff nightmares are made of but the patients can be on high levels of oxygen and look somewhat normal. By the way, smoking causes lung disease (ahem, ahem), in case you didn’t know.

Cancer patients are difficult to see, but for me, liver disease is the toughest to watch. The liver handles so many functions and so many various things can go south when the liver fails to do its myriad of jobs. Gross things happen like the vomiting of bright red blood due to the amount of pressure backed up into the body. Pressure is the result of a hardened liver through which all things should flow. High pressure in the body bursts blood vessels in the throat, leading to a mess reminiscent of a Michael Myers movie. Try holding your breath and tensing all your muscles. It feels like your head is going to explode, right? This is the pressure that the entire body is under when the liver is hard, instead of soft and spongy. The backup of pressure also causes an insane amount of swelling in the body. Again, the liver is the organ through which all things should flow. The skin and the whites of the eyes turn yellow. These patients are so fatigued they lose their will to live before the disease can complete its course. In case you didn’t know, heavy alcohol abuse leads to liver disease (ahem, ahem).

Twelve hours shifts, day in and day out, caring for individuals who are suffering in unimaginable ways… Of all the difficult things I have had to process to help people in these situations, you wouldn’t think that there would be one patient to stand out. But there was. Funny thing, he wasn’t even my patient, yet he had a huge impact on the way I live my life.

Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a disease that can have devastating consequences for your health if unattended and not treated. The blood of these patients becomes thick with sugar and can look very much like syrup. Yep, that stuff you pour on your waffles. Over time, excess sugar in the bloodstream can lead to blindness, infections that occur in your feet and legs which can lead to amputations, vascular disease, and irreversible kidney disease. I will explain vascular disease a little bit later but for now, I want to focus on kidney damage. T2D occurs when people eat a highly processed, high sugar diet, and don’t move their bodies enough. (Ahem, ahem), in case you didn’t know.

Type 2 diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease and can lead to kidney failure. The kidneys filter the trash out of our blood and send the garbage out with the urine. The kidneys are not very “tough” organs, they are very sensitive and get their feelings hurt easily. After years of filtering a high amount of sugar, syrup, out of the blood, they lose their work ethic and refuse to work anymore. Stubborn, right? At this point, the patient can choose to go to hospice where they go home to die, or they can start hemodialysis.

Hemodialysis is a treatment that uses a big machine that acts like a kidney. Patients are hooked up and the garbage is filtered out of their blood. This has to be done several times a week and it becomes the central action in your life. You cannot miss a dialysis day. Your body cannot live with that much garbage floating through your bloodstream. Dialysis becomes your literal lifeline and the center of your existence, or there won’t be an existence.

There are several types of dialysis and one, in particular, is done at the bedside in ICU. Instead of hemodialysis which runs for several hours, three to four times a week, we perform a type of dialysis called CRRT. Continuous Renal Replacement Therapy. As the name implies, it does the job for patients with failing kidneys continuously instead of for a few hours. When diabetics reach the point of kidney failure, it cannot be reversed. But there are certain instances when kidneys can recover from injury.

Although we had various types of sick patients in the unit where I worked, we were a heart ICU. Most of our patients were heart patients. Sometimes when we had patients who survived a heart attack, we would have to put them on CRRT. When you have a heart attack, you survive only if someone gets to you and performs CPR within a couple of minutes. After four minutes, brain damage starts to occur. Brain damage is not survivable. Brains that don’t get oxygen become toast and toast can never be bread again.

Because kidneys are so sensitive, they may be damaged after only a few seconds of the heart-stopping. Sometimes this type of damage can reverse itself. In this scenario the kidneys are not damaged from years of bad blood, they are in a state of shock and can regain their function. Instead of sending these types of patients to hemodialysis for hours at a time, we use CRRT. This gives the kidneys time to recover from the shock, while the patient tries to heal.

During CRRT, the blood comes out of the patient via some sort of complex IV, runs through a machine that has a filter, and then goes back into the patient. The filter is visible and the tubes are too, you can see the blood running through the system. Sometimes the machines can be difficult to keep running due to clotting or clogging. It could be an issue with the IV. It could be an error in the rate calculated by the doctor. Sometimes the patient’s blood is thick and easy to clot, when this happens we use a medication to thin the blood a bit and off we go. For the most part, the issue that stops the machine is fixable.

Now that I have laid the medical foundation for my story, this is where the actual story begins…

Only a code blue is going to get me away from my patient before I have had time to complete my assessment, which in some cases can take hours. These people are sick and anything can go wrong at any second. A keen eye and thorough attention are necessary for their safety. One morning I was caring for my patients. For a couple of hours, I could hear one of my co-workers complaining about the CRRT for her patient. From what I could tell, she could not keep the machine running. Beep, beep, beep, and my co-worker’s complaints masked all other sounds in the unit. Once I reached a point when I knew my patients were stable, I walked over to see what the problem was and see if I could lend a hand. I will never forget what I saw when I walked through that door. The visible blood running through this machine was about 30% red blood and 70% pure fat. Not just fat, it was exactly the liquid you see in a frying pan when you crumble ground beef. I had never seen anything like it in my life.

That was the day I swore off ground beef.

The way this man’s blood was clogging this life-saving machine, was the same reason he landed in the ICU. His blood was too fatty to run through his heart and too fatty to run through the kidney machine.

I cannot say for sure what happened to this man. If he survived, I don’t imagine it was for very long. I would put all my money on the fact that he died right there in that room that day or shortly thereafter. Being a biology nerd my whole life, and a nurse, I am well aware that what we eat and consume goes into our bloodstream. Never before had I seen it presented in such a profound way. My viewpoint on nutrition changed that day, in a big way.

Diabetes puts too much sugar in the blood, it begins to look like syrup. A diet high in saturated fat puts too much fat in the blood. Smoking cigarettes lends cancer-causing chemicals and toxins to the blood. The more shit you are carrying in your bloodstream, that doesn’t belong, the higher your blood pressure is going to be. Visualize a water hose that carries water to your beautiful garden. Now, what happens when you put sludge, sand, and rocks through the hose? The hose is not going to last very long. At some point, the water will no longer get through. The flowers will not get their lifesaving water, and they die. Sadly, we treat our water hoses better than we treat our vascular system. Vascular disease is when your arteries and veins receive damage from toxic bad blood. They get blocked and destroyed and lose the ability to carry blood to the organs as intended. All of this, all of it, comes from what you put in your body.

I don’t share this story with you to gross you out, but I hope you are a tad disgusted. I share it so that you can join in on the experiences that nurses have every single day. Healthcare work is not for the weak. I share this so that you can understand what not taking care of yourself can look like. I share this so that you can have the perspective without having to experience something like that firsthand.

Our bodies are very resilient. We can do some pretty unhealthy things that we can bounce back from. But, our systems cannot withstand years and years of bad blood. Chemicals that we touch can find their way to our bloodstream. Inhaled toxins will end up in our bloodstream. And everything we put in our mouth ends up in our bloodstream. Diabetes, heart disease, vascular disease, kidney disease…all these diseases are preventable. If we want to win the war against chronic illness, it begins with our choices. What we choose to put in our bodies is ultimately what we end up being. Choose wisely.

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Natalie Greer

Natalie Greer

Well-being curator + mom + yogi + registered nurse + board-certified nurse health coach — perpetually attempting to capture humanity with language.