Symptoms to Diagnosis

A 71-year-old woman with shock and a high INR

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A 71-year-old woman is brought to the emergency department by her neighbor after complaining of fatigue and light-headedness for the last 8 hours. The patient lives alone and was feeling well when she woke up this morning, but then began to feel nauseated and vomited twice.

The patient appears drowsy and confused and cannot provide any further history. Her medical records show that she was seen in the cardiology clinic 6 months ago but has not kept her appointments since then.

Her medical history includes atrial fibrillation, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and osteoarthritis. Her medications are daily warfarin, atenolol, aspirin, candesartan, and metformin, and she takes acetaminophen as needed. She is neither a smoker nor a drug user, but she drinks alcohol occasionally. Her family history is significant for her mother’s death from breast cancer at age 55.

The neighbor confirms that the patient appeared well this morning and has not had any recent illnesses except for a minor cold last week that improved over 5 days with acetaminophen only.


Physical examination

On physical examination, her blood pressure is 80/40 mm Hg, respiratory rate 25 breaths per minute, oral temperature 38.3°C (100.9°F), and heart rate 130 beats per minute and irregular.

Her neck veins are flat, and her chest is clear to auscultation with normal heart sounds. Abdominal palpation elicits discomfort in the middle segments, voluntary withdrawal, and abdominal wall rigidity. Her skin feels dry and cool, with decreased turgor.

Initial treatment

The patient is given 1 L of 0.9% saline intravenously over the first hour and then is transferred to the intensive care unit, where a norepinephrine drip is started to treat her ongoing hypotension. Normal saline is continued at a rate of 500 mL per hour for the next 4 hours.

Cardiac monitoring and 12-lead electrocardiography show atrial fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response of 138 beats per minute, but electrical cardioversion is not done.

Initial laboratory tests

Initial laboratory results
Results of basic laboratory tests in the emergency department are shown in Table 1 .

Of note, her international normalized ratio (INR) is 6.13, while the therapeutic range for a patient taking warfarin because of atrial fibrillation is 2.0 to 3.0.

Her blood pH is 7.34 (reference range 7.35–7.45), and her bicarbonate level is 18 mmol/L (22–26); a low pH and low bicarbonate together indicate metabolic acidosis. Her sodium level is 128 mmol/L (135–145), her chloride level is 100 mmol/L (97–107), and, as mentioned, her bicarbonate level is 18 mmol/L; therefore, her anion gap is 128 – (100 + 18) = 10 mmol/L, which is normal (≤ 10). 1

Her serum creatinine level is 1.3 mg/dL (0.5–1.1), and her blood urea nitrogen level is 35 mg/dL (7–20).

Her potassium level is 5.8 mmol/L, which is consistent with hyperkalemia (reference range 3.5–5.2).


1. Which of the following is the most likely cause of this patient’s symptoms?

  • Adrenal crisis
  • Cardiogenic shock due to decreased cardiac contractility
  • Intracranial hemorrhage
  • Acute abdomen due to small bowel obstruction
  • Septic shock due to bacterial toxin-induced loss of vascular tone


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