Mar 14, 2017

Matt Whitman's Story: Surviving a Code Blue

After a near-death experience, the former state trooper advocates for better post-op monitoring.

“I heard you take your last breath.”

It’s something most patients never hear. But that’s just what one nurse told retired Michigan state trooper Matt Whitman as he recovered from surgery.

Matt was in a car accident that resulted in a fractured cervical vertebra. He returned to the job after a tough recovery, but chronic pain limited his mobility. His neurosurgeon recommended neck surgery; his 18-year career was over.

After his procedure, Matt was provided with a pain pump or patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump to manage his pain. The pump delivered a set dose of morphine each time he pressed a button. Morphine is known to be a powerful pain medication. In the evening, the doctors increased his medication to help him sleep.

Matt does recall being in a dreamlike state. But he knew it wasn’t a dream.

“It was like a babbling brook,” says Matt. ”A place where I wanted to stay. But then something came over me, and I realized that if I decided to stay there, I’d be dead.” 

He realized he had a choice — drift off painlessly or fight to come back. He wanted to see his children grow up. So he fought.

That’s when a nurse happened to pass Matt’s room and heard what she thought was his last breath. She immediately called a code blue, which brings immediate medical attention to the bedside.

Matt had stopped breathing due to excessive pain medication which is also known as opioid-induced respiratory compromise. This code blue call saved his life.

The medical team revived Matt and determined that he had stopped breathing for six minutes. Luckily, he hadn’t experienced brain damage, which sets in at about seven minutes.

Though Matt was monitored with capnography during his surgery, he was not monitored during recovery. By providing the earliest indication of a change to a patient’s breathing, capnography helps medical staff take action before it’s too late. Respiratory Compromise is the second-most frequently occurring preventable safety issue in the U.S.1

“I ‘died’ at 4:11 in the morning. For many years after I would wake at 4:11 remembering what happened to me,” says Matt.  “A quick response from my nurse saved my life. Now, I’m pushing for improved post-op monitoring – like capnography.”


Healthgrades website, “Quality Matters: Tackle the Top 3 Patient Safety Issues.”  Accessed on July 11, 2016: