DSCN0177Anesthesiologists become experts at inserting an intravenous (I.V.) catheter.  In my career of 20,000+ anesthetics, I’ve started at least one I.V. per patient, and some cases required more than one I.V.  Some I.V’s are easy, and would present no challenge to a first-year nursing student, but some patients have veins that are small, deep, rolling, invisible, or scarred over, and only an expert will succeed.

Almost every adult anesthetic begins with the intravenous injection of sedative drugs, so every anesthesiologist needs to become expert in I. V. insertion.  As a demonstrative case, let’s tackle a world-class difficult situation:

Your patient is obese, weighing in at 300 pounds, and her arms are cylinders of fatty tissue.  She has a past history of surgery for breast cancer, and she had the lymph nodes removed under her left arm.  Therefore, I.V. attempts in her left arm are prohibited.  In addition, she had intravenous chemotherapy for months, which used up every decent vein in her right arm.

Here are my time-tested tips to successfully locate a vein and insert the I.V. on a difficult patient such as this:

  1. Lie the patient down, supine and horizontal.  Blood will pool where gravity takes it.  If a patient is sitting upright, or has their legs dangling, the blood will pool in dependent regions such as the veins of the legs, rather than the veins of the upper extremities where you are looking.
  2. Apply a standard rubber tourniquet to the upper arm.  Then, on top of this tourniquet, apply the blood pressure cuff from an automated blood pressure machine.
  3. Activate the blood pressure cuff in “Stat” mode, or repeatedly inflate the cuff in “Manual” mode.  The pneumatic blood pressure cuff is a superior venous tourniquet, and will be most effective in making even small veins grow prominent.
  4. Examine the arm carefully for the best vein.  Do this by both inspection and palpation.  Sometimes the cord of the vein can be felt, even when it can not be seen.  Rather than sticking the patient’s arm in multiple places, over and over, until she looks like a pin-cushion, be patient and do not start until you’ve found the very best location.
  5. Stimulate the skin over this vein by snapping your forefinger at the site.  This local stimulation makes veins grow, perhaps by releasing a regional veno-dilator, or by blocking a regional veno-constrictor.  All I can tell you is that, whatever the mechanism, this technique definitely works.
  6. Choose a standard I.V. catheter, either a 20-gauge or 22-gauge.  Butterfly needles are NOT preferred, because they require leaving a needle in the small vein, rather than the plastic I.V. catheter.
  7. ALWAYS anchor the skin over the vein by pulling distally with your non-dominant thumb, while you insert the I.V. catheter with your dominant hand.  This anchoring and stretching of the skin distally prevents the vein from rolling or moving during your insertion attempt.DSCN0160
  8. When you first hit the vein, and blood begins to flow into the hub of your catheter, you MUST advance the device an additional 1-3 millimeters before you attempt to advance the catheter forward over the needle into the vein.  And you MUST NOT move the non-dominant thumb away from its task of stretching the skin distally, so that the vein stays stationary. The I.V. catheter device is a catheter-over-a-needle device.  When the needle tip first enters the vein, the catheter tip is not in the lumen of the vein yet.  The  1-3 millimeter advance moves the tip of the plastic catheter into the vein.DSCN0160
  9. Patients have four extremities.  If you are unsuccessful in locating a vein in either arm, you can move to the foot and ankle region to start an I.V. there.  Follow the same steps outlined above.

10. If you can not locate a vein in any extremity, consider the external jugular veins on the side of the patient’s neck.  With the patient positioned slightly head down, these veins are often prominent.  The external jugular vein swells when the patient performs a Valsalva maneuver, such as when you ask them to “bear down as if you are having a bowel movement.”  You do not need to start a central venous catheter (CVC) in the external jugular vein.  A simple 1- ¼ inch, 20-gauge peripheral I.V. catheter will suffice.  Because the size and diameter of the external jugular vein is larger than most arm veins, and because the external jugular vein is usually quite superficial, cannulating this vein can be very easy in skilled hands.  I attach a 3 c.c. syringe onto the hub of the intravenous catheter device before I attempt the insertion, and then I aspirate back with negative pressure as I advance the device.  Once the catheter is inside the external jugular vein, the syringe will fill with blood, and you can advance the catheter into the vein.  I usually fixate the catheter with tape, rather than suturing the catheter in place.

Those are my tips for difficult I.V. inserting.  Follow these steps, and with experience and patience, you will become the intravenous-insertion expert at your hospital.





Introducing …  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on

To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:



In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:




  1. Nice blog – could you discuss placing an I.V. in the Great Saphenous vein of the lower leg? I’ve been told by some that this is the go-to vein when all else fails – have you had much luck? This is often a blind stick so landmarks are key – could you also discuss that aspect?


  2. This may be a double comment – could you please discuss placing an IV in the Greater Saphenous Vein of lower leg – land marks, success rate, opinion? Thanks


    1. In 30 years of performing anesthetics I’ve occasionally used the greater saphenous vein for a percutaneous peripheral IV when there were no useful veins in the upper extremities. The vein is located anterior to the medial malleolus. I’ve cannulated this vessel using the same techniques I describe in my IV Placement article. I haven’t made it my practice to attempt to cannulate the vein blindly if I could not see or palpate it.


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