08/19/17

To Treat or Not to Treat: What Would Your Loved Ones Want at the End of Life?

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Ensuring that the care you get reflects your wishes and values

When someone you love is hospitalized with a grave illness or injury, you may face decisions about their care.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), mechanical ventilation, tube feedings, surgery, chemotherapy or other interventions may add weeks, months or years to their life.

If your loved one has an advance directive (living will), it will spell out which interventions they want and don’t want. If they don’t have one and can’t speak for themselves, how should you proceed?

To help families learn to make good choices in this situation, Silvia Perez Protto, MD, Director of our Center for End of Life Care, answers key questions below. 

Q: What’s the first thing families should consider?

A: First, determine whether the patient is capable of making a decision about treatment. If so, your best option is to explore their wishes and values:

  • What are they expecting and hoping from treatment?
  • What are the trade-offs of treating versus not treating?
  • What risks are acceptable and not acceptable to them?
  • Which do they value more: quality of life or quantity of days?

Depending on their age, situation and views, answers will vary.

One paralyzed patient may be happy sitting with family and watching TV. Another may not.

One patient may want doctors to extend her life despite pain, nausea, or loss of mobility to see her son graduate from college. Another may be unwilling to experience serious side effects from a treatment that isn’t 100 percent effective.

We want to honor the patient’s wishes. When patients can’t communicate and have no advance directive, we look to families for guidance.   

Q: What’s the best way to start the conversation?

A: I encourage families to talk to loved ones about end-of-life wishes and values before they get sick or develop a serious condition. You won’t go wrong trying to explore someone’s wishes and values.

When I asked my own mother what she wanted at the end of her life, I learned she wanted to be around her five children, to be able to communicate with us and to be independent. This led me to understand that if she became terminally ill and couldn’t recognize us, she wouldn’t want to live like that.

Some people wouldn’t mind being on a feeding tube or a ventilator, unaware of their environment. Others wouldn’t want to live in a vegetative state.

These questions are tough and emotionally difficult to ask mom or dad. Even I got stuck talking to my mom. But we can always ask for help. A spiritual care advisor or palliative care doctor at your hospital can facilitate these discussions.

(And remember to tell loved ones about your wishes and values, too.)

Q: Do larger issues get in the way of these discussions?

A: I think not talking about death is cultural. It’s how we see life, it’s our spiritual background, it’s our own fear of dying.

I’ve heard patients say, “I feel like I’m dying, but my kids don’t want to talk about it.” This isolates them at the end of life. Pain and isolation or abandonment are our main fears when we’re dying.

But the more we talk, the less fear we’ll have. Everybody’s going to die. Avoiding the topic won’t decrease the chances of dying. As a society, we need to normalize death. Being born, growing up, having kids, dying – these are all part of the life cycle.

Q: What questions should you ask about end-of-life care?

A: If you’re worried how an illness may impact the end of your life, talk to your family doctor, primary care doctor or specialist. Ask, “What are the side effects, risks and benefits of the treatment you’ve recommended?” Once you have that information, see how it lines up with your wishes and values.

If you want your doctor to keep trying to treat the disease, we can provide palliative care along with the treatment, controlling your symptoms and minimizing your pain. If you choose to end treatment, it doesn’t mean we’re giving up. We’ll still provide palliative care right up until the end.

Our goal in the ICU is always to get patients better and back to a functional life at home. But that’s not always possible. We can aim either to extend life or to offer the best quality of life in the time the patient has left.

These conversations and advance directives show us how to proceed and help us allow patients to die with dignity.

Q: Are there proven benefits to end-of-life planning?

A: Yes. Studies show that when advance care planning is done, the family’s experience and the patient’s experience are better. In the United States, autonomy is very important. Advance directives help you maintain your autonomy at the end of life.

Healthcare providers are encouraged to obtain advance directives and document patient’s wishes in their chart for all caregivers to see.

Q: Any final word for families?

A: I encourage families to see death as a natural act and to understand the value of a natural death. We can do many things to extend life, but sometimes the price we pay is having no quality of life.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/18/17

A Quaker Approach to Living with Dying

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By Katherine Jaramillo 

I’ve been present with hundreds of people as they’ve died, hundreds more who were already dead by the time I was paged, and hundreds more who were in their dying process. I’ve accompanied spouses, parents, children, friends and family members as they’ve experienced the horror and sorrow of grief. For the past 20 years, I’ve been a chaplain, mostly in hospitals, a few with hospice. In doing this work, I’ve crossed death’s path more often than I can count as I’ve zigzagged my way through the hospital corridors and in the homes of folks experiencing the last days, weeks, months of life. Those of us on the interdisciplinary healthcare team struggle, as best we can, to provide our dying patients with a “good death,” however they and their families define such. There’s a saying in healthcare, “People die as they have lived.” Sometimes that is not the case, but, more often than not, that’s the way it goes.

Often, Quakerism is defined as a way of life. Some questions that I have carried for years in the ministry of chaplaincy include the following:

  • What does our Quaker faith and spirituality offer us as we face decline, diminishment, and death?
  • What can we say, as Quakers, with regard to dying and death as a personal and spiritual experience?
  • Is there a Quaker way of dying? How do we, as Quakers, do this?

My formative experience with regard to the Quaker way of dying was by accompanying a Friend through her decline and death. Her final illness, dying process, and death were Quaker community and meeting experiences. Her experience wasn’t a private or family-only affair. When she couldn’t come to meeting, small groups of Friends were dispatched to her home, hospital, or nursing facility to have meeting for worship with her. Friends from meeting stayed with her overnight in the hospital when she had to be on the breathing machine and was so uncomfortable and scared. She had a committee of trusted Friends who arranged for her practical needs when she was still able to live independently, including staying with her 24/7 when just home from the hospital and at times of extreme debility. These Friends helped with discernment regarding transition from independent living to a skilled nursing facility. In what turned out to be her final hospitalization, these Friends helped her discern her choice to decline heroic life-sustaining treatment and allow herself a natural death. Friends reflected with her about her desire for integrity and living in alignment with the testimonies, her beliefs about an afterlife. She was afforded the opportunity, though her Quaker way of living, to proceed to a Quaker way of dying. One First Day, as we knew death was approaching, our meeting of about 80 Friends decided to meet in a hospital conference room for worship. About halfway into the worship hour, a Friend came downstairs to announce our Friend’s death. It was a gathered meeting. Our Friend died the way she had lived.

Last year, desiring conversation on these questions, I facilitated an interest group I called “The Quaker Art of Dying” at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. The conference brings women together from the divergent Friends traditions in the Pacific Northwest, primarily from Canadian, North Pacific, and Northwest Yearly Meetings, as well as other independent meetings and churches, to articulate our faith and to learn from each other. The group was well attended and diverse. I presented three queries to the group for discussion. We broke into small groups each taking one of the queries, then reconvened into the large group to get the bigger picture.

What is a Quaker approach to declining health, dying, and death?

Friends reported their understanding that all life is sacred and Spirit informs all life. A Quaker approach would be a mindful, conscious, and prepared approach, with an excitement—or at least a willingness—to enter the mystery of death. It was agreed that a Quaker approach would involve less denial that someone is dying or that death is imminent. There is a value for listening, hearing one another’s experiences, and entering new situations with curiosity, not offering answers. Especially for Liberal Friends, but for some Evangelical Friends as well, there was less focus on an afterlife. A Quaker approach would be a well-ordered approach, with orderly records, legal documents, and final letters and lists of wishes. Friends agreed that cremation was customary and in alignment with Quaker values. The writing of a memorial minute was another Quaker tradition to document the passing of a Quaker life. As one Friend stated, “The Quaker approach is portable; you can take the heart of the Quaker way wherever it needs to go.”

How do our beliefs, testimonies, and values inform our approach to the end of life?

Friends agreed in their understandings that we have a direct connection with the Divine. Some Friends voiced a lack of fear about death. Others voiced fears about the decline of physical and cognitive abilities and the actual process of dying, such as the possibility of pain, loss of competence, being a curmudgeon, or depleting family resources. One Friend likened the burdens of dying to birthing: “Both are hard work.” Friends agreed that upholding the dying person in community benefits the community as well as dying person. Friends voiced an intention to allow support and presence of others as we approach the end of life, as well as taking all the alone time we need.

How can we prepare for death? Our own and that of our loved ones? A list emerged.

We need to:

  • Pray.
  • Think about what we want.
  • Talk about what we want, even though it is difficult, especially with our children.
  • Talk about what others want.
  • Talk with our families about our wishes.
  • Pray some more.
  • Deal with unfinished business—either finishing it or leaving it unfinished, but dealing with it intentionally.
  • Educate ourselves about health decline and the dying process by reading books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
  • Talk with our spouses or significant others, about things we’ll need to know if they can’t tell us themselves for whatever reason.
  • Prepare for the process:
    • Who do we want involved? Who do we not want involved? Do we want a care committee or not?
    • How do we want our remains disposed? Do we prefer cremation or burial? If we want to be cremated, do we want our remains to be scattered, interred, or buried?
    • What do we want for a memorial or funeral?
    • Do we want an obituary; a eulogy? What would we want said in our memorial minute?
  • We need to help meetings and churches be prepared for the decline, debility and deaths of their members and attenders.
  • Keep praying.

This conversation continues. In a recent meeting of our Quaker women’s discussion group, I facilitated a robust discussion about a Quaker approach to end-of-life issues and posed similar queries to the group. Evangelical Friends spoke of the “continuum of life” that transcends death, the need for “being right with God,” and the peace that “being with Jesus” will bring. Liberal Friends spoke of “entering the mystery” and “going into the Light.” There seemed to be agreement and assurance that “all will be well” at the end of physical life. Some women focused on the need to enter this time of life with their “affairs in order.” Other women spoke of their experiences accompanying a dying person in their meeting or church or in their own families. All seemed to enjoy the discussion of “things we don’t usually get to talk about” and voiced an intention to encourage further discussion in our churches and meetings. Later this month, I will attend my own meeting’s retreat where the topic will be “Spirituality As We Age.” No doubt, we will be continuing the discussion of how we Quakers intend to die as we have lived.

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08/14/17

A New Game Helps You Navigate Difficult End-of-Life Conversations

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By Michelle Woo

Call it the new game of Truth. Players go around the table answering questions in their little blue booklets, but these questions aren’t geared to get them talking about that one time they went skinny dipping in Maui. Instead, the questions aim to launch difficult conversations, ones that may be painful, ones they may have been avoiding for far too long.

“Who haven’t you talked to in more than six months that you would want to talk to before you died?”

“What music do you want to be listening to on your last day alive?”

“Which is more frightening to imagine: suffering the worst physical pain of your life or not getting a chance to say goodbye to your family?”

This game is called Hello, and its goal is to get people talking about end-of-life issues in a way that’s easy and non-threatening. The most revolutionary aspect of it—and it’s such a simple thing—is that everyone can and should play. (Newsflash, friends: we’re all gonna die.) So often when it come advance care planning conversations, we single out the person who is sick or elderly, and it can feel like an interrogation. That is, if we even get to the conversations at all. According to Nick Jehlen, the lead designer of the game, people are often too nervous or distraught to delve into these real, complex discussions, or they feel it’s never the right time. The talks, he says, “just don’t happen.”

Families, friends, organizations and healthcare teams have gotten together to play Hello, which is created by Common Practice, a company that promotes better conversations about living and dying well. Some of the questions were written by backers of the Kickstarter campaign for their original game, My Gift of Grace. The topics range from the logistical (“If you needed help going to the bathroom today, who is the first person you would ask to help you? Who would you never be able to ask?”) to the abstract (“What do you think happens to you after you leave this life?”). Each player gives out game chips—“thank you chips”— to other players as they feel moved to, which creates, as Jehlen describes, “an economy of gratitude” within the game.

Jehlen says,“It’s challenging, and sometimes people do cry, but what we’ve really done is create a set of structures that help people be supportive of each other. Almost every time I play with a new group, people share things they’ve never talked about before, and just as importantly, they feel good about it.” He adds, “It sounds crazy, but the game is fun.” Of people who play Hello, 75% go on to complete an advance care planning step within a few months.

Talking about our own mortality doesn’t just save others from guilt, trauma and expense down the road—these conversations can actually improve our quality of life. They help us to really narrow in on what matters to us here and now. Perhaps a game can help get the ball rolling.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/7/17

Should I Help My Patients Die?

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I WAS leafing through a patient’s chart last year when a colleague tapped me on the shoulder. “I have a patient who is asking about the End of Life Option Act,” he said in a low voice. “Can we even do that here?”

I practice both critical and palliative care medicine at a public hospital in Oakland. In June 2016, our state became the fourth in the nation to allow medical aid in dying for patients suffering from terminal illness. Oregon was the pioneer 20 years ago. Washington and Vermont followed suit more recently. (Colorado voters passed a similar law in November.) Now, five months after the law took effect here in California, I was facing my first request for assistance to shorten the life of a patient.

That week, I was the attending physician on the palliative care service. Since palliative care medicine focuses on the treatment of all forms of suffering in serious illness, my colleague assumed that I would know what to do with this request. I didn’t.

I could see my own discomfort mirrored in his face. “Can you help us with it?” he asked me. “Of course,” I said. Then I felt my stomach lurch.

California’s law permits physicians to prescribe a lethal cocktail to patients who request it and meet certain criteria: They must be adults expected to die within six months who are able to self-administer the drug and retain the mental capacity to make a decision like this.
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But that is where the law leaves off. The details of patient selection and protocol, even the composition of the lethal compound, are left to the individual doctor or hospital policy. Our hospital, like many others at that time, was still in the early stages of creating a policy and procedure. To me and many of my colleagues in California, it felt as if the law had passed so quickly that we weren’t fully prepared to deal with it.

That aside, the idea of hastening death is uncomfortable for many doctors. In its original version, the Hippocratic oath states, “I will not administer poison to anyone when asked to do so, nor suggest such a course.” The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of doctors, has been formally opposed to the practice for 23 years. Its ethical and judicial council has recently begun to study the issue further.

At a dinner shortly after the law went into effect, I polled 10 palliative care colleagues on their impressions of it. There was a chorus of groans. Like me, they were being asked about it with increasing frequency, yet hadn’t found an answer that felt right. It wasn’t necessarily that we disapproved, but we didn’t want to automatically become the go-to people on this very complex issue, either.

This first patient of mine was not a simple case. When I walked into his room, he glared at me. “Are you here to help me with this aid-in-dying thing?” he asked. He was in his early 60s, thin and tired, but in no obvious distress. From my read of his chart, he met all criteria to qualify. Terminal illness, decision-making capacity, ability to self-administer the medications. And he had made the requisite first request for the drugs two weeks earlier, as procedure dictates.

When I asked why he wanted to end his life early, he shrugged. “I’m just sick of living.” I asked about any symptoms that might lie behind his request: unrelenting pain, nausea, shortness of breath. He denied them all. In palliative care, we are taught that suffering can take many forms besides the physical. I probed further and the floodgates opened.

He felt abandoned by his sister. She cared only about his Social Security payments, he said, and had gone AWOL now that the checks were being mailed to her house. Their love-hate relationship spanned decades, and they were now on the outs. His despair had given way to rage.

“Let’s just end this,” he said. “I’m fed up with my lousy life.” He really didn’t care, he added, that his sister opposed his decision.

His request appeared to stem from a deep family wound, not his terminal illness. I felt he wanted to punish his sister, and he had found a way to do it.

At our second meeting, with more trust established, he issued a sob, almost a keening. He felt terrified and powerless, he said. He didn’t want to live this way anymore.

I understood. I could imagine my own distress in his condition — being shuttled like a bag of bones between the nursing home and the hospital. It was his legal right to request this intervention from me. But given how uncomfortable I was feeling, was it my right to say no?

In the end, he gave me an out. He agreed to a trial of antidepressants. “I’ll give you four weeks,” he said. He would follow up with his primary care doctor. I couldn’t help feeling relieved.

The patient died in a nursing home, of natural causes, three months later. And I haven’t had another request since. But the case left me worried. What if he had insisted on going through with it?

I’ll admit it: I want this option available to me and my family. I have seen much suffering around death. In my experience, most of the pain can be managed by expert care teams focusing on symptom management and family support. But not all. My mother is profoundly claustrophobic. I can imagine her terror if she were to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively immobilizes patients while their cognitive faculties remain largely intact. For my mother, this would be a fate worse than death.

But still. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of helping to shorten the life of a patient because of depression and resentment. In truth, I’m not sure I am comfortable with helping to intentionally hasten anyone’s death for any reason. Does that make me a hypocrite?

I realized it was past time to sort out my thinking and turned to the de facto specialist in our area on this issue for counsel. Dr. Lonny Shavelson, an emergency medicine and primary care physician in Northern California, has been grappling with the subject for many years.

Given his interest in the topic, Dr. Shavelson felt a personal obligation to ensure that this new practice would be carried out responsibly after the law was passed. He founded Bay Area End of Life Options, a consulting group that educates physicians, advocates on patients’ behalf and prescribes the lethal concoction for some patients who meet the criteria for participation.

He has devised a process for his patients that not only adheres to the letter of the law, but goes far beyond it. His patient intake procedures are time-consuming and include a thorough history and physical, extensive home visits, a review of medical records and discussions with the patients’ doctors. He assesses the medical illness, the patient’s mental and emotional state and family dynamics.

He does not offer the medications to most of the patients who request them, sometimes because he deems them more than six months away from death or because he is worried that they have been coerced or because he believes that severe depression is interfering with their judgment. Since starting his practice, he has been approached by 398 patients. He has accepted 79 of those into his program and overseen ingestion and death for 48.

Dr. Shavelson’s careful observations have made him something of a bedside pharmacologist. In his experience, both the medications used and their dosages should be tailored to individual patients. While all patients enter a coma within minutes of ingesting the lethal cocktail, some deaths take longer, which can be distressing for the family and everyone else involved. One of his patients, a serious athlete, experienced a protracted death that Dr. Shavelson attributes to the patient’s high cardiac function. After that experience, Dr. Shavelson began to obtain an athletic history on every patient, and to add stronger medications if indicated.

In another patient, a mesh stent had been deployed to keep his intestines from collapsing. This stent prevented absorption in key areas, slowing the effect of the drugs and prolonging his death. Dr. Shavelson now routinely asks about such stents, something that a doctor less experienced in this process might miss.

Dr. Shavelson strives to mitigate all symptoms and suffering before agreeing to assist any patient in dying. He recounted many cases where patients no longer requested the medications once their quality of life improved. He counts these cases among his greatest successes. This demonstrates that his commitment is to the patient, not the principle.

When I asked Dr. Shavelson how he might have proceeded with my patient, he said he would have tried everything to relieve his distress without using the lethal medication. But if in the end the patient still wanted to proceed, he would have obliged, presuming his depression was not so severe as to impair his judgment. “I don’t have to agree with a patient’s reasoning or conclusions,” he said. “Those are hers to make, just as much as turning down chemotherapy or opting not to be intubated would be.”

I recently called colleagues at other hospitals to learn how they were handling this law. Like me, most of them hadn’t yet had much experience with it, but their involvement has mostly been positive. They described the few cases they had handled as “straightforward” — patients had carefully thought through the decision and had full family support. Most patients were enrolled in hospice care and supported throughout the ingestion process by trained personnel, almost always in their homes. My colleagues reported that they were free to opt out of the program if they were uncomfortable prescribing the medications. (Catholic health systems do not participate.)

Dr. Meredith Heller, director of inpatient palliative services at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, said that while she understood my ambivalence, she herself felt significantly better about it than she had expected to. “Surprisingly, the vast majority of cases here have gone smoothly,” she told me.

A little over a year after the law went into effect, I am heartened by the positive responses I am hearing from my colleagues around the state. I am relieved that most cases seem straightforward. I am grateful that there are dedicated physicians like Dr. Shavelson willing to do this work. And I am reassured by the knowledge that patients in California now have the legal right to exercise this power when they feel there is no other path.

But I am also concerned. As our population continues to grow older and sicker and more people learn that this law exists, we will need a highly trained work force to steward patients through this process.

My patient deserved an evaluation by a physician like Dr. Shavelson, not someone like me, with no training in this area and ambivalence to boot. We need formal protocols, official procedures, outcome measurements, even a certificate of expertise issued by an oversight board. None of these are in place in any participating state, according to Dr. Shavelson. Yet all medical procedures require training. Why should one this weighty be an exception?

What about payment? Providers can bill for an office visit and the cost of the medication. But because there are no specific codes established for this procedure, reimbursement doesn’t come close to covering any effort to do this well. On top of that, many insurers won’t cover it, including federal programs like Medicare and the Veterans Health Administration.

And will this new “right” be available to everyone? Most communities won’t have a Dr. Shavelson, who offers steep discounts to low-income patients. I worry that public hospital patients like mine will not be able to afford this degree of care. These are inequities we must address.

THERE is another question I feel compelled to raise. Is medical aid in dying a reductive response to a highly complex problem? The over-mechanization of dying in America has created a public health crisis. People feel out of control around death. A life-ending concoction at the bedside can lend a sense of autonomy at a tremendously vulnerable time.

Yet medical aid in dying will help only a tiny fraction of the population. In 2016, just under four-tenths of 1 percent of everyone who died in Oregon used this option. Other approaches such as hospice and palliative care, proven to help a broad population of patients with life-limiting illness, are still underused, even stigmatized. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that patients with advanced cancer receive concurrent palliative care beginning early in the course of disease. In my experience, far too few of these patients actually get it.

Unlike medical aid in dying, which will be used by a small proportion of the population, palliative interventions can improve the lives of many. My patient hadn’t been seen by a palliative care physician before he made his request. Although recommended, it isn’t required by law. And yet this input gave him another option.

Medical aid in dying is now the law in my home state, and I am glad for that. But our work is just beginning. We must continue to shape our policies and protocols to account for the nuanced social, legal and ethical questions that will continue to arise. We must identify the clinicians who are best qualified and most willing to do this work and then train them appropriately, not ad hoc. And we must remember that this is just one tool in the toolbox of caring for the dying — a tool of last resort.

Complete Article HERE!

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07/31/17

Zen Hospice co-founder works to create mindful, compassionate care

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If someone is going to be a compassionate presence to the dying, “they have to look at their own relationships to these issues — to sickness, to aging, to dying and to suffering,” says Frank Ostaseski, with his cat Bodhi on his Sausalito houseboat.

By Colleen Bidwill

After losing both of his parents at a young age, Frank Ostaseski channeled his pain into a life of service.

Frank Ostaseski’s “The Five Invitations” shows what dying can teach about living.

Ostaseski, 65, of Sausalito, has been an advocate for contemplative end-of-life care, and was honored by the Dalai Lama for his years of service to the dying. In 1987, he co-founded the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in America, and in 2004 created the Metta Institute, which teaches physicians, nurses and family members how to practice “mindful and compassionate care.”

His recent book, “The Five Invitations,” shows what dying can teach us about living.

Q What made you be a champion for mindful and compassionate care?

A Death and I became friends very early on, or at least we got acquainted very early on. My parents died when I was quite young. My mother when I was 16 and my dad a few years later, and then, I worked for a long time with kids who were severely disabled. That kind of introduced me to my life of service, and later, I worked in refugee camps in Mexico and Central America. Then, I came back and the AIDS epidemic was hitting and so, one thing was stumbling into another, in a way. And one of the things that I saw was what mattered most: not necessarily the treatment plan that the person was involved in, although that is important, but what mattered was the quality of the presence of people around him or her.

Q What are you teaching end-of-life caregivers?

A The first thing if someone is going to be a compassionate presence, is that they have to look at their own relationships to these issues — to sickness, to aging, to dying and to suffering. … We teach our physicians and nurses and others to learn to listen very precisely and not in the context of what is happening, but also to the emotional and to the somatic cues that person is giving. And then you give information in a way that is accessible to the other person.

Q You’ve sat by more than 1,000 bedsides of those who were dying; was that difficult?

A Oh, absolutely. It’s a lot. I try to be real with people, in other words, if I feel grief, I will share it. I’ll say, “I’m going to miss you.” “I’m really learning a lot from you.” “Wow, this is so sad to hear you say this.” So, it can be difficult but difficulty doesn’t stop me. During the AIDS epidemic I was working with 20 to 40 people a week who were dying, so I had to do things that really balanced me. I went to a hospital in San Francisco where my friends were nurses and they were taking care of babies that had been born to addicted mothers, and I would hold these babies in a rocking chair. There was something about that, that gave me the wherewithal, the strength, to continue and to do the work that I was called to do. I also did life-affirming things; I swam in the bay because it’s cold and it’s refreshing. I still do that.

Q What is a typical day for you?

A When I was running the Zen Hospice, I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that was my life. And I was raising four children at the same time. I retired from that, in about 2005, to focus my attention more on teaching and mentoring others. That happened partially because, after 20 years, it was time to let other people take that role, and also my children were growing up and my caregiver energy started to shift and my teaching energy came forward. I travel, quite a lot. My day often includes getting to and from airports, and then finding myself in front of a group of people, and my primary job is to keep them human. The expectations on [doctors] are really just unbelievable — they’re being driven mercilessly by a system that’s making unreasonable demands on them, so it’s natural that they start to shut down because that’s a strategy. So if we can help them stay engaged without burning out, that’s a huge gift to the world.

Complete Article HERE!

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07/30/17

Learning to live before I die

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By Roberta Ness

I am going to die.

I don’t mean right this moment and I don’t mean that I invite it. I mean that it is inevitable. Echoing in my mind ever louder is the old adage, “the only thing guaranteed in life is death.”

Most of my life – until the very end of it, for many of us – we simply deny death. We forget or don’t hear or don’t heed the echo. But I’m doing the opposite. Like the famous commentator Norman Cousins I’ve decided to embrace dying. Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

First, let me explain what seems like a morbid focus on my mortality. You can skip the next few paragraphs if you’re easily grossed out, and for a long time I didn’t tell anyone because it’s pretty disgusting. A couple of years ago, I developed life-threatening diarrhea. Imagine that dreaded clean-out prep you have to undergo for a colonoscopy. Except that it doesn’t just go on for a day; it goes on for days without end. Just keeping myself hydrated was a constant challenge. I laid on the couch pretty much unable to get up. Fortunately, my gastroenterologist made a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease like lupus – except that my immune cells seem to particularly love munching on my colon.

Also, fortunately, modern medicine has developed a special steroid that for me was a cure that helped me to be, thankfully, (mostly) symptom-free. Then I went to South Africa and all hell broke loose. My colitis symptom – eliminating huge quantities of brown water as often as every 15 minutes – recurred full blast. Again, a raft of tests revealed the diagnosis and a treatment. It was none other than traveler’s diarrhea – three types of E. coli were all partying in my bowels and a blast of antibiotics took them out.

Out of the woods again – whew – except I wasn’t. About a week later I got yet another series of bouts. This time my stool tests were clean. So what was going on? Just as I faced another colonoscopy I remembered the miracle steroid. I had tried it after South Africa and it did nothing. But that was when I’d been loaded with bacteria. Maybe the bugs had triggered a recurrence of the underlying disease? So I started myself back on the steroid and I seem to be OK again. But coming to terms with the fact that I will live the rest of my life with this autoimmune condition has forced me to acknowledge my own mortality.

As my friends age, each is confronting death. Those with chronic diseases are dealing with this reality more actively. But even in those who remain entirely healthy and robust, I see signs – mostly signs of denial.

Don’t get me wrong. Denial is a terrifically adaptive defense mechanism. But is it the best way to avoid dying while we still live? What does it look like for me to not just deny but actually welcome my lifetime limit? It looks like the Tim McGraw song:

“I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu. And I loved deeper. And I spoke sweeter. And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying. And he said, ‘Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.’ ”

I’m not so sure about the bull riding and the skydiving, but other than that I’m living by McGraw’s recipe. I’ve taken up Ecstatic dancing. I’ve become a regular at ad lib storytelling events – although so far just as an audience member. I’ve been traveling more and to more exotic places. I’ve gone to my first rock ‘n’ roll concert. I’m even going (only because my 20-something children invited and are going with me) to Burning Man – a kaleidoscopic art and music happening in the Nevada desert. And, yes, I know that temperatures there range from 110 degrees during the day to 30 degrees at night, and I know I’ll need to truck in all my own provisions including tent, water and a face mask for the sandstorms.

Most importantly, I’ve been giving/asking for forgiveness. And I’ve become incredibly committed to loving more deeply. So yes, I’m dying. But inside I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.

Complete Article HERE!

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07/29/17

Facing the Abyss: Planning for Death

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By Kevin Dieter

“The hurrier you go, the behinder you get.”

 
Puzzlingly, the older and more “seasoned” I become, the more this bit of Amish wisdom is true. Especially when it comes to reading. I don’t have time to read. So, I was surprised when I found myself reading a recent publication from the National Quality Forum. However, as serendipity would have it, I am so glad I did. This publication, “Strategies for Change: A Collaborative Journey to Transform Advanced Illness Care“ had me hooked with the introduction. They had the beautiful audacity to suggest that physicians can and do have the ability to engage in conversation about the taboo (their term) subjects of death and mortality. As I read further, I was rewarded with a section devoted to “peaceful death and dying.”

There has been debate about whether we truly live in a death denying culture. I believe that we do. Strongly so. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer prize winning book The Denial of Death, makes a compelling case that western societies are THE most death-denying in all of history. I see the results of this everyday. Our mortality, the inevitable finality of this life, is routinely disregarded as an essential contribution to the plan of care. The result is a series of squandered opportunities for healing and even transformation at the end of life. Very sick patients are referred to hospice without a prior discussion of goals of care and resuscitation status. Very sick patients travel from hospital to hospice house, often dying on route. But even more common is a never-ending procession of the dying patients and their loved ones who come to the end of life totally unprepared.

The poet W.H. Auden described death as “the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic.” It’s a brilliant metaphor. In my mind, in that scenario, we have 3 choices. The first choice is to totally ignore the thunder and hope that the storm blows north, but when the storm does hit, we will be totally unprepared and will be in some danger. The second choice is to recognize that the storm is coming, and to feel dread that it will totally ruin the remainder of the picnic, and yet do nothing to prepare for it. The third option is to recognize the threat that the thunder represents, to reorganize priorities and enjoy the good weather while you can, and then be packed and ready to seek shelter when the storm hits. I believe these metaphorical choices are similar to our society’s attitude toward death. Most of us choose the first 2 options in regards to our own mortality.

The medicalization of death and dying, increasingly prevalent following World War II, has placed physicians in a difficult situation. Advancements in medical technology, the rise of consumerism, and the strengthening voice of patient autonomy have encouraged society to give us the responsibility of managing death, but for the most part we are poorly trained and generally not inclined to do so. We have, however, made significant progress in helping patients and their families negotiate the myriad of decisions and break points they encounter as their health fails and they traverse the healthcare system. This progress, through many variations of advance directives, follows the thread of “quality of life.” I picture the patient as Indiana Jones, running through the jungle, dodging spears and traps, tumbling and rolling, and finally seeing the clearing in the trees. With the screen focused squarely on their face, I see the expression go from anticipation and relief to dread as they look down into the 10,000 foot abyss. Advanced Directives and Goals of Care discussions may get them through the jungle, but when it comes time to die, they are horribly unprepared. Very little time, they realize, was spent considering the quality of their death. It is time to die, and they haven’t imagined themselves on this death bed.

Dying patients and their loved ones today enter a space totally unfamiliar. One hundred years ago, most Americans grew up in household where death occurred and dying was more accepted as a part of daily life. Today, many of us live on the surface of life, existing from Tweet to Tweet. Richard Groves calls this “the demon of busyness.” Our attention span has been measured in seconds. Dying, and being with the dying, often requires sitting with uncertainty for long periods of time. We are very uncomfortable being there. It often does not sound, look or smell nice. Dying is the ultimate time of transition for those involved in the loving and caring for the dying. Without experience, and with difficulty accepting uncertainty, many patients and families come to the dying time unaware of what to expect, and worse, how to prepare.

We need to work much harder at preparing our patients for end-of-life. This is not our responsibility alone, however. There seems to be a grassroots movement developing that encourages open discussion about death and dying. Social media is exploding with new and increasingly innovative ways to initiate and encourage this dialogue. The demon of busyness is being met head on by card games, like “GoWish”, and interactive art such as the “Before I Die “ walls. These social instruments allow our society to begin the uneasy discussion about what has been taboo. In medieval times, the practice of “ memento mori,” a constant gentle reminder of their own mortality, served the purpose of improving the quality of their life,  But it also improved the quality of their death. They heard the thunder, they prepared for it, and they enjoyed the picnic.

We can, and should, be part of the discussion. We should initiate it and foster it. Consider hosting a Death Cafe or buy and distribute GoWish card games. Volunteer at a local hospice doing bedside vigils, and write about what you learn. We can become more comfortable in talking about quality of death. We can improve the quality of our patients lives by helping them consider the quality of their dying. It will require that we  prepare ourselves by facing our own mortality.  We can and should be living and breathing versions of memento mori. We should not run and hide. Our death denying culture needs leaders to help our very sick and dying face the abyss. If not us, then who…?

Complete Article HERE!

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