What a neurologist learned when his brother-in-law fell into a coma
In neurology, there’s a “middle ground” between life and death that providers and patients’ family members alike struggle to navigate—but a new subspecialty could help improve communication around patients’ care, Joseph Stern, a neurologist who’s found himself on both the provider and family side of these difficult brain injuries, writes for the New York Times‘ “Well.”
A family member’s aneurysm leads to difficult decisions
Two years ago, Stern’s brother-in-law, Pat, collapsed with a brain hemorrhage from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm and was taken to UCLA Medical Center. Stern, as Pat’s legally designated health care power of attorney, gave permission for Pat to undergo a “surgical clipping of his ruptured aneurysm” and flew to California to oversee the rest of Pat’s care and communicate those care decisions with Pat’s family.
“Technically, surgery went well,” Stern writes. “But Pat never regained consciousness.” While Pat wasn’t brain-dead, “he remained deeply comatose,” Stern writes.
This, Stern writes, left Pat in a complicated, but all too common, “middle ground” in medicine: he’d experienced a “neurologically devastating injury without brain death.”
In these cases, Stern writes, care-related “decisions can be more difficult” for both family members and providers to know when to stop life-sustaining care. While brain death “is stark and final,” Stern writes that patients with severe neurological injuries who are not brain dead can survive on life-sustaining supports though in many cases they may never wake again.
Stern and Pat’s neurosurgeon, Gregory Lekovic, decided to give Pat a week to improve, and if he didn’t, Lekovic advised the family not pursue more aggressive measures, such as a tracheostomy and G-tube placement. “Lekovic and I worried it would be difficult to back off after those procedures had occurred,” Stern writes.
Pat didn’t neurologically improve after a week, and it was likely that he “would never regain consciousness,” Stern writes.
Stern and Pat’s family had decided to stop treatment, but on the morning they planned to do so one of the neuro-ICU specialists gave them reason to pause. “[O]ne of the neuro-ICU specialists presented a scenario in which Pat might wake up, become able to walk with assistance, and participate with his family,” Stern writes. However, “When pressed, the doctor admitted he was giving us the best possible outcome, rather than the most likely outcome,” Stern writes.
Stern and the family consulted again with Pat’s neurosurgeon, Lekovic, who said if it were his loved one, he’d “make the decision to end treatment,” Stern writes. According to Stern, Lekovic “seemed genuinely sad” saying this.
The importance of empathy and connection
“Doctors often think it is most important to be precise and not make mistakes; to predict the future with medical certainty,” Stern writes. “In my experience, connection and empathy are far more important than certainty. Patients and families want to know that you care about them and that you appreciate their pain in difficult circumstances.”
To help guide families and caregivers through this complicated medical condition, Stern notes that a new field, called neuropalliative care, has emerged. In neuropalliative care, providers “focus ‘on outcomes important to patients and families’ … ‘to guide and support patients and families through complex choices involving immense uncertainty and intensely important outcomes of mind and body.'”
Health care providers shouldn’t “focus on the short-term or allow care to be driven by procedures, losing sight of outcome and quality of life,” Stern writes. “We need to approach our patients and their families with open hearts, acknowledging their suffering and the uncertainty we all experience.”
In the case of Pat, Stern explains that his family, particularly Pat’s sons, “appreciated the truth when I explained their father’s prognosis.” Of course, the sons were “devastated at the prospect of losing him,” Stern writes, but “honesty and inclusion in decision-making were important in helping them move forward with their lives”
‘We really need to talk more about death … it is an inevitable part of life, and yet we shroud it in euphemism, hushed secrecy, and denial. We often grieve alone with little sense of shared understanding as we sanitise our emotions and somehow carry on.’
That is how South Australian GP Dr Alison Edwards began a talk she gave to her local palliative care team. And it is why she set up a website, Doc Grief, dedicated to supporting doctors who have lost loved ones.
That is what she wished existed when she lost her ‘soulmate’ Mick to a sudden cardiac arrest 15 years ago.
Dr Edwards’ own path of grief has shown her that doctors often grieve differently – and that the professional distance necessary to deal with death at work simply does not cope with personal grief.
‘I felt the need to know others had walked a similar path and survived, and to maybe find some tips about how best to achieve this,’ she told newsGP.
‘I wanted to read a story that was a close match to mine, but found very little in print about doctors grieving. So some years later I felt drawn to create such a site for others.’
Writing on her site, Dr Edwards tells the story of her loss:
Mick was the local footy legend, the cheeky butcher with a sparkle in his eyes. After 38 years of thinking life for me was destined not to be one of a long-term couple, it was really nice to have someone to love and be loved by and even see myself growing old with.
Mick had spent the afternoon out with the kids and had had a couple of beers down the pub while I was in at work. He was in one of his favourite positions – lying on the lounge channel-surfing. And then Mick had a cardiac arrest and died. No warning. No clues. Just chatting with me one minute about the perfume the kids had given me for Christmas and next minute making funny breathing noises as if he didn’t like the perfume.
Mick died, and the world as I knew it crashed down around me.
Mick was just 37.
In the immediate aftermath, Dr Edwards’ small community – Port Broughton on SA’s Yorke Peninsula – reached out. That, she found, was supportive and challenging.
‘It meant having to share my grief with the town. There was no opportunity to return to work and not have everyone wanting to express condolences,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t turn around without finding more scones, lasagnes and soup.
‘People want to do something physical, which is beautiful, but you also can’t be anonymous. In an urban practice, you could sneak back and your patients would necessarily know. Here, everyone knew.’
Dr Edwards took several months off following Mick’s death. When she returned to work, she printed little cards for her patients to read ahead of consultations.
The cards stated that Dr Edwards was doing okay and asked patients to treat it as a normal professional consultation.
‘No one could stick to it. I gave up,’ she explained. ‘Patients felt rude not to express their condolences.
‘The first time you see everyone, they feel the need to go through it. It made things a little bit harder.’
Since she set up the site, many GPs have told Dr Edwards that it has been helpful. Some have written to her seeking support. Others have contributed their own stories of grieving.
‘Reaching out to those with lived experience can be very supportive,’ she said.
‘I’ve had people write saying thank you so much for setting this up. Just knowing that someone else had lived the experience while having a broader understanding of the health system [is helpful].
‘Doctors do get the idea that random stuff happens. In the community, there’s often the expectation that we can fix everything, but doctors understand that things are unpredictable.
‘People do randomly have cardiac arrests and die.’
Dr Edwards believes doctors grieve differently, due to their familiarity with death and learned ability to maintain professional distance.
‘Knowing death so intimately may falsely lead us to think we are acquainted with grief, but when it comes to losing a loved one all bets are off,’ she wrote in a KevinMD article.
Dr Edwards believes that the stereotypical doctor personality traits – high achievers able to hide their emotions and focused on control – can pose particular challenges, as grief and loss are entirely uncontrollable.
‘Doctors spend most of their time observing … [but] unless we have loved in a dispassionate, dissociated way, we do not give our grief a fair chance if we do not live it,’ she wrote.
Dr Edwards’ grief was ‘very raw’ for the first few years. Over time, it gradually changed.
‘I went from feeling it with every breath and as if it was sitting right in front of me, to a place of living with it rather than living for it,’ she told newsGP.
But she still misses the shared life that could have been, writing:
I still love him and what he gave me. And I miss the future we didn’t get to share … I think I have a more profound sense of living life to my fullest capacity and valuing what I do have.
I have coped by taking one day at a time, allowing time to soften the impact and create new memories.’
There are no shortcuts and no way of bypassing the process of healing after a broken heart.
There are no right ways of grieving. Whatever you find works for you is probably the best for you. This is unlikely to be booze, drugs or running away but you may need to try this for yourself for a while before you believe it. There is no standard timeline. You do not get over it, you do not move on as if it could be left behind. But you do learn to live with it rather than be consumed by it.
Increasingly, Dr Edwards finds people grieving in her long-time community are seeking her out.
‘It has changed how I practise,’ she said.’ ‘You’re taught not to bring too much of yourself into the consultation, to keep your distance, be professional, as it’s not about you.
‘In a little community, it’s almost impossible to do that. Patients want that sense of connection – especially when they already know your story and you can’t duck away from it.’
Dr Edwards will share parts of her grief with patients to help normalise their own experiences.
‘You almost need to do this in smaller communities, but it might not be appropriate in an urban setting,’ she said. ‘There is power in a shared understanding.
‘Often people want to talk because they know I have that lived experience. Not to acknowledge that would be counterproductive.
‘We’re humans, we like to know we’re not alone. We can be reassuring, to let patients they’re not going mad – that this is a normal response.
‘It can be powerful to hear that from someone who lived it.’
“I’m not anti-hospice at at all,” says Joy Johnston, a writer from Atlanta. “But I think people aren’t prepared for all the effort that it takes to give someone a good death at home.”
Even though surveys show it’s what most Americans say they want, dying at home is “not all it’s cracked up to be,” says Johnson, who relocated to New Mexico at age 40 to care for her dying mother some years ago, and ultimately wrote an essay about her frustrations with the way hospice care often works in the U.S.
Johnston, like many family caregivers, was surprised that her mother’s hospice provider left most of the physical work to her. She says during the final weeks of her mother’s life, she felt more like a tired nurse than a devoted daughter.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, seven in 10 Americans say they would prefer to die at home, when the time comes. And that’s the direction the health care system is moving, too, hoping to avoid unnecessary and expensive treatment at the end of life.
The home hospice movement has been great for patients, says Vanderbilt palliative care physician Parul Goyal — many patients are thrilled with the care they get.
“I do think that when they are at home, they are in a peaceful environment,” Goyal says. “It is comfortable for them. But,” she notes, “it may not be comfortable for family members watching them taking their last breath.”
Still, when it comes to where we die, the U.S. has reached a tipping point. Home is now the most common place of death, according to new research, and a majority of Medicare patients are now turning to hospice services to help make that possible. Fewer Americans these days are dying in a hospital, under the close supervision of doctors and nurses.
Hospice allows a patient deemed to have fewer than six months to live to change the focus of their medical care — from the goal of curing disease, to a new goal of using treatments and medicines to maintain comfort and quality of life. It is a form of palliative care, which also focuses on pain management and quality of life, but can be provided while a patient continues to seek a cure or receive treatments to prolong life.
Usually, hospice care is offered in the home, or sometimes in a nursing home.
Since the mid-1990s, Medicare has allowed the hospice benefit to cover more types of diagnoses, and therefore more people. As acceptance grows among physicians and patients, the numbers continue to balloon — from 1.27 million patients in 2012 to 1.49 million in 2017.
According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association, hospice is now a $19 billion industry, almost entirely funded by taxpayers. But as the business has grown, so has the burden on families, who are often the ones providing most of the care.
For example, one intimate task in particular changed Joy Johnston’s view of what hospice really means — trying to get her mom’s bowels moving. Constipation plagues many dying patients.
“It’s ironically called the ‘comfort care kit’ that you get with home hospice. They include suppositories, and so I had to do that,” she says. “That was the lowest point. And I’m sure it was the lowest point for my mother as well. And it didn’t work.”
Hospice agencies primarily serve in an advisory role and from a distance, even in the final, intense days when family caregivers, or home nurses they’ve hired, must continually adjust morphine doses or deal with typical end-of-life symptoms, such as bleeding or breathing trouble. Those decisive moments can be scary for the family, says Dr. Joan Teno, a physician and leading hospice researcher at Oregon Health and Science University.
“Imagine if you’re the caregiver, and that you’re in the house,” Teno says. “it’s in the middle of the night, 2 o’clock in the morning, and all of a sudden, your family member has a grand mal seizure.”
That’s exactly what happened with Teno’s mother.
“While it was difficult for me to witness, I knew what to do,” she says.
In contrast, Teno says, in her father’s final hours, he was admitted to a hospice residence. Such residences often resemble a nursing home, with private rooms where family and friends can come and go, and with round-the-clock medical attention just down the hall.
Teno called the residence experience of hospice a “godsend.” But an inpatient facility is rarely an option, she says. Patients have to be in bad shape for Medicare to pay the higher in-patient rate that hospice residences charge. And by the time such patients reach their final days, it’s often too much trouble for them and the family to move.
Hospice care is a lucrative business — now the most profitable type of health care service that Medicare pays for. According to Medicare data, for-profit hospice agencies now outnumber the nonprofits that pioneered the service in the 1970s. But agencies that need to generate profits for investors aren’t building dedicated hospice units or residences, in general, mostly because such facilities aren’t profitable enough.
Joe Shega, chief medical officer at for-profit Vitas, the largest hospice company in the U.S., insists it’s the patients’ wishes, not a corporate desire to make more money, that drives his firm’s business model. “Our focus is on what patients want, and 85 to 90 percent want to be at home,” Shega says. “So, our focus is building programs that help them be there.”
For many families, making hospice work at home means hiring extra help.
‘I guess I’ve just accepted what’s available’
At the kitchen table of her home outside Nashville, hospice patient Jean McCasland is refusing, on the day I visit, to eat a spoonful of peach yogurt. Each morning, nurse’s aide Karrie Velez pulverizes McCasland’s medications in a pill crusher and mixes them into her breakfast yogurt.
“If you don’t, she will just spit them out,” Velez says.
Like a growing share of hospice patients, McCasland has dementia. She needs a service that hospice rarely provides — a one-on-one health attendant for several hours, so the regular family caregiver can get some kind of break each day.
When Velez is not around, John McCasland — Jean’s husband of nearly 50 years — is the person in charge at home.
“I have said from the beginning that was my intention, that she would be at home through the duration, as long as I was able,” John says.
But what hospice provided wasn’t enough help. So he’s had to drain their retirement accounts to hire Velez, a private caregiver, out-of-pocket.
Hospice agencies usually bring in a hospital bed, an oxygen machine or a wheelchair — whatever equipment is needed. Prescriptions show up at the house for pain and anxiety. But hands-on help is scarce.
Medicare says hospice benefits can include home health aides and homemaker services. But in practice, that in-person help is often limited to a couple of baths a week. Medicare data reveals that, on average, a nurse or aide is only in the patient’s home 30 minutes, or so, per day.
Jean McCasland’s husband hasn’t complained. “I guess I’ve just accepted what’s available and not really thought beyond what could be,” John says. “Because this is what they say they do.”
Families rarely consider whether they’re getting their money’s worth, because they’re not paying for hospice services directly: Medicare gets the bills. John keeps his monthly statements from Medicare organized in a three-ring binder, but he’d never noticed his agency charges nearly $200 a day, whether there is a health provider in the home on that day or not.
That daily reimbursement also covers equipment rentals and a 24-hour hotline that lets patients or family members consult a nurse as needed; John says that gives him peace of mind that help is a phone call away. “There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that they are keeping an eye on her,” he says.
The rate that hospice charges Medicare drops a bit after the patient’s first two months on the benefit. After reviewing his paperwork, John realizes Medicare paid the hospice agency $60,000 in the first 12 months Jean was on hospice. Was the care his wife got worth that?
“When you consider the amount of money that’s involved, perhaps they would provide somebody around the clock,” he says.
Sue Riggle is the administrator for the McCaslands’ hospice agency, and says she understands how much help patients with dementia need.
“I think everybody wishes we could provide the sitter-service part of it,” says Riggle. “But it’s not something that is covered by hospices.”
Her company is a small for-profit business called Adoration; she says the agency can’t provide more services than the Medicare benefit pays for.
I checked in again with John and Velez (Jean’s long-time private caregiver) this winter. The two were by Jean’s side — and had been there for several days straight — when she died in October. The hospice nurse showed up only afterward, to officially document the death.
This experience of family caregivers is typical, but often unexpected.
“Our long-term care system in this country is really using families — unpaid family members,” she says. “That’s our situation.”
A few high-profile advocates have even started questioning whether hospice is right for everybody. For some who have gone through home hospice with a loved one, the difficult experience has led them to choose otherwise for themselves.
Social worker Coneigh Sea has a portrait of her husband that sits in the entryway of her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He died of prostate cancer in their bedroom in 1993.
Enough time has passed since then that the mental fog she experienced while managing his medication and bodily fluids — mostly by herself — has cleared, she says. But it was a burden.
“For me to say that — there’s that guilt,” she says, then adds, “but I know better. It was a burden that I lovingly did.”
She doesn’t regret the experience, but says it is not one she wishes for her own grown children. She recently sat them down, she says, to make sure they handle her death differently.
“I told my family, if there is such a thing, I will come back and I will haunt you,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t you do that.”
Sea’s family may have limited options. Sidestepping home hospice typically means paying for a pricey nursing home, or passing away with the cost and potential chaos of a hospital — which is precisely what hospice care was set up to avoid.
As researchers in the field look to the future, they are calling for more palliative care, not less — even as they also advocate for more support of the spouses, family members and friends who are tasked with caring for the patient.
“We really have to expand — in general — our approach to supporting caregivers,” Ornstein says, noting that some countries outside the U.S. pay for a wider range, and longer duration of home health services.
“I think what we really need to do is be broadening the support that individuals and families can have as they’re caring for individuals throughout the course of serious illness,” Ornstein says. “And I think that probably speaks to the expansion of palliative care in general.”
My 92-year-old father fell one Saturday night a few months ago. My mother could not pick him up. Her brother was not answering his cellphone, so she called 911. An ambulance crew brought him to the hospital.
The emergency-room physician ordered a CT scan. A spot on the scan worried him, so he ordered an MRI, which confirmed that a tumor the size and shape of a pear was occupying the frontal lobes of his brain. Meanwhile, a chest X-ray gave the physician some reason to suspect pneumonia—the image of the lungs looked cloudy, though it lacked the focal infiltrates that usually signify that condition—so he admitted my father to the hospital.
I took the first flight from Washington, D.C., and arrived in his room at a suburban-Chicago hospital at about 9 a.m. He was sitting in a chair, and all sorts of white wires were emerging from under his flimsy hospital gown. His index finger, because of the oxygen monitor attached to it, glowed like E.T.’s. Still, my father was acting like himself. When I entered the room, he mischievously needled me: “How are you doing, schmucko?”
The monitor above his bed showed a regular heart rate and oxygen saturation of 100 percent. The IV pole towering over him showed two empty bags of antibiotics.
I squeezed my dad’s hand, and we talked for about 20 minutes. Then I stepped out of the room to find the doctor to ask some questions. Standing at the nurses’ station, I was introduced to a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist, who were ready to talk to me about my father’s condition and treatment options.
My father had a large brain tumor that could not be cured and would end his life. No neurosurgeon or oncologist could change the inevitable. Especially in light of his age, any intervention that involved drilling into his skull and biopsying or removing part of such a big tumor would only worsen his quality of life. We didn’t want to interfere with him talking with his children and grandchildren and playing with his great-grandchildren during the time he had left.
But no one had taken the time to ask him about his wishes regarding medical treatment, even though he was competent to make decisions and was himself a physician. No one asked my mother and brother, who were with him in the emergency room and at the hospital, if he had an advance-care directive or wanted to have a do-not-resuscitate order. My father, a pediatrician, was one of those doctors who hated getting any medical care. Fifteen years before, he had walked around for three weeks insisting that the pain at the bottom of his rib cage was just acid indigestion. Eventually, he consented to go to his internist and was diagnosed with a heart attack, which required a bypass operation. Everything about the way he’d lived meant he certainly did not want any brain surgery with no chance of a cure. He wanted to die at home having shared his final days with his family.
Since the mid-1980s, I have worked to make this type of end-of-life care possible. I am a physician too. Once my father was admitted to a hospital, it took all my expertise and experience to arrange the kind of care he needed—and prevent the medical system from taking over and prescribing unnecessary interventions.
It was easy for the hospital physician to call a neurosurgeon and neuro-oncologist and for them to assess my father early on a Sunday morning before I arrived. But when I asked if we could get my father a palliative-care consult on Sunday, the answer was a definitive no. All we got was the number of the hospital’s palliative-care service; we had to call the next day, during normal business hours, to arrange a future consultation.
It was easy for the physician to prescribe my father two antibiotics for his supposed pneumonia even though he had none of the symptoms—a fever, ugly-looking phlegm, shortness of breath. Indeed, he was comfortably breathing room air with 100 percent oxygen saturation, which people with pneumonia typically can’t do. But it was impossible for the physician to order an in-home aide to help my father shower, get to and from the bathroom, and navigate the stairs to the living room and kitchen.
It was easy for my mother to call 911 and have him transported to the hospital. But if he fell again, there would be no 911-like number for my mother to call for urgent assistance short of EMTs and ambulances.
It would be easy for the emergency-room physician to admit my father again, and even put him in the intensive-care unit. But no one suggested that he and my mother get mental health care or see a grief counselor to cope with his new terminal diagnosis.
The hospital was no place for my father to spend his last days. To thwart the medical system’s momentum to lard on ever more costly, unnecessary, and unwanted interventions—and to convince the medical staff we were serious about no—I took my father’s oxygen monitor off his finger, disconnected his cardiac monitor, insisted that the nurse remove his IV, and asked the physician to discharge him as soon as possible.
Beyond a suggestion that we find a home-care agency to call, the hospital offered no assistance in getting him help at home. Ironically, the aide transporting him out of the hospital volunteered that she knew someone who was available to provide home care. Through my father’s former nurse and someone she knew, we ended up getting a talented and kind set of cousins—immigrants from the Philippines—who were able to provide care.
Despite the medical system, my father did avoid further trips to the hospital, an ICU admission, and more antibiotics and machines. He spent the rest of his time at home and was able to say goodbye to everyone. And being at home was cheaper. We still don’t have all the bills, but the tab just for about 12 hours in the hospital came to $19,276.83. In contrast, the more than 200 hours of home care he got over the next 10 days cost only $6,093.
Many Americans are puzzled about why end-of-life care costs are so high, and why physicians cannot seem to reduce them. My father’s story is the answer.
It has less to do with physicians’ and hospitals’ financial incentives to admit more patients and perform more medical interventions, and more to do with the effort required to order and provide human care. For providers, ordering tests and consultations and prescribing antibiotics is easier than listening to and diagnosing the particular needs of the person in front of them. It is easier for the medical system to marshal all sorts of costly interventions—MRI scans, hospital admissions, neurosurgeons, cancer chemotherapy, and the rest—but harder, if not impossible, to accept the inevitable and provide symptom management, grief counseling, and home care to patients and their family. Until the system takes account of the whole patient and provides the whole package of humane care as the default—so that it’s routine and made available 24/7 with one physician’s order, just as chemotherapy or an MRI would be—Americans will not be able to finally change end-of-life care and reduce those costs.
A terminal diagnosis is inherently traumatic for patients and their families. My father’s experience at home before his death needs to become the standard of care. And not just for patients with pushy sons who have medical training and know how to speak with physicians, disconnect cardiac monitors, and firmly refuse the interventions that our health-care system is so predisposed to offer.
In cases of brain death or neurologically devastating injury, poor communication can make painful situations even harder.
By Joseph Stern, M.D.
The bullet hole in the teenager’s forehead was so small, it belied the damage already done to his brain. The injury was fatal. We knew this the moment he arrived in the emergency room. Days later, his body was being kept alive in the intensive care unit despite an exam showing that he was brain-dead and no blood was flowing to his brain. Eventually, all his organs failed and his heart stopped beating.
But the nurses continued to care for the boy and his family, knowing he was already dead but trying to help the family members with the agonizing process of accepting his death.
This scenario occurs all too frequently in the neurosurgical I.C.U. Doctors often delay the withdrawal of life-sustaining supports such as ventilators and IV drips, and nurses continue these treatments — adhering to protocols, yet feeling internal conflict. A lack of consensus or communication among doctors, nurses and families often makes these situations more difficult for all involved.
Brain death is stark and final. When the patient’s brain function has ceased, bodily death inevitably follows, no matter what we do. Continued interventions, painful as they may be, are necessarily of limited duration. We can keep a brain-dead patient’s body alive for a few days at the most before his heart stops for good.
Trickier and much more common is the middle ground of a neurologically devastating injury without brain death. Here, decisions can be more difficult, and electing to continue or to withdraw treatment much more problematic. Inconsistent communication and support between medical staff members and families plays a role. A new field, neuropalliative care, seeks to focus “on outcomes important to patients and families” and “to guide and support patients and families through complex choices involving immense uncertainty and intensely important outcomes of mind and body.”
Not long ago, my surgical partner performed late-night emergency surgery on a young woman who had also been shot in the head. This time, the bullet’s violent impact exploded her skull. It traversed both hemispheres of her brain, including her basal ganglia and thalamus (deep brain regions affecting consciousness). Injury to these areas has a dismal prognosis, as do penetrating injuries to both sides of the brain. But, unlike the first patient with a single bullet hole and no exit wound, the initial explosion decompressed her brain, accommodating swelling rather than producing dangerously high pressures as occurred in the first patient, which led to brain herniation and his death.
This young woman lay in her I.C.U. bed, breathing with the aid of a mechanical ventilator, turned by nurses every two hours, fed through a thin tube passed through her nose into her stomach: never conscious, never moving spontaneously, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. She was likely to remain this way for the rest of her life.
The treating physicians and nurses agreed on the patient’s prognosis, and on a consistent message everyone could support. We met with the family at the young woman’s bedside and later telephoned out-of-state family members. The I.C.U. director and I spoke about difficult medical decisions we’d had to make regarding our own family members, and we asked them what she might want, since they were representing her interests and acting on her behalf. I explained her injury and the likelihood that she would never recover: Together, family members and neuro-I.C.U. caregivers agreed to transition the woman to comfort care and let her die.
Two years ago, I too was on the family side of this situation after my brother-in-law Pat collapsed with a brain hemorrhage from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. As the only physician in the family and Pat’s legally designated health care power of attorney, I made his medical decisions and communicated with the rest of his family, including his two sons, who were then 16 and 18 years old. This was all the more difficult because a year previously, his wife, my sister Victoria, had died of leukemia, leaving Pat as their children’s sole caregiver.
Pat was taken by ambulance to U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Westwood. Before flying to Los Angeles, I agreed to surgical clipping of his ruptured aneurysm. Technically, surgery went well, but Pat never regained consciousness. While never brain-dead, he remained deeply comatose. His neurosurgeon, Gregory Lekovic, was supportive: he and I discussed a timeline at our first meeting. He recommended giving Pat at least a week to improve. If he did not, Dr. Lekovic counseled us not to allow a tracheostomy and G-tube placement (permanent surgical routes for breathing and nutrition), and opt instead to withdraw treatment. This would be the clear stopping point. Dr. Lekovic and I worried it would be difficult to back off after those procedures had occurred.
Throughout the following week, Pat did not improve at all neurologically. Everyone hoped he was rallying. I felt like a wet blanket, continually challenging the other doctors’ enthusiasm. Understanding his condition and having legal authority to make decisions allowed me to keep a clear view of care objectives, but it didn’t make the situation easier on a personal level. Pat’s children had only begun coming to terms with losing their mother and were now confronting the possible loss of their father. But delaying this loss wouldn’t justify his continued existence without quality of life. He would have hated being comatose or severely impaired in a nursing home, unable to relate to his family or to care for his own basic needs such as eating or toileting, and had feared burdening his family.
The likelihood was that Pat would never regain consciousness. Yet on the morning we had planned to withdraw treatment, one of the neuro-I.C.U. specialists presented a scenario in which Pat might wake up, become able to walk with assistance and participate with his family. When pressed, the doctor admitted he was giving us the best possible outcome, rather than the most likely outcome.
Then Dr. Lekovic, speaking plainly, told us that for himself or his family member, he would make the decision to end treatment. He seemed genuinely sad. Doctors often think it is most important to be precise and not make mistakes; to predict the future with medical certainty. In my experience, connection and empathy are far more important than certainty. Patients and families want to know that you care about them and that you appreciate their pain in difficult circumstances.
My nephews appreciated the truth when I explained their father’s prognosis. While they were devastated at the prospect of losing him, honesty and inclusion in decision-making were important in helping them move forward with their lives.
Even with my training, I wondered if I was making the right decisions. Each affected family faces similar burdens. We all need better help wrestling with decisions in neurologically devastated patients, both through improved communication and the development of neuropalliative services.
Those of us in the medical profession cannot allow ourselves to focus on the short-term or allow care to be driven by procedures, losing sight of outcome and quality of life. We need to approach our patients and their families with open hearts, acknowledging their suffering and the uncertainty we all experience.
A recent analysis published by the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that for the first time since the early 20th century, more Americans are dying at home than in the hospital.
According to the report, in 2017, 30.7% of Americans died at home, while slightly fewer (29.8%) died in hospitals. Another notable statistic from the study is that between 2003 and 2017 the number of Americans who died in hospice-specific facilities grew by 41%, from 0.2% of deaths in 2003 to 8.3% in 2017. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), 47.5% of New Hampshire residents on Medicare who died in 2017 were receiving hospice care benefits.
This data does not come as a surprise to those of us who work in hospice care and have the honor of helping families navigate the end-of-life experience.
Up until the mid-1900s, it was routine for people to die in their homes, cared for and surrounded by loved ones, but by the 1950s, more Americans died in hospitals. The concept of “death with dignity” was introduced in the United States in the early 1960s, sparking the movement toward hospice care.
The hospice movement gathered steam in the late 1970s with the formation of the National Hospice Organization, and by the mid-1980s, the federal government formalized the hospice benefit for people on Medicare.
Concord Regional VNA has been caring for people in their homes for 120 years, providing nursing, therapy, personal care, homemaking and other services to people of all ages. For more than 30 of those years, we have provided specialized end-of-life care, guidance, and support to patients and families. In 1994 we expanded our hospice service by opening the first Hospice House in New Hampshire on Pleasant Street in Concord. We have served thousands of hospice patients and their families over the years, including nearly 1,000 patients in 2019.
While it is true that hospice care comes into play toward the end of a person’s life, there are many common misconceptions, such as:
■ Hospice care is only for the last few days or weeks of a person’s life;
■ It is only for people with cancer, people in severe pain or those who have a “do not resuscitate” order;
■ People on hospice do not receive treatment, they’re just kept comfortable with medication;
■ Hospice is a “place” where a person goes to die;
■ Hospice hastens death;
■ People on hospice must give up seeing their primary care providers;
■ Hospice care is focused on the patient and ends when the patient dies.
Hospice care is much more than meeting patients’ medical needs. Hospice care empowers patients to have a voice in their end-of-life experience, and to help them through it with as much comfort, grace and dignity as possible. It is about compassion – for them and their loved ones.
Some people choose to begin receiving hospice care in the final weeks or days of a terminal illness, but it is not unusual for patients to begin hospice care many months before they eventually pass.
People who receive hospice care through Concord Regional VNA benefit from individualized care coordinated with their care team, which may include their primary care provider and other clinicians. They may receive nursing care, physical and/or occupational therapy, pain management, spiritual care, social work , including emotional support and companionship – all in the place they call home, which could be a private residence, an independent living or assisted-living community, or a skilled nursing facility. Those who need more intensive care may opt to receive care at Hospice House.
Equally as important in this journey are the caregivers, who are most often the patients’ loved ones. Hospice care is about them, too. In addition to day-to-day assistance with patient care, loved ones may receive emotional and spiritual guidance and support from our counselors and spiritual care providers; help with end-of-life planning; much-needed respite care; and myriad other services. And it is important to note that hospice care does not end when a patient dies – our bereavement counselors and support groups help loved ones as they learn to cope with their loss for as long as they need us.
Hospice care is also about volunteers. The hospice movement was started by volunteers and they remain a crucial component to this day. In fact, Medicare requires that volunteers provide at least 5% of total patient care hours, which can take the form of direct support, spending time with patients and families, or performing tasks that support hospice care services. Concord Regional VNA is incredibly fortunate to have nearly 100 volunteers from the communities we serve who give their time and energy to our hospice patients and their loved ones.
So what does this mean and why does it matter? The recently released data suggests that more people have come to understand that receiving care in the comfort of home – in familiar surroundings, in proximity to loved ones and friends – is a preferable and realistic option. From a clinical standpoint, studies show that patients who receive hospice care live longer than those with similar diagnoses who do not receive hospice care. Receiving care at home also has a significant positive impact on overall health care costs.
Death is a fact of life. Patients often tell us that choosing hospice allows them to feel in control, and managing their symptoms helps them feel more at peace. Choosing hospice is not giving up, rather, it is choosing to live fully until you die.
It is not meant to be scary; it is meant to help people live each moment to the fullest and to pass with dignity and respect surrounded by love.
We at Concord Regional VNA are privileged to help patients and their loved ones navigate this journey, and proud to have been providing hospice service to the people of Concord and the 43 other New Hampshire communities we serve for more than 30 years.
“Lyn Lofland’s The Craft of Dying (1978) is one of the most important books on post WWII death and dying practices that almost no one has read,” writes John Troyer, director of the Centre for Death and Society at Bath University. He thinks that everybody interested in death and dying should read the book. I agree. Potentially that means that every human being should read the book—because who cannot be interested in death, arguably the most important thing about us. Plus The Craft of Dying is short, easily read, full of compelling stories, and constructs a clear argument.
“Death can neither be “believed” nor “magicked” nor “scienced” away,” writes Lofland in her first line. But we can’t stop ourselves from thinking about it: “Everywhere and always humans think about it and develop beliefs regarding it and produce emotions toward it and do things relative to it. What they think, believe, feel, and do is, of course, variant. But that they think, believe, feel, and do is a universal.”
Every culture has developed beliefs and customs around death, but human death, argues Lofland, has changed dramatically in the past 60 years. Until that time people died mostly of infectious disease and injuries. The period of dying was short, and it was clear when people were dead. Medicine had little to offer. Now people die mostly of chronic disease, and the length of dying is long. Death is not easily defined, and doctors have much to offer, including long term ventilation, heroic operations, and drugs, some of them extremely expensive.
“In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die,” writes Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, published in 2014. Lofland wrote something similar in 1978: “There exists currently no widely accepted, fully articulated, well-integrated dogma that gives ‘being dying’ its meaning or its place in the larger scheme of things.”
A cultural vacuum has been created, and inevitably attempts are underway to fill the vacuum. We have entered a new age of what Lofland calls “thanatalogical chic”: in the contemporary cliché “death is the new black.” We have to decide how to die, where to die, how to dispose of the dead, how to mourn, and, most difficult of all, what death means.
One response has been what Lofland teasingly calls “the Happy Death Movement.” It is an inchoate social movement with many practitioners, strands, and different views, but Lofland sees patterns that were emerging in the 70s and are still emerging.
Firstly, a social movement needs an enemy, and the enemy of the Happy Death Movement is death denial, death as the great taboo. Lofland defines the enemy: ”America is a death-denying society…death is a taboo topic…death makes Americans uncomfortable so they run from …death is hidden in America because Americans deny it….” For America, Lofland’s home, we could substitute any high-income country—or even any high-income group within a poor country. “The consequences of all this denial and repression are,” continues Lofland, “asserted to be quite terrible: exorbitant funeral costs and barbaric funeral practices, inhumane handling of dying in hospitals, ostracism of the dying from the living, inauthentic communication with the fatally ill, an unrealistic, mechanical, non-organic view of life, and so forth.”
Lofland is dismissive of the idea of death as taboo: “One might consider it somewhat odd that the statement that death is a taboo topic in America should continue to be asserted in the face of nearly a decade of non-stop talking on the subject.” Talk, writing, and storytelling about death has continued unabated ever since and probably increased. It is probably fair to say, however, that there is much less familiarity with the experience of death: dying people, the signs of death being close, dead bodies, and the disposal of the dead.
A social movement also needs something to shoot for, and for the Happy Death Movement it’s some form of idealised premodern death, with the dying person at home surrounded by loved ones and calmly bidding them goodbye. Lofland is dismissive of this as well, including in her book stories of the dying being buried alive (in Samoa) and ignored while families party (in Tahiti).
As you would expect, the attempts to create new behaviours and beliefs around death reflect broader cultural trends, which Lofland identifies in the United States as “ ‘humanistic-counterculture’ denouncement of modern society in general, which denouncement emphasizes the Western world’s dehumanizing, unemotional, technologically dominated, inauthentic, and constricted character.” That cultural trend is alive and flourishing in most Western societies. “Why not,” asks Lofland, “with Carl Jung, speak of “the achievement of death” and view dying as the final creative task of our lives?” A director of spiritual services (what used to be called a chaplain) I met recently in a hospice told me of the tremendous pressure on people to have a “good death.” This immediately evoked for me the pressure on mothers to have a “good” or “natural” birth.
Emphasising that the Happy Death Movement is still forming, Lofland identifies how the movement will make dying better. Firstly, it’s essential to talk about it. For example, the Order of the Good Death, an organisation founded by a Californian mortician, has eight tenets—and three of them concern talking about death
“2. I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.
3. I believe that talking about and engaging with my inevitable death is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.
7. I believe that my family and friends should know my end-of-life wishes, and that I should have the necessary paperwork to back-up those wishes.”
Secondly, death must be rearranged, moved from hospital to hospices and the home. Death in hospital is failure. Thirdly, we must legislate death with advanced decisions and assisted dying.
Lofland also identifies emerging components of the new craft of dying. Expressivity is essential, but it’s also important to not just embrace death, but to celebrate it. (I’ve done this with my talk, delivered once at the Edinburgh Festival, “Death: the upside.”) Finally—and for me surprisingly—the Happy Death Movement wants us to believe in immortality. Lofland describes how Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who might be called the doyen of the Happy Death Movement and whose hugely influential book On Death and Dying proposed in 1969 the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), came to believe in immortality. The pursuit of immortality, long a dream and arguably the unique selling point of Christianity, now attracts serious people and serious money.
The other two components of the emerging craft of dying are expressivity and positivity. Talk and write about your dying and coming death and celebrate your coming death and the death of those you love. New rituals will be needed, and some like “living funerals” are beginning.
Lofland is a sociologist, an academic, an observer, but you feel that she is not in fully sympathy with the Happy Death Movement. Indeed, she conjures the idea of a Dismal Death Movement to counter the Happy Death Movement: “If expressivity comes to be widely accepted as the only way to achieve a decent death, the emotionally reticent will find themselves under great pressure to ‘share.’ If the idea that death and dying provide new opportunities for self-improvement becomes common currency, the chronic under achiever will find himself facing one more opportunity for failure. Not ‘getting off’ on death may become as déclassé as sexual unresponsiveness. Then perhaps, a ‘dismal death’ movement will rise to wipe the smile from the face of death and restore the ‘Grim Reaper’ to his historic place of honor.”
There is a little about medicine and healthcare in Lofland’s book, and nor does the Order of the Good Death have much to say on the subject. But I wonder how much medicine and healthcare—gigantic, well-funded enterprises—might come to fill the need for new ways to die. Ivan Illich certainly argued that that was the case in his book Limits to Medicine, published at about the same time as Lofland’s book. Death “is now that point at which the human organism refuses any further input of treatment…Health, or the autonomous power to cope, has been expropriated down to the last breath. Technical death has won its victory over dying. Mechanical death has conquered and destroyed all other deaths.” Indeed, it is by taking on death that “health care has become a monolithic world religion.”
All those who read Lofland’s book agree that it could have been published in 2018 not 1978 and be equally relevant. The struggle to create a new craft of dying is far from over, and those of us in medicine and heath care have a particular responsibility to think and act on medicine’s role in the struggle. Almost certainly its role should be smaller.