Providing emotional support to people at the end of life and their families

How can social workers address difficulties in communication and help promote openness between professionals, service users, their family and other carers?

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All social workers may occasionally need to become involved in end-of-life care, even when most of their work lies in other fields. This may arise, for example, when a service user or a member of a service user’s family has a sudden fatal accident or commits suicide, or becomes aware that they or a close relative or friend is dying.

Practitioners may sometimes worry about being pitched into end-of-life care unexpectedly because it disrupts existing plans and may lead people to express powerful emotions. As a result, the situation or emotions may seem frighteningly out of control; indeed, this is one of the fears that many people have at the end of life.

Social workers can play a key role in responding to service users’ and carers’ feelings of uncertainty and lack  of control. We can also address difficulties in communication and help promote openness between professionals, service users, their family and other carers.

Communication is key

A common issue in the dying process is the extent to which service users and family members and friends are aware that they are dying; awareness develops through communication. Death and dying are often hidden in our society and are medicalised, separating them from everyday life.

Many people regard openly discussing someone’s death with them as inappropriate. This attitude may be characteristic of some people in older age groups and is also associated with the cultural expectations of some minority ethnic groups.

To help people and families with the end of life, practitioners need to be able to talk with them, and most people working in end-of-life care aim for openness. However, even if the person accepts that they are dying, some prefer not to talk about it, and their approach must be respected.

A useful approach to openness is to start from the service user’s or carer’s perspective. You can ask: “Can you bring me up to date on what you have been told by…(the doctor, nurse)?” It may also be useful to get a picture of their own assessment of their illness, and ask: “Have you noticed any changes in your condition?” Later in a serious illness, you could ask how they assess changes: “Would you say you are weaker today than last week?” To get a picture of how realistic their view is, you can ask: “What has happened that makes you think that?”

Being informed of a short prognosis often leads to a change in mood. Depression arises from focusing on the potential and actual losses, and anxiety arises from seeing the prognosis as a threat to plans for the future and relationships. Crisis theory (Golan, 1978) suggests that it may help if you can stimulate a sense of challenge, helping people to think through what they want to do with the short time they have left, reordering priorities. If you identify depression or anxiety, you could also refer the service user for medication to manage symptoms.

Completing ambitions and tasks

Although someone may know they are facing death soon, the end-of-life phase is often characterised by uncertainty: people do not know what is going to happen to them, or the timescale. Some people maintain hope by denial, but this may be unhelpful for them if they have tasks to complete, for example, writing a will or making care arrangements for their children after death. All hope contains a rational element, in which people look at the realities of their position, and an emotional element, in which they express aspirations or expectations.

People may wish to complete ambitions, such as swimming with dolphins, or taking a last holiday. They may wish to visit previous homes or favourite places. You can suggest possibilities to them if they have not thought of any.

Social workers can support the following aspects of emotional and psychological care:

  • managing the practical and emotional consequences of increasing frailty, a progressive condition or a life-threatening illness;
  • enabling dying people, their carers, families and communities to express and deal with emotional responses to the ‘bad news’ of a short prognosis and subsequent bereavement;
  • helping people look forward to opportunities remaining to them in their life, and helping them to live their life within their family and within a community;
  • helping people complete social and relationship ‘tasks’ (see box) and making other preparations for death;
  • spiritual care (sometimes provided by a minister of religion or chaplain).

Resolving interpersonal issues

Many people wish to complete interpersonal and social tasks in the time available to them, to bring significant interpersonal attachments to a satisfactory end. These are often about resolving four important interpersonal issues:

  • Saying goodbye to important people.
  • Saying “thank you” for care provided and “for putting up with me”.
  • Saying “I love you”, even if there has been a degree of estrangement.
  • Saying sorry for some real or imagined failing, or “I forgive you” for something that has gone wrong in a relationship.

In some cases, people may have become estranged from friends or relatives who are important to them, and it can be useful to ask: “Is there anyone who you would like to know about…(your illness, admission to hospital or care home)?” and to help to approach divorced or separated parents of children who may wish or at least be willing to see the service user for a last goodbye.

Supporting family and carers

Family members and informal caregivers make a significant and irreplaceable contribution to meeting the needs of dying people. Many dying people become increasingly dependent on family, friends and other caregivers for practical and emotional help. This is particularly an emotional labour for caregivers, as round-the-clock care interacts with their own feelings of loss and other priorities in their lives.

Social workers can help by arranging practical supportive services for carers as well as offering emotional and psychological support. This might include adult day care, respite care, home care, and education and social opportunities to improve satisfaction, quality of life, and reduce the feeling of burden. Sustaining families has the secondary gain of also helping the patient.

Preparing fully for someone dying is not possible, but you may be able to help people think through how they want to let go of the relationship, particularly if there have been difficulties with it. You could talk to them about what has been important in the relationship, how they will best remember the service user and the possibility of rituals of leave-taking.

A final cuddle or sexual act may be important. If a visit to the pub is not possible, a favourite beer together may be a substitute.  Information that may help people’s preparation includes: what happens to their body after death, negotiating legal requirements or what sort of funeral they want. Discussing these issues allows negotiation about individual and family preferences to take place. For others, focusing on what to do after someone has died feels inappropriate and contributes to feelings of guilt.

During the dying phase, the social worker’s role is to facilitate family members and carers to participate as they want. People often wish to be present throughout the last few hours, and hospitals and care homes usually call known relatives to the bedside; at home, carers and family members may need to be reminded to do this.

The dying person may disclose unknown relatives and friends, for example, extramarital relationships or estranged family members, and it is often a social work role to make contact. If the dying person and family agree, social workers may negotiate for them to have final contact with these relatives and friends.

It is also useful for social workers to think through their approach to providing bereavement care where a service user they are involved with is coming towards the end of life. The full guide considers different psychological and sociological models and approaches, and when they may be appropriate to use.

Complete Article HERE!

When a doctor and patient disagree about care at the end of life

By Ravi Parikh

Sometimes, doctors and patients disagree about end-of-life care. I know, because it happened with me.

Not long ago, a frail-looking elderly patient appeared at my cardiac health clinic with a file full of hospitalizations stemming from a heart attack years before. He’d had three coronary stents put in, had had heart bypass surgery and was unable to walk for more than a block due to chest pain. I saw that a previous doctor had written “DNR” — do not resuscitate — in his chart, so I asked him to confirm his wishes.

No, he said, to my surprise. He actually wanted to be a “full code” — meaning that chest compressions, shocks and intubation were to be used if necessary to keep him alive.

I was taken aback. Someone had presumably told him that he would probably not survive a cardiac arrest even with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. (Only 1 out of 7 patients older than 80 do; this man was close to 90.)

“I don’t want anyone giving up on me,” he said. No matter how much I explained that CPR would probably only cause him to suffer longer without adding to his life, he remained adamant. He left my office visit with a yellow “full code” indicator in his chart instead of the red “DNR” one.

When I walked home that night, I couldn’t help thinking how badly our conversation had gone. I had discussed end-of-life planning with many patients, and usually we’d been able to come to decisions that made sense both medically and to the patient. But not this time.

Maybe I hadn’t explained the facts well enough; maybe there was a language barrier; or maybe he just didn’t trust me.

Medicare recently put in place new rules that will allow doctors to be reimbursed for discussing end-of-life preferences with patients.

Originally derailed by the “death panel” accusations of 2010, the measure has been hailed as a major victory toward a better, more transparent system of end-of-life care. Patrick Conway, the chief medical officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, remarked that such advance-care planning discussions were important to promote “patient- and family-centered care.”

But sometimes these discussions are anything but patient-centered. That’s because what the doctor wants doesn’t always align with what the patient needs.

As a resident, I approach most end-of-life conversations with a narrow focus: Confirm a code status and get the name of an emergency contact person. “Do you want to be resuscitated if you lost your pulse?” “Do you want to have a breathing tube if you were unable to breathe on your own?” “Whom should we contact in case of an emergency?” I needed to document answers to those questions to finish my patient-chart note. With my pager ringing and admissions arriving, I usually didn’t have time for anything else.

The patients I speak to, however, want so much more out of their end-of-life conversations.

One of the most common questions I heard was “How long do I have?” Indeed, about half of patients desire some knowledge about prognosis when discussing the end of life. They also wanted to know whether their symptoms — pain and nausea, for example — would ever go away, and what options would allow them to be at home during their final days. One woman even asked whether someone could set up her deathbed along the same beach where she had grown up. I frequently can’t answer these questions.

Yet even these potentially frustrating conversations aren’t that common: While 8 in 10 people of all ages think it is important to talk to their doctor about their end-of-life wishes, fewer than 1 in 10 report actually having had these discussions. But there are two participants in those end-of-life conversations: patient and doctor. Unless each realizes what the other wants, both risk coming away from those conversations feeling uncomfortable or sensing that things had not gone well.

Before I saw my elderly heart patient for his next visit, I came across the website of the Conversation Project, a group dedicated to helping people discuss their wishes for end-of-life care. Led by health professionals, media, clergy and others, the Conversation Project has published a “Starter Kit” to help patients and health professionals prepare for end-of-life conversations. The guide first asks patients to fill in the blank: “What matters to me at the end of life is ______.” Subsequent steps are based on that answer.

More resources for advance-care planning exist. A nonprofit called ACP Decisions has created videos to help physicians explain emotionally charged end-of-life concepts such as CPR, hospice and feeding tubes. At my hospital, we have used simulated conversations with patient actors to help residents approach the end-of-life conversation.

So at my next meeting with my patient, rather than beginning the discussion around his code status, I asked what mattered most to him. Over the next five minutes, he explained how his great-granddaughter in Ethiopia had just been born. The family was flying to America next month, presumably to see my patient for the last time. Even if it meant receiving compressions or shocks, he wanted to make sure he was alive to see that baby. He remained a full code until our next visit, which was two months later, after his family had left. At this point, he decided to revert to DNR. We are discussing hospice care now.

I no longer think that my first discussion with that patient was a failure. But it opened my eyes to how little I’d been listening. End-of-life discussions are opportunities to learn more, to start a conversation that we as doctors have been missing out on for quite a while. Once we listen enough to learn, maybe those “goals of care” discussions will start focusing on the goals of the patient, not the doctor.

Complete Article HERE!

Working in Hospice Changed My Perspective on Death

“Like many physicians, I’d never considered that there might be more to death than an enemy to be fought.”

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Tom was only forty when he arrived at Hospice Buffalo with end-stage AIDS. Unlike most of my patients, he was not surrounded by loved ones. Not a soul came to visit, ever. He was rather stoic, so I wondered if the absence of visitors was his choice rather than an indicator of his loneliness. Maybe that was his way of refusing to give death an audience.

I was puzzled but, wanting to respect his privacy, did not inquire. Tom’s emaciated body showed traces of once-chiseled muscles. He had kept fit and was still quite young, which gave me hope. In light of his age and physical conditioning, I thought that his body would be more likely to respond positively to life-prolonging treatment. Not long after he was admitted, I went to the nurse’s station and decreed, “I think we can buy Tom some time. IV antibiotics and fluids should do it.”

The charge nurse, Nancy, had been at Hospice Buffalo for much longer than I had. She knew her job, and everyone looked up to her. She was also not one to mince words. Still, her response took me by surprise: “Too late. He’s dying.”

I said, “Oh really?”

She replied, “Yep. He’s been dreaming about his dead mother.” I chuckled awkwardly—equal parts disbelief and defensiveness. “I don’t remember that class from medical school,” I said.

Nancy did not miss a beat. “Son, you must have missed a lot of classes.”

I was a thirty-year-old cardiology fellow finishing my specialty training while working weekends at Hospice Buffalo to pay the bills. Nancy was an exceptional veteran nurse who had limited patience for young, idealistic doctors. She did what she always did when someone was out of their depth—she rolled her eyes.

I went about my business, mentally running through all the ways modern medicine could give Tom another few weeks or even months. He was riddled with infection, so we administered antibiotics. Because he was also severely dehydrated, I asked for a saline drip. I did all I could do as a doctor to prolong his life, but within forty-eight hours, Tom was dead.

Nancy had been right in her estimation of where he was on the downward slope. But how could she have known? Was it just pessimism, the numbing effect of having watched so many people die? Was she truly using a patient’s dream as a predictor of life-span? Nancy had worked in hospice for more than two decades. She was tuned in to aspects of dying I knew nothing about: its subjective dimensions. How patients experienced illness, particularly dying, had mostly been ignored throughout my training as a doctor.

Like many physicians, I’d never considered that there might be more to death than an enemy to be fought. I knew about blind intervention—doing everything possible to keep people conscious and breathing—but had little regard for the way any given individual might wish to die, or for the unavoidable truth that ultimately death is inevitable. Because it had not been part of my medical education, I failed to see how the subjective experience of dying could be relevant to my role as a doctor.

It was ultimately the remarkable incidence of pre-death dreams and visions among my dying patients that made me realize how significant a phenomenon this was, both at a clinical and a human level. As a hospice doctor, I have been at the bedsides of thousands of patients who, in the face of death, speak of love, meaning, and grace. They reveal that there is often hope beyond cure as they transition from a focus on treatment to notions of personal meaning. As illness advances, grace and grit collide and bring new insight to those dying and their loved ones, insight that is often paradoxically life-affirming. This experience includes pre-death dreams and visions that are manifestations of this time of integration and coming into oneself. These are powerful and stirring experiences that occur in the last days or hours of life and that constitute moments of genuine insight and vivid re-centering for patients. They often mark a clear transition from distress to acceptance, a sense of tranquility and wholeness for the dying. Patients consistently describe them as “more real than real,” and they are each as unique as the individual having them.

These end-of-life experiences are centered on personal histories, self-understanding, concrete relationships, and singular events. They are made of images and vignettes that emanate from each person’s life experiences rather than from abstract preoccupations with the great beyond. They are about a walk in the woods relived alongside a loving parent, car rides or fishing trips taken with close family members, or seemingly insignificant details such as the texture or color of a loved one’s dress, the feel of a horse’s velvety muzzle, or the rustling sound of a cottonwood’s shimmering leaves in the backyard of a childhood home. Long-lost loved ones come back to reassure; past wounds are healed; loose ends are tied; lifelong conflicts are revisited; forgiveness is achieved.

Doctors owe it to their patients to incorporate this awareness into our practice. End-of-life experiences ought to be recognized as evidence of the life-affirming and inspiring resilience of the human spirit that drives them. They are proof of humanity’s built-in, natural, and profoundly spiritual capacity for self-sustenance and self-healing, grace and hope. They help restore meaning at end of life and assist in reclaiming dying as a process in which patients have a say. They also benefit those left behind, the bereaved, who get relief from seeing their loved ones die with a sense of peace and closure.

This subjective experience of dying is also a powerful reminder that beauty and love in human existence often manifest themselves when we least expect it. The patients who summon up comforting processes at life’s end are beset by symptoms of a failing body over which they have limited control. They are at their most frail and vulnerable, existing within suffering states of aching bones and hunger for air. Catheters, IVs, and pills may now be part of their every day, sometimes literally functioning as extensions of their bodies under the daily medical management that is their new and irreversible lot. They may experience various degrees of cognitive, psychological, and spiritual dissonance. Yet even as the inexorable march of time is taking its toll on their bodies and minds, many also have pre-death dreams and visions in the context of which they display remarkable awareness and mental sharpness.

Herein truly lies the paradox of dying: patients are often emotionally and spiritually alive, even enlightened, despite a precipitous physical deterioration. The physical and psychological toll of dying may be undeniable, but it is also what makes the emotional and spiritual changes brought about by end-of-life experiences border on the miraculous. Doing justice to end-of-life experiences means accounting for this paradox, one in which death and dying transcend physical decline and sadness to include spiritual awakening, beauty, and grace. Or, as the title character in the acclaimed Tuesdays with Morrie puts it, “Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die.” This is also true of the dying process, which often functions as a summing up, culmination, and capstone, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate our humanity in all its complexity and dignity rather than just as an ending.

Excerpted from DEATH IS BUT A DREAM by Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD and Carine Mardorossian, PhD. Published on February 11, 2020 by Avery, and imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by William Hudson, LLC

Complete Article HERE!

How visions, dreams and end-of-life experiences help people prepare for death

By Erin Blakemore

Mary was dying. As her children gathered at her bedside, she began to cradle a nonexistent baby. She cooed and cuddled it in her arms, showing a happiness that was at odds with her physical suffering. Her children turned to the doctor, concerned that their mother was hallucinating. But he encouraged them to let her act out a scene that only made sense to her.

Later, they learned that Mary had delivered a stillborn baby years before she had her other children. What had seemed like a bizarre hallucination actually seemed to help address a trauma she had held inside for years. She died peacefully soon after.

Christopher Kerr, the hospice doctor who witnessed Mary’s actions, credits her with helping change his view on death.

It turns out that similar visions, dreams and end-of-life experiences are common parts of the dying process. Kerr describes what those visions are like and how they help people prepare for the end in “Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End,” written with Carine Mardorossian.

Kerr has interviewed thousands of dying patients about their visions and dreams, which often include dead family members or pets or which recreate past scenes from which patients extract meaning or healing. Patients describe seeing dead family members in the room, feeling a comforting presence nearby, or tying up unfinished emotional business relating to past slights and traumas.

The book is a challenge to doctors, whom Kerr encourages to honor and listen to the dying.

“We need to bring doctors back to the bedside, to their roots as comforters of the dying rather than as mere technicians trying to extend life at all costs,” he writes.

But it beckons to readers, too, encouraging them to open up to how dying patients make meaning of their own lives. By listening to patients, says Kerr, “dying becomes less about death than about life’s resilience.”

Complete Article HERE!

A Chaplain on How to Talk About the Right to Die and Death With Patients

By Diane Rehm

Martha Kay Nelson has had a long career in hospice work. Rather than choosing hospice work, she believes hospice work chose her. Her training was at Harvard Divinity School. She did a yearlong internship as a hospice chaplain during her graduate work. The year after she graduated, she managed to combine her career as a chaplain with her work in hospice. She is in her mid-forties, with short hair and hazel eyes. Her warm, open face, earnest manner, and easy smile help me understand why she is so good at her work. We sit together in her office at Mission Hospice & Home Care in San Mateo, California.

DIANE: How do you feel about California’s “right to die” law?

MARTHA: Well, I have many feelings, and they could vary depending on the day or the hour. It depends on whom I’m talking to, and what her or his experience is. My overall sense about the law is that people have a right to make their own health-care decisions, whether it’s at the end of life or at any time up to that point. I know people have a hard time having these conversations, particularly early on, before they’re even sick. And then they get sick and it’s crisis time, and those decisions have to be made quickly. The End of Life Option Act to me is part of a spectrum of all those decisions and conversations that come at the end. It’s a new end point on that spectrum.

D: You’ve been in a leadership position here at Mission Hospice, not only learning, but teaching. Tell me what have been the elements of transmitting this information to others.

M: It’s been an interesting learning curve. I think even seasoned hospice professionals have had to adjust to a new option for patients, stepping into that terrain. The elements that have been important in teaching staff members, working with health-care partners, have been to get folks to acknowledge at the outset that this is a challenging topic, this is new terrain, there are profound implications, and not to shy away from it.

Some folks here at Mission Hospice didn’t want to participate, but the majority did, to have their questions answered or share some of their thoughts, their concerns. We’ve done this regularly enough that people felt they could talk freely about the End of Life Option Act. We didn’t want it to be whispered about awkwardly in the corner, that this law is coming and our patients are going to have the right to choose the option. As an agency, we’re not advocates for the law, we’re advocates for our patients, and we won’t abandon them. Having said that, any of our employees, if they’re not comfortable, don’t have to participate. They can opt out if they need to, and they would be fully supported.

D: What kinds of questions did you get from staff? What kinds of issues did they raise?

M: At the outset, a lot of general questions about details of the law, how it works, how are we supposed to communicate with our colleagues around it, what can we say to the patient and what can’t we, those kinds of things. Questions arose about accessibility to the law. If I have patients who are saying they just want to end it all, and they’re saying this a lot, but they’re not specifically asking about the law, then can I bring it up with them or not? We have a policy here at Mission Hospice that we let the patient lead. If a patient is inquiring about his or her options, then we will be there.

That’s one kind of question. Other clinicians have asked about folks who haven’t had the chance to be educated about medical aid in dying, or don’t have access to resources where they might have learned about it. What if it’s something they’d like to avail themselves of ? There’s kind of a social justice question there. There are also questions arising from specific cases. Every case is different.

D: Can you give me an idea of how many patients have actually come forward and asked you about the right to die?

M: We’ve been tracking some of these numbers, and to date, we’ve served around forty-five people since California’s law went into effect, which was a lot more than we anticipated. When back in 2016 we set out to draft our policy and prepare ourselves, we thought maybe we’d have four or five people in the first year. We had twenty-one. And about that same number inquired about the law, but never went all the way through the process. Either they actually died before they had a chance to use the law, or they changed their minds. I would imagine that it was split evenly.

D: Tell me about the process. So a patient comes to you and asks about the process, the law. How do you respond?

M: My initial response as a chaplain would be one of curiosity. I’d be interested in learning more about their thoughts and why they’re asking. It’s a big thing to ask about. Sometimes people are afraid to even inquire. They’re afraid of being shamed or judged. So I’d want to let that person know that I’m glad they’re asking. And then we’d have a conversation, whatever they would wish to say at that time. Next, I would contact the doctor and the rest of my interdisciplinary team members and would let them know the topic had been broached. Then a doctor would probably go and make a direct visit, which would be considered the first formal request, if the decision was made to pursue that course.

We really encourage the other team members to make sure they keep talking to one another—the social worker, the nurse, the spiritual counselor, home health aides, and volunteers who might also be involved. Through a team effort, we would need to have clarity on how much privacy the patient would want. Patients have the right under the law to not tell anyone but the doctors they’re working with, not even family members. Our experience has been that that’s not often the case. Usually there is communication with family.

D: Who makes the initial judgment that the patient has six months or less to live?

M: The attending physician on the case. And if the patient inquires about the law, and his or her doctor says, “I’m not comfortable being involved with this,” that’s one way we might get involved. Or it might be a hospice patient already on our service.

D: I saw in your waiting room a brochure for Death Cafes. Can you tell me about them?

M: The Death Cafe movement started several years ago in England. It’s basically having a conversation over coffee and cakes in a public venue. Anyone is welcome to attend, and the purpose is open-ended. The goal is to talk about death in any way you wish. There does need to be a facilitator, someone who is able to establish ground rules in etiquette so folks aren’t talking over one another. Folks that host them tend to have some level of experience in end-of- life care, in thanatology, but anyone can sign up. I’ve led a couple of them.

D: How successful do you think Death Cafes are as teaching tools, as comforting elements in the whole discussion of death?

M: I think Death Cafes are successful in meeting the needs of folks who already want to talk about death. If you show up at a Death Cafe, there’s something in you that is already ready to speak and to hear what other people are thinking. It can serve as a cross-pollination of ideas and thoughts, and normalization. The cafes meet a kind of thirst that we have in our culture to speak about these things openly and not be afraid. How you get people to Death Cafes is another question. I’ve had some people say they’re offended by that name, or they don’t want to attend a Death Cafe because it sounds morbid.

D: What is the best way to reach people? How do we get the conversation started even before we’re sick?

M: There’s no one best way. It’s about being creative and really getting to know your community. In my family, I’ve been lucky in that we’ve always talked about death openly. I have ongoing conversations now with my father. He’s about to turn eighty-three, and I really value the kinds of discussions and ruminations we have.

It’s wonderful. We’ve started kind of reflecting theologically, talking about, wondering together, what happens after we die. To be able to have that in a father-daughter kind of way. I’m well aware of what a precious opportunity it is to hear his thoughts. As he comes into the “lean and slippered pantaloon” time of his life, as he might say—some of his last chapters— I feel really blessed that he’s willing to discuss it openly.

D: How do you open that discussion for the general public?

M: I think it takes courage and a conscious decision to ask a question of someone in a moment when you feel there’s an opportunity. Someone speaking about her or his health, some decline, or illness, grief, and you ask, “How would you like things to be?” And perhaps even being a bit persistent if you get an initial brush-off, which often happens, but trying again, and saying, “ Really, I would like to know.”

I also think reaching children is important. I think that in our death-denying culture, children are really shielded from all things involved with death. Things happen at the funeral parlor, no longer at home, and we try to protect children in all kinds of ways. But if you don’t allow children who want to be involved in a loved one’s illness or death, I think you’re doing them a disservice. You’re keeping them from something that is integral to life for all of us. The earlier you can start to have those experiences and wonder about them and ask the questions, the more skills you will have as you age to meet them openly.

D: Have you decided what you want for yourself at the end?

M: I have no idea. I do know that I would like to have the right and the option to choose. I understand that even just knowing that the option is available can bring a lot of comfort to people. I haven’t faced a terminal illness that might cause me great physical pain or suffering, or mental or spiritual suffering. There’s one area that gives me pause, which is when folks choose medical aid in dying because they’re used to being in control in their lives. They might not have physical or mental or spiritual suffering, but they want to have personal agency. I think they entirely have the right to do that. But I also believe we’re in a culture that distorts the degree to which we think we’re in control. So on a soul level, on a much deeper level, I wonder, Are we messing with something there? How is it that we’re making such a profound decision from a place of a distorted need for control? And then I think, Well, what do I know about their journey and what they need? Maybe this is the one time they’ve ever made a strong, solid decision for themselves, and who am I to say what it is they need to learn?

D: But isn’t pain, intractable pain and suffering, and the inability to care for oneself, a sufficient reason to respect someone’s decision in terms of his or her final say?

M: Absolutely. I think clinicians have more trouble when they can’t observe visible intractable pain, when they can’t see physical or emotional suffering. It’s harder for clinicians to get their heads and hearts around that. Why is someone making this choice? And so I do a lot of counseling with staff about that, exploring how to meet the needs of the person when we don’t see them suffering, at least not on the surface. And we have to remind ourselves, clinicians need to express those feelings and concerns, so that when they’re dealing with patients directly, they can be respectful and meet them on their own terms.

Complete Article HERE!

The Pitfalls Of Extending Life And Prolonging Death

Humans have had to face death and mortality since since the beginning of time, but our experience of the dying process has changed dramatically in recent history.

Haider Warraich, a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that death used to be sudden, unexpected and relatively swift — the result of a violent cause, or perhaps an infection. But, he says, modern medicines and medical technologies have lead to a “dramatic extension” of life — and a more prolonged dying processes.

“We’ve now … introduced a phase of our life, which can be considered as ‘dying,’ in which patients have terminal diseases in which they are in and out of the hospital, they are dependent in nursing homes,” Warraich says. “That is something that is a very, very recent development in our history as a species.”

Prolonging life might sound like a good thing, but Warraich notes that medical technologies often force patients, their loved ones and their doctors to make difficult, painful decisions. In his new book, Modern Death, he writes about a patient with end-stage dementia who screamed “kill me” as a feeding tube was inserted into his nose.

“This is probably one of the encounters that I had in residency that I have been unable to shake from my memory,” Warraich says. “I think if you ask any physician, any nurse, any paramedic, they’ll have many such stories to tell you.”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of having a healthcare proxy, living will and advanced directive

One of the biggest problems that we face in not only modern society, but in societies of olden times as well, is that people have always been very afraid to talk about death. In many cultures it is considered bad luck to talk about death and it is thought to be a bad omen. I think to some extent that extends to this very day. But … I think having a living will, having an advanced directive, or perhaps most importantly, having a designated healthcare proxy, someone who can help transmit your decisions to the team when you’re not able to do so, is perhaps the most important thing that we can do for ourselves as patients and as human beings.

On giving CPR and knowing when to stop giving CPR

One of the things about CPR, Terry, is that almost everyone in medicine knows how to start CPR, when to start CPR, really what to do in CPR under even complex situations, but the one thing that almost no one really teaches us, and there are no guidelines for, is when to stop CPR. I think in some ways that is one of the biggest challenges that we in medicine face all the time. …

I was actually working in the hospital last night and it was about 3 in the morning and I was called by one of my other colleagues who was another cardiology fellow, he asked me, “Haider, I need your help. I have a patient that we are doing CPR on,” and he wanted some help from me. So I walked over to the intensive care unit, and the patient was in her 60s. … There was an entire team in the room doing chest compressions on this woman, and they had been doing it for an hour and a half at that point, much, much, much longer than most CPRs last. …

At the same time while this CPR was ongoing, the patient’s family member, her daughter, was outside the room, and she was crying. … Even though we could give her all the information … that wasn’t perhaps what she was looking for, because what we were asking her to think about or to do was one of the hardest things anyone has to ever bear, which was, “Do you want us to stop CPR?” And that’s the type of thing that I don’t think any of us can ever prepare for, especially when it’s our parent that’s involved.

On why he wrote a book about dying

I really wanted to find answers to some very, very basic questions, like what are the implications of the sort of life extension that we have achieved? What is the role of religion, not only a patient’s religion but a physician’s religion when it comes to dealing with the end of life? How is social media affecting how people experience the end of life? …

So many times I’ve found myself in the room where there are people who were so much more experienced in life than I was, yet knew so little about death and dying. And so I wanted to write a book so that people could go into those really, really difficult places and feel like they’re armed with information, that this isn’t a completely foreign territory for them and that in some way could help them navigate and deal with the sort of difficult situations that lay ahead for them.

On the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act

It is very unfortunate that health is so politicized in this country, because it doesn’t have to be. Health and wellness aren’t red or blue, and they shouldn’t be, but unfortunately that is where we are. I hope that when policies are being enacted in DC, patient’s voices, those who have benefited from the ACA, those who have gained insurance, those voices are not lost in the midst of all of this political activity.

On immigrating to the U.S. from Pakistan

Dr. Haider Warraich has written medical and opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

I came to the United States in 2010 and [until now] have only lived in an America in which Barack Obama was the president. I think in some ways Trump’s victory has really shaken me, because of how invested I was in the idea that America is a special place, it’s a truly multicultural society. And I’m still trying to understand, I think like so many others, just exactly what happened. Especially as a writer and as a physician I’ve tried to separate myself from my identity as a Muslim. I’d rather be known as a physician/scientist/writer who happens to be Pakistani, rather than a young Pakistani Muslim immigrant who happens to be a doctor and a writer, but I don’t know. Given how things are changing, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to set that narrative for myself. That’s a scary thought — to live an identity that is so politicized even when you wish for it to not be.

Between life and death:

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”

Complete Article HERE!