10/9/17

De-Medicalizing Death

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By Jessica Nutik Zitter

There’s been an unexpected, and excellent, consequence to California’s new medical aid-in-dying law. For many terminally ill patients, immersion in the process of securing lethal drugs ultimately renders them unnecessary. How did this come about?

Passed by the California legislature in late 2015, the End of Life Option Act allows physicians to prescribe a lethal concoction of drugs to some patients with terminal illnesses who meet certain criteria. The law, commonly described as providing “medical aid in dying,” took effect on June 9, 2016. It stipulates only that the requesting patient be considered terminal (less than six months away from death), possess full decision-making capacity, and be physically able to self-administer the life-limiting drugs. Although the physician is obligated by law to inform the patient of alternative care options, such as psychological counseling or symptom management with palliative care services, there is no direct requirement that the physician arrange or provide them. In its barest form, the option can serve as a dispensary for life-ending medications.

California’s medical community was taken by surprise by the rapid passing of the law in late 2015. It came on the heels of the dramatic case of Brittany Maynard, a young woman with terminal brain cancer who elected to move from California to Oregon to access medical aid in dying under that state’s Death with Dignity Act. Hospital systems and physicians in California suddenly found themselves with an urgent need to rapidly formulate policies around this new right of patients. Some, such as the Catholic Health Systems, opted out on religious grounds. Others scrambled to put basic policies in place for patients who met inclusion criteria. And some institutions decided to put significant time and resources into supporting this new legal reality in the most comprehensive way possible.

One standout example is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Centers. After literally thousands of hours of discussion, the working group determined that the intake process for patients requesting medical aid in dying should be conducted by trained psychotherapists (psychologists and clinical social workers) instead of physicians. Dr. Neil Wenger, director of the UCLA Health Ethics Center, led the effort to create processes and infrastructure to respond to this law. “We wanted to be able to offer a service that doctors tend to gloss over,” he said, when asked why they chose to lead with talk therapy. The intake consisted of an extensive set of questionnaires designed to assess all possible sources of distress. Any patient with physical or psychiatric needs was referred on to the appropriate services. But as the UCLA committee expected, most of what patients needed was to discuss their feelings about their approaching death and process their grief and sense of loss. This mirrors data from the entire state of California as well as Oregon, which suggest that the distress prompting patients to request these lethal medications primarily stems from their fear over losing control at the end of life. It is not, as many may think, due primarily to physical suffering.

The intake questions explored goals of care, quality of life, and patients’ emotions around their impending deaths: Were they ready? What scared them? What made them anxious? Did they feel their lives were complete? What did they feel makes life meaningful? What decrements in quality of life are too great? What haven’t they said and to whom? Anne Coscarelli, psychologist and founding director of the Simms/Mann–UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, described the conversations that came from this intake process as revelatory and comforting for the patients. Several patients ultimately completed legacy projects, such as video or written messages and stories, for their children and grandchildren. This invitation to talk, which opens up a discussion that most of us are taught to avoid, turned out to be a game-changer.

Only a quarter of the patients ultimately went on to ingest the lethal drugs they came requesting. The actual data is more complex: Some who requested this service did not meet the basic requirements to receive it. Others died before they had a chance to ingest the medications. But the staff from UCLA reported case after case in which patients’ goals shifted from wanting to hasten their deaths to deciding to live out the remainder of their lives.

Ours is a culture that does not talk about death, even when it should be impossible to ignore. Despite the fact that 89 percent of people think that it is a doctor’s responsibility to discuss end-of-life care with their patients, in reality, only 17 percent of patients report having had such a conversation, according to a 2015 survey from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. As a doctor who practices both critical care and palliative care medicine, I have presided over thousands of deaths. Most of my patients have suffered with chronic illnesses for years: metastatic cancers, failing lungs, and progressive debilitation from dementia. And yet almost none of them have discussed their own death with their doctors, or even their families. Most have no idea that they are actually dying. In this culture that operates on a fantasy of immortality, with unrealistic promises made by television shows and advertisements, doctors see themselves as failures if they are unable to cure their patients. We physicians are trained to lead patients into battle after battle, into the next procedure or intervention, banking always on that magic pill or miracle cure.

This broad cultural unwillingness to acknowledge death results in a phenomenon I call the “End-of-Life Conveyor Belt,” where high-tech treatments are automatically attached to bodies as they progress through the stages of dying. As the baby boomers age and our treatment options blossom, more are being exposed to the suffering brought about by these protocols. The tremendous anxiety we see over loss of control is understandable. It is no wonder that people in many states have asked for, and finally won, the right to take back that control with a pill.

The effort by UCLA Health seems to be working. Placing highly trained psychologists and clinical social workers in the critical role of “first responder” to a patient’s request to hasten death has rendered many of these requests obsolete. In choosing this approach, UCLA is effectively “de-medicalizing” the experience of dying by prioritizing the need for deep reflection. In this way, the program provides patients with an option that doctors are not primarily trained for.

Patients requesting support to hasten their deaths are only a small subset of the population of the dying. They are in some ways canaries in a coal mine, their request for medical aid in dying is alerting us to the unmet needs of the wider population of dying patients. And what I am seeing is that our new legal responsibility to steward these patients responsibly through this rocky terrain will build practices and skills that will help all of those at the end of life.

Where goes California, thus goes the nation. California was the fourth state to legalize medical aid in dying and has since been followed by two more. And UCLA’s approach, with trained psychologists guiding patients through this tricky terrain, shows us the way. Let’s take advantage of this wave to take better care of all our seriously ill patients. And let’s make sure we give patients what they really need and hope that lethal drugs are always the last tool in the toolbox.

Complete Article HERE!

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10/6/17

When a ‘good death’ was often painful: euthanasia through the ages

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Today, a primary goal of both movements aimed at care of the dying – palliative care and euthanasia – is to eliminate suffering. These are underpinned by the idea that a good death is a painless death. But it wasn’t always so.

The term “euthanasia” is derived from the Greek for good death, but it only began to be used in a modern and familiar way in the late 19th century. For centuries in Western societies, “euthanasia” referred to a pious death blessed by God.

The means of achieving a good death was set out in the enormously popular ars moriendi (art of dying) guides that offered prayers, attitudes and actions intended to guide the dying towards salvation. This wasn’t necessarily a painless process. Far and away the most reproduced image of good dying was Christ’s crucifixion.

The pain that could accompany dying was seen as punishment for sin and ultimately redemptive: a chance to transcend the world and flesh through imitation of Christ’s suffering. It was also a test of the compassion and charity of friends, relatives and even strangers.

The Christian injunction to minister to suffering meant visiting and caring for the dying were seen as communal duties. Children as well as adults were expected to offer physical and moral support to those who were gravely ill.

Doctors did not typically attend the deathbed. They did not have an obvious role in the central spiritual business of dying, but nor were they particularly associated with the mitigation of suffering.

Indeed, in the pre-anaesthetic era, doctors were more likely to be associated with the infliction of pain. Surgery, of course, was excruciating, but other now infamous “heroic” remedies (such as blistering, excessive bleeding and the application of caustic chemicals to the skin) were based on the belief that pain had healing properties and involved doctors deliberately inducing it.

In the 19th century, pain began to be seen as a discrete and aberrant physiological phenomenon. Both dying and suffering were increasingly medicalised. Doctors gradually took over from the clergy and family as carers of the dying.

At the same time, the word “euthanasia” took on a new meaning. It began to refer to this new medical duty to assist the terminally ill – but not to hasten death.

In the wake of the mid-century revolution in anaesthetics and aided by innovations such as the hypodermic syringe, doctors began to “treat” the dying with painkillers as well as prayers.

In 1870, Samuel Williams, a Birmingham businessman and amateur philosopher, proposed a more definitive form of this new medical treatment for the terminally ill. In an essay called Euthanasia, published by the local Speculative Club, he wrote:

That in all cases of hopeless and painful illness, it should be the recognised duty of the medical attendant, whenever so desired by the patient, to administer chloroform or such other anaesthetic as may by-and-by supersede chloroform – so as to destroy the consciousness at once, and put the sufferer to a quick and painless death.

Williams sparked a debate that has waxed and waned but never gone away. But how had this come to look like a good way to die?

Changing meanings of pain

In 1901 psychologist and philosopher William James wrote of the “strange moral transformation” that had taken place regarding attitudes to pain:

It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically. The way in which our ancestors looked upon pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course proportion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement.

Historian Stephanie Snow observes that as anaesthetics and other methods of pain relief became available in the 19th century, people began to see pain – the experience but also the sight of it – as more damaging and demoralising.

A new generation of comfortably off Victorians who considered anaesthesia commonplace could no longer stomach physical suffering. Now pain was something that could not just be eliminated but struck as cruel, unusual and degrading: “an alien force which undermined man’s very humanity”.

Dying and suffering became things from which people, particularly children, should be shielded.

A modern paradox

Medical methods aimed at eliminating the pain of the dying process developed as the fear of death – a fear that for centuries dwelt on the post-mortem horrors of hell – began to centre on the horror that could precede it.

Paradoxically, this fear arose and gained momentum as most people in Western cultures became increasingly insulated from such suffering. As mortality declined, more people died in hospital under the care of specialists, and doctors’ ability to control pain advanced in ways previously unimaginable.

This very modern anxiety can be historically tracked from Williams’s 1870 proposal to the assisted dying bill soon to be debated in the Victorian parliament.

Our ancestors would be amazed.

Complete Article HERE!

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09/27/17

The Brutal Truth Of Living With A Terminal Illness

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Brought to you by Stop The Horror
Stop The Horror is a five-minute short film that confronts viewers with a harrowing retelling of the true events surrounding one man’s traumatic death.

Kass Hall is a law student with a background in art and design; she lives with her husband and their pug called Elvis. She describes herself as a sister, a daughter, an aunty and a friend. 

She has been living with cancer for 27 years.

“I’m getting good at defying the odds, but I’ll never be in remission,” Kass says. “I’ll always be under my oncologist and surgeon’s eagle eyes, and I know that each hurdle, big or small, is a hurdle closer to the finish line.”

Impending death is not the kind of thing you adjust to. Despite the number of times she’s come close, Kass, now 39, is frank about being scared. She is under no illusions about what dying is like — she has seen “many, many friends, from children to older people, dying slowly and painfully.”

“I’ve been in the room in the final moments of life, and though we do our best to make people ‘comfortable’, it’s a situation I do not want to find myself in — for my own sake and that of those who love me,” she says.

She hopes that finish line isn’t soon. But in the event that it is, she wants a say in drawing that line.

This is how Kass has come to be an advocate for voluntary assisted dying legislation — her experience leaves her pretty uniquely placed to clap back at people opposed to it. With new assisted dying legislation proposed in Victoria at the moment, now is a particularly pressing time to persuade people of the bill’s importance.

“I have always liked the idea that, when I reach ‘my line’, I could choose to end my own pain. Watching someone you love die is one of the worst experiences a human can endure, and I imagine being the person dying is even worse.”

It’s an experience explored in the recently released film, Stop The Horror. A graphic five-minute short directed by Justin Kurzel, the film tells the true story of a man who dies over a period of three weeks, exploring what he and his family are forced to deal with.

Getting Diagnosed

Kass’s first diagnosis was in 1990, when she was twelve. The kind of cancer she has is incredibly rare, and was hard to pin down for a long time — as she wryly puts it, “what they thought it was then is not what they think it is now”.

That first diagnosis led to surgery and chemotherapy. On five separate occasions, her parents were called to the hospital to say goodbye. And yet, against all odds, Kass survived, though not without complications. “At that time I lost part of my stomach and duodenum [the first section of the small intestine],” she says. “The chemo left me infertile and with a heart condition, though thankfully my heart has remained strong.”

These complications have been multiplying steadily ever since. In 2000, Kass lost a kidney. In 2008, her thyroid. In 2011, the cancer returned to her stomach and liver. It was only in 2012 that her doctors discovered she had a genetic defect that was causing the tumours to return.

That was the moment, Kass says, when realisation hit. “This disease was — barring the unforeseen — what would kill me”.

Here’s the cruel thing about this genetic defect: in addition to all but guaranteeing the cancer’s return, it makes Kass ineligible for an organ transplant. And while so far it’s been possible to combat the resurgence of tumours with surgery, she’s keenly aware that things can’t continue this way forever.

“There’s going to come a time where surgery is no longer an option, and that’s when I start the slow process of dying.”

“The idea of dying anytime soon is not one I am comfortable with,” she says, “but who is, though?” She’s coming up on her 40th birthday in January, a milestone her oncologist has been telling her for years would be a “great outcome”.

Why Voluntary Assisted Dying Legislation Matters

Assisted dying has always been controversial, often for reasons Kass is keen to see us move past. Concerns about younger people — not children, but adults in their late teens and early twenties — having access to the option of assisted dying are, to Kass’s mind, utterly dismissive of terminally ill young people’s experience.

“There is no difference in older people and younger people making this decision,” she says. “If anything, for younger people the decision is harder because we think about what we may miss out on — weddings, children, travel.”

Kass says arguments that say young people with terminal illness don’t have the necessary perspective or clarity to decide to end their lives “seek to debase a person’s autonomy and thought process.”

“It’s designed to second guess a person. No one has the right to do that. Anyone who said that to me would probably not like the response they get from me.”

As for those who argue that choosing to die is a selfish act, Kass says her response “probably isn’t fit to print”.

“What I can say is that what other people think is not my problem. They are not living my life, they’re not walking in my shoes. Everyone has an opinion, but my life deals in facts. What others think about my choices, especially if they’ve never experienced my situation, is of zero consequence to me”.

Some of the most legitimate and important critiques of voluntary assisted dying legislation, though, come from people who have experienced Kass’s situation, or situations like it. These campaigns are run by people with terminal illness or life-threatening disabilities who are concerned that assisted dying legislation will needlessly kill many people through a subtle combination of pressures. Things like, for example, the feeling of being a burden on close family or medical services.

These are arguments Kass is willing to engage on — she says she’s aware of and understands the campaign in question, but thinks the legislation proposed by the Victorian Government includes adequate safeguards, including a multi-step process she hopes will catch any instance of family or external pressure.

“To my mind,” she says, “that is why patient autonomy is the key. At the end of the day, what family members think and what their needs are is not what this is about — it is and should always be about the primary patient. If the primary patient has not requested and been through the voluntary assisted dying process, then it shouldn’t be available.”

“And any family member that puts any pressure on a person who is dealing with illness or disability should find the map to hell and go there. There are so many people in the disability community and those with long term illness who have so much to contribute and who are outstanding members of society. Having an illness or disability doesn’t diminish us as people.”

Reaching The Finish Line

In Kass’s case, she knows her husband will support her decision if she reaches her line. She hopes that won’t be soon — she wants to grow old with her husband, see her nieces and nephews grow up, have a full legal career. For the time being, she’s optimistic.

But even on good days, the line is there, and Kass says that when she hits it, she has “no hesitations” about what she’ll do.

“I have no interest in suffering unnecessarily,” she says. “It will be my decision.”

“I respect that this won’t be for everyone. I just feel that a choice for those of us who do seek to end our own suffering should be given to us. We all have our own paths in life, and should have as much choice made available to us as possible.”

Complete Article HERE!

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09/22/17

Death, too, is part of life cycle

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By HOLLY WOLTZ

I live, breathe and eat being a veterinarian. I see a pet on a leash, and I check its gait. I see a grey whiskered dog and think of senior issues. I overhear a conversation about a pet’s illness, and I want to add my two cents.

Work is hard. Work is fun, and every day brings challenges. However, I had no idea when I signed up for this job, the sheer number of euthanasias and sadness I would face.

All pets die, and we know this when we adopt them into our lives. We are angels of death to so many, and this is a very, very important part of our lives.

The veterinary profession is unique when it comes to being comfortable with death. Like many aspiring veterinarians, I thought euthanasia would be the hardest part of my job, but it isn’t – not by a long shot.

MDs don’t get it. In the human world, euthanasia is a grave sin even when someone is suffering from a terminal illness.

“Futile care” occurs when a physician cracks the chest of an elderly patient in multi-organ failure who has just arrested, or the oncologist details a complicated journey for a deadly metastatic cancer.

The older you get, the more likely you are to die in a hospital. According to the Centers of Disease Control, 73 percent of people over the age of 65 die as inpatients.

It sounds like a horrible way to go. I hope that statistic changes as more states enact the Death with Dignity Act, and I add more years.

Almost every day I counsel clients as to “When is the right time to let go?” I have changed my criteria for euthanasia over the years and now answer that question with “Consider 6 things that your pet loves to do. If they are no longer able to do at least half of them, then it is time to let go.” This helps, but it is still far from simple.

Every situation and every family is different. I think relief from suffering is a moral obligation, and that it is better to end life too soon than too late. Euthanasia is truly a gift of love.

Never was this more apparent than last week. You might recognize this family because I’ve already written about Buddy.

I shared Buddy, a magnificent Golden Retriever, with Dr. Sybil Davis (a certified rehabilitation specialist).

When I first referred him to her 4 years ago, he could barely walk from a myriad of problems. In 6 months, he was walking and feeling great again.

His family simply refused to give up on him. He’s been a “frequent flyer” patient for both of us over the years.

This visit was different, and when I stepped into the examination room, I knew he was in trouble. He could barely stand and his breathing was labored.

Although Buddy lived in a family of three, he was really the son’s dog. They grew up together, and Alec brought Buddy in for visits. I always thought of Norman Rockwell’s paintings of boys and children whenever I saw them!

After diagnostics and quiet conversation, it was clearly time to let go, but we would not be rushed in making this decision. End of life should be kind – to the owner, as well as the animal.

I tried to walk the emotional landscape that accompanies the decision to euthanize. Do we refer, try hospice care, sleep on this decision for a day or two and reconsider? Could we give Buddy more days of good living? And, if we euthanize, what do we do afterward?

The whole family was present with Buddy, and the parents deferred the decision to Alec. He knew. I could see it in his eyes, but it was too hard to verbalize.

In his heart, he knew that Buddy had finally worn out. What a wonderful young man to put his dog first, and I know his parents were proud of him.

Buddy didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was a sense of tranquility from sedation, a quiet comfortable room and his family surrounding him. He died with grace and dignity, quickly with no pain. It was a gift from his best friend.

I am sometimes overwhelmed by these last moments, but I am also thankful that I can be a part of them. Without great love, there cannot be grief.

Thank you, Alec, for making the right decision, and thank you, Buddy, for the memories.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/28/17

The Christian case for assisted dying

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Before and after photos of Frenchwoman Chantal Sebire motivated me, in 2009, to become public in advocating, as a Christian, for the terminally ill to be shown Christian empathy, love and compassion, and to be given an additional choice when even the best palliative care cannot ease their futile suffering.

Chantal, who had an aggressive nasal cancer, that had left her blind, her jaw disintegrating and suffering “atrocious pain”, was pleading for assistance to die.

Since then my views have been reinforced by Christians far more theologically qualified than I am, and many examples of futile suffering sent to me by Christians who have watched loved ones dying inhumanely, asking how can this be compatible with Jesus’ message of love.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung, in his book A Dignified Dying states:

As a Christian and a theologian I am convinced that the all-merciful God, who has given men and women freedom and responsibility for their lives, has also left to dying people the responsibility for making a conscientious decision about the manner and time of their deaths. This is a responsibility which neither the state nor the church, neither a theologian nor a doctor, can take away.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has written:

I know that we will all die and that death is a part of life. Terminally ill people have control over their lives, so why should they be refused control over their deaths? Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes?

Regardless of what you might choose for yourself, why should you deny others the right to make this choice? For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.

In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values. I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth. The time to act is now.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/15/17

How to Find Meaning in the Face of Death

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By Emily Esfahani Smith

The psychiatrist William Breitbart lives at the edge of life and death. As chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Breitbart specializes in end-of-life care for terminally ill cancer patients. For many of his patients, the most pressing question isn’t when they’ll die or how painful death will be. Rather, it’s what makes life meaningful. They are in search of a meaning that cannot be destroyed by death.

Breitbart has spent the better part of his career trying to answer that question. His ground-breaking research shows that while the specter of death often leads people to conclude that their lives are meaningless, it can also be a catalyst for them to work out, as they never have before, the meaning of their lives.

When people believe their lives are meaningful, according to psychologists, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: They feel their existence is valued by others; they are driven by a sense of purpose, or important life goals; and they understand their lives as coherent and integrated. Psychologists and philosophers say that the path to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something that is bigger than the self, like family, country, or God.

Breitbart’s interest in meaning took root in his childhood. Born in 1951, Breitbart grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His parents, Jews from eastern Poland, narrowly avoided Hitler’s death camps. When they moved to America, they carried their memories of the war years with them. Breitbart’s childhood was steeped in that tragic past. Every morning, his mother would ask him at the breakfast table, “Why am I here?” Why, she wondered, did she live when so many others had died?

“I grew up with a sense of responsibility to justify my parents’ survival and to create something in the world that would be significant enough to make my life worthwhile. It’s no coincidence,” he laughed, “that I ended up at Sloan Kettering.”

Breitbart began working at the hospital in 1984 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Young men his age were dying all around him. As he tended to them, “They were constantly asking me to help them die,” he said. He was also working with terminal cancer patients. “When I walked in the room, they would say, ‘I only have three months to live. If that’s all I have, I see no value or purpose to living.’” They told him, “If you want to help me, kill me.”

If death means non-existence, Breitbart’s patients reasoned, then what meaning could life possibly have? And if life has no meaning, there’s no point of suffering through cancer.

By the ’90s, physician-assisted suicide was a hot topic in Breitbart’s circles and beyond. The doctor Jack Kevorkian had helped his first patient end her life in 1990. As the United States debated the ethics of assisted suicide, other countries were taking steps toward normalizing the practice. In 2000, the Netherlands became the first nation to make physician-assisted suicide legal. Today the practice is legal in the United States in California, Vermont, Montana, Washington, and Oregon.

As Breitbart heard more stories of assisted suicide, he began to wonder what specifically was driving the terminally ill to give up on life. At the time, he was doing research studies on pain and fatigue at the end of life, so he tacked onto those studies some questions that asked his subjects whether they felt a desire for a hastened death. What he discovered surprised him.

They no longer wanted to die. Their spiritual wellbeing improved. They reported a higher quality of life.

The assumption had been that the ill chose to end their lives because they were in terrible pain. But Breitbart and his colleagues found that wasn’t always the case. Instead, those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. When Breitbart asked patients why they wanted a prescription for assisted suicide, many said it was because they had lost meaning in life. Unlike clinical depression, which has a specific set of diagnosable symptoms, meaninglessness was more of an “existential concern,” Breitbart said—a belief that one’s life has little value or purpose and is, therefore, not worth living.

Breitbart knew he could treat depression—there were medicines and well-developed psychotherapies for that—but he was stumped when it came to treating meaninglessness. Then, in 1995, he began to see a way forward. He was invited to join the Project on Death in America, which aimed to improve the experience of dying. Breitbart and his colleagues on the project—including philosophers, a monk, and other physicians—had long conversations about death and the meaning of life, “peppered with references to people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer,” Breitbart said. “What I suddenly discovered,” he explained, was that “the search for meaning, the need to create meaning, the ability to experience meaning was a basic motivating force of human behavior. We were not taught this stuff at medical school!”

Breitbart became convinced that if he could help patients build meaning, he could decrease their suicidal thoughts and make their lives worth living even to the very end.

He developed an eight-session group therapy program where six to eight cancer patients come together in a counseling workshop. Each session, in one way or another, helps build meaning. In the first session, for example, the patients are asked to reflect on “one or two experiences or moments when life has felt particularly meaningful to you.” In the second session, patients respond to the question “Who am I?” to tap into the identities that give them the most meaning. One woman responded saying, “I’m somebody who can be very private … [and] have been working on accepting love and affection and other gifts from other people.” In subsequent sessions, they share their life story with the group and think about the role that love, beauty, and humor played in their lives.

In the final session, the patients reflect on the part of them that will go on living even after they are dead—their legacy. That could be their soul, or it could be something they helped to create that will continue to exist—their children, a work of art, or an organization. They present a “legacy project” to the group, generally something they do or create that represents how they want to be remembered. One man brought in a woodcut of a heart sculpted into a Celtic Trinity. “This is what I will teach my children,” he said, “that there is eternal love, and that I will be there for them, far beyond my passing.”

Breitbart performed three randomized, controlled experiments on the meaning-centered psychotherapy. When he analyzed the results with his colleagues, Breitbart saw the therapy had been transformative. By the end of the eight sessions, the patients’ attitudes toward life and death had changed. They were less hopeless and anxious about the prospect of death than they were before they began the program. They no longer wanted to die. Their spiritual wellbeing improved. They reported a higher quality of life. And, of course, they found life to be more meaningful. These effects not only persisted over time—they actually got stronger. When Breitbart followed up with one group of patients two months later, he found that their reports of meaning and spiritual wellbeing had increased, while their feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and desire for death had decreased.

The time between diagnosis and death, Breitbart has found, presents an opportunity for “extraordinary growth.” One woman, for example, was initially devastated by her diagnosis of colon cancer—but after enrolling in the therapy program, she realized, “I didn’t have to work so hard to find the meaning of life. It was being handed to me everywhere I looked.” And that realization ultimately brought her—and Breitbart’s other patients—some measure of peace and consolation as they faced life’s final challenge.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/7/17

Should I Help My Patients Die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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