02/1/18

Death Brings Wisdom to Dying Patients

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By Mary Elizabeth Dallas

With terminal illness comes newfound, and profound, wisdom, researchers report.

They uncovered this silver lining of terminal illness as people in their final months tried to strike a balance between accepting their fate and making the most of the time they had left.

“The end of life presents a unique perspective,” explained senior study author Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean at the University of California, San Diego’s Center of Healthy Aging.

“This is an extremely challenging time, a confluence of learning to accept what’s happening while still striving to grow and change and live one’s remaining life as best one can,” Jeste said in a university news release. “It’s this paradox that, if embraced, can lead to even greater wisdom while confronting one’s own mortality.”

The study, funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society, involved 21 men and women between the ages of 58 and 97 who were in the final six months of their lives and receiving hospice care. About half of the patients were dying of cancer.

The researchers asked these people opened-ended questions about wisdom, such as “How do you define wisdom?” and “What experiences have influenced your level of wisdom?” The patients were also asked if their illness had altered their understanding of wisdom. Each of the interviews was recorded, enabling the researchers to analyze and interpret the responses.

The participants ranked traits associated with wisdom. The most important quality listed was having prosocial behaviors, followed by demonstrating social decision-making, emotional regulation, openness to new experiences, awareness of uncertainty, spirituality and self-reflection, as well as having a sense of humor and being tolerant.

The patients admitted that facing their own mortality and imminent death dramatically changed how they viewed wisdom. “My perspective, my outlook on life, my outlook on everything has changed,” said one of the patients. “It’s grown tremendously.”

One common experience among the terminally ill was their desire to find peace or acceptance as their health declined and they lost their ability to function normally.

According to study first author Lori Montross-Thomas, “It wasn’t passive ‘giving up,’ but rather an active coping process. They emphasized how much they appreciated life, taking time to reflect. There was a keen sense of fully enjoying the time they had left and, in doing so, finding the beauty in everyday life.”

Montross-Thomas is assistant adjunct professor in UCSD’s department of family medicine and public health.

One study participant said: “For all my life, being a Southerner and having been in beauty contests, I got up in the morning, put my full makeup on and did my hair every day. A lady was never in her nightgown unless she was giving birth! Now all that is very, very difficult for me… I’ve accepted it, and I’ve realized that I have to let it go… I try to take all this with as much graciousness as possible and I’ve realized that my friends really don’t care that I don’t have makeup on or I’m in my nightgown. They are just happy to see me out of bed sitting on a chair.”

The patients also found that living with a fatal disease stimulated growth, leading to more determination, gratitude and optimism. The researchers noted this path to increased wisdom ebbed and flowed as the patients struggled to find balance, peace and happiness at the end of their lives.

Many patients focused on looking for the positive instead of the negative. “I want them to remember me with a smile, laughing and giggling and doing some of the silly things we do,” one person said. “Why do you want to leave on a sad note? I do not want to be remembered being sad.”

Complete Article HERE!

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01/12/18

Signs of the Journey Towards Death

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Recognizing the dying process

The dying process usually begins well before death actually occurs. Death is a personal journey that each individual approaches in their own unique way. Nothing is concrete, and nothing is set in stone. There are many paths one can take on this journey but all lead to the same destination.

As a person comes close to death, a process begins; a journey from the known life of this world to the unknown of what lies ahead.

As that process begins, a person starts on a mental path of discovery, comprehending that death will indeed occur and believing in their own mortality. The journey ultimately leads to the physical departure from the body.

There are milestones along this journey. Because everyone experiences death in their own unique way, not everyone will stop at each milestone. Some may hit only a few while another may stop at each one, taking their time along the way. Some may take months to reach their destination, others will take only days. We will discuss what has been found through research to be the journey most take, always keeping in mind that the journey is subject to the individual traveler.

The Journey Begins: One to Three Months Prior to Death

Behavioral and Psychological Changes: As a person begins to accept their mortality and realizes that death is approaching, they may begin to withdraw from their surroundings.

They are beginning the process of separating from the world and those in it. They may decline visits from friends, neighbors, and even family members. When they do accept visitors, they may be difficult to interact with and care for. They are beginning to contemplate their life and revisit old memories.

They may be evaluating how they lived their life and sorting through any regrets. They may also undertake the five tasks of dying.

Physical Changes: The dying person may experience reduced appetite and weight loss as the body begins to slow down. The body doesn’t need the energy from food that it once did. The dying person may be sleeping more now and not engage in activities they once enjoyed. They no longer need food nourishment. The body does a wonderful thing during this time as altered body chemistry produces a mild sense of euphoria. They are neither hungry nor thirsty and are not suffering in any way by not eating. It is an expected part of the journey they have begun.

One to Two Weeks Prior to Death

Mental Changes: This is the time during the journey that one begins to sleep most of the time. Disorientation is common and altered senses of perception can be expected. One may experience delusions, such as fearing hidden enemies or feeling invincible.

The dying person may also experience hallucinations, sometimes seeing or speaking to people who aren’t there. Often times these are people who have already died. Some may see this as the veil being lifted between this life and the next.

The person may pick at their sheets and clothing in a state of agitation. Movements and actions may seem aimless and make no sense to others. They are moving further away from life on this earth.

Physical Changes: The body is having a more difficult time maintaining itself. There are signs that the body may show during this time:

  • The body temperature lowers by a degree or more.
  • The blood pressure lowers.
  • The pulse becomes irregular and may slow down or speed up.
  • There is increased perspiration.
  • Skin color changes as circulation is diminished. This is often more noticeable on the lips and nail beds as they become pale and bluish.
  • Breathing changes occur, often becoming more rapid and labored. Congestion may also occur causing a rattling sound and cough.
  • Speaking decreases and eventually stops altogether.

Journey’s End: A Couple of Days to Hours Prior to Death

The person is moving closer towards death. There may be a surge of energy as they get nearer. They may want to get out of bed, talk to loved ones, or ask for food after days of no appetite. This surge of energy may be quite a bit less noticeable but is usually used as a dying person’s final physical expression before moving on.

The surge of energy is usually short, and the previous signs become more pronounced as death approaches. Breathing becomes more irregular and often slower. “Cheyne-Stokes” breathing, rapid breaths followed by periods of no breathing at all, may occur. Congestion in the airway can increase causing loud, rattled breathing.

Hands and feet may become blotchy and purplish (mottled). This mottling may slowly work its way up the arms and legs. Lips and nail beds are bluish or purple. The person usually becomes unresponsive and may have their eyes open or semi-open but not seeing their surroundings. It is widely believed that hearing is the last sense to go so it is recommended that loved ones sit with and talk to the dyingduring this time.

Eventually, breathing will cease altogether and the heart stops. Death has occurred.

Complete Article HERE!

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01/9/18

This Was Not the Good Death We Were Promised

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When my father was dying of pancreatic cancer last summer, I often curled up with him in the adjustable hospital bed set up in his bedroom. As we watched episodes of “The Great British Baking Show,” I’d think about all the things I couldn’t promise him.

I couldn’t promise that the book he’d been working on would ever be published. I couldn’t promise he would get to see his childhood friends from England one more time. I couldn’t even promise he’d find out who won the baking show that season.

But what I could promise — or I thought I could — was that he would not be in pain at the end of his life.

That’s because after hearing for years about the unnecessary medicalization of most hospital deaths, I had called an in-home hospice agency to usher him “off this mortal coil,” as my literary father still liked to say at 83.

When a doctor said my father had about six months to live, I invited a hospice representative to my parents’ kitchen table. She went over their Medicare-funded services, including weekly check-ins from a nurse and 24/7 emergency oversight by a doctor. Most comfortingly, she told us if a final “crisis” came, such as severe pain or agitation, a registered nurse would stay in his room around the clock to treat him.

For several months, things went well. His primary nurse, who doubled as case worker, was kind and empathetic. A caretaker came three mornings a week to wash him and make breakfast. A physician assistant prescribed drugs for pain and constipation. His pain was not terrible, so a low dose of oxycodone — the only painkiller they gave us — seemed to suffice.

In those last precious weeks at home, we had tender conversations, looked over photographs from his childhood, talked about his grandchildren’s future.

But at the very end, confronted by a sudden deterioration in my father’s condition, hospice did not fulfill its promise to my family — not for lack of good intentions but for lack of staff and foresight.

At 7 p.m. on the night before my father’s last day of life, his abdominal pain spiked. Since his nurse turned off her phone at 5, I called the hospice switchboard. To my surprise, no doctor was available, and it took the receptionist an hour to reach a nurse by phone. She told us we should double his dose of oxycodone, but that made no difference. We needed a house call.

The only on-call nurse was helping another family two hours away. So my sister and I experimented with Ativan and more oxycodone, then fumbled through administering a dose of morphine that my mother found in a cabinet, left over from a past hospital visit. That was lucky, because when the nurse arrived at midnight, she brought no painkillers.

After the nurse left, my father’s pain broke through the morphine. I called the switchboard again, and it took three hours for a new nurse to come. She was surprised he hadn’t been set up with a pump for a more effective painkiller. She agreed that this constituted a crisis and should trigger the promised round-the-clock care. She made a phone call and told us the crisis nurse would arrive by 8 a.m.

The nurse did not come at 8 a.m. Or 9 a.m. When his case worker was back on duty, she told us — apologetically — that the nurse on that shift had come down with strep throat. Her supervisor stopped by, showed us the proper way to deliver morphine (we’d been doing it wrong) and told us a pain pump and a crisis nurse should arrive by noon.

Noon passed, then 1 p.m., 2 p.m. No nurse, no pump.

By this time, my father had slipped into a coma without our noticing; we were thankful his pain was over but heartbroken he wouldn’t hear our goodbyes. Finally, at 4 p.m., the nurse arrived — a kind, energetic woman from Poland. But there was little left to do. My father died an hour later.

At the end of life, things can fall apart quickly, and neither medical specialist nor hospice worker can guarantee a painless exit. But we were told a palliative expert would be at my father’s bedside if he needed it. We were not told this was conditional on staffing levels.

I didn’t realize how common our experience was until a few months after his death, when two reports on home hospice came out — one from Politico and one from Kaiser Health News. According to their investigations, the hospice system, which began idealistically in the 1970s, is stretched thin and falling short of its original mission.

Many of the more than 4,000 Medicare-certified hospice agencies in the United States exist within larger health care or corporate systems, which are often under pressure to keep profit margins up.

Kaiser Health News discovered there had been 3,200 complaints against hospice agencies across the country in the past five years. Few led to any recourse. In a Medicare-sponsored survey, fewer than 80 percent of people reported “getting timely care” from hospice providers, and only 75 percent reported “getting help for symptoms.”

I called Edo Banach, the president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, to get the trade group’s response. He expressed sympathy for my father’s suffering but was adamant that good hospice experiences “far outweigh” the negative ones.

Granted, more than a million Medicare patients go into hospice care every year, so the complaints are in the minority. Mr. Banach told me he’s worried that drawing attention to what he called the “salacious” stories of failed hospice care means more families will turn to less holistic, less humane end-of-life care. That could be true. But then, should there be more transparency early on? Should the hospice reps explain that in most cases, someone will rush to your loved one’s side in a crisis, but sometimes the agency just doesn’t get the timing and the logistics right?

As the number of for-profit hospice providers grows, does that model provide too great an incentive to understaff nighttime and weekend shifts? The solution may have to come from consumer advocacy and better regulation from Medicare itself.

A new government-sponsored website called Hospice Compare will soon include ratings of different agencies, which will ideally inspire some to raise their game. When I looked up the agency we had used, its customer satisfaction rate for handling pain — based on the company’s self-assessment — was 56 percent.

I considered making a complaint in the days after my dad’s death, but frankly we were just too sad. Even now, I believe hospice is a better option than a sterile hospital death under the impersonal watch of shift nurses we’d only just met. But I wonder whether that hospital oversight might have eased my father’s pain earlier on that last day.

Ultimately, even without pain relief, he was probably more comfortable in his own home, tended by his children, doing our best.

But then I think: He deserved to have both.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/26/17

Families turn to death midwives for help with final passage

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Anna Benton, of Milwaukee, left, Georgette Paxton, of Madison, center, and Jennifer Snow, of Waunakee, look over Heather Ockler, of Monona, who is playing the role of a dying person wrapped in a shroud during a home funeral demonstration. It was part of a death midwife class taught last month by Sharon Stewart, who helped aspiring death midwives practice skills such as washing and shrouding a body. Death midwives, sometimes called death doulas, are increasingly helping families prepare for and navigate the death of loved ones, in addition to or instead of hospice care and funeral homes.

By DAVID WAHLBERG

Before Valli Warren’s husband died last year after a long illness, the Stoughton couple knew they wanted a home funeral and green burial.

But they weren’t sure how to make those things happen. They turned to Sharon Stewart, who delivered ice packs to preserve the body, shared videos about how to wrap it in a shroud and taught pallbearers how to carry it out of the house on a board.

Stewart also helped Warren file paperwork, including a permit letting her transport her husband to Circle Cemetery, near Barneveld, where he was laid to rest without being embalmed or using a casket or vault.

“She walked me through every phase,” Warren said.

Stewart is a death midwife, a new kind of occupation that provides emotional, spiritual and practical support to families before and after death — in addition to, or instead of, hospice care and funeral homes.

The service, which has emerged around the country over the past decade, is analogous to what birth midwives do compared to obstetricians. Some who offer the assistance call themselves death doulas or end-of-life midwives.

‘Back to their roots’

Whatever the title, the providers say they help people “take back” the death process from hospitals and funeral homes. Services include leading family discussions about death planning, sitting vigil with people as they die, helping family and friends wash the body afterward and aiding in tasks such as selecting memorial cards, sending obituaries to newspapers and closing social media accounts. It often involves home funerals or green burials.

“We’re taking families back to their roots, the tradition of when we were born and when we died in our own homes,” said Stewart, a former detective who lives near Brooklyn, south of Madison. “We laid in honor in our parlors, and the community came together to provide care for the family.”

Liz Humphries, a former birth midwife and hospice nurse who recently added an end-of-life doula service to Seasons of Life, her senior care company in Middleton, said, “It’s about reclaiming a really sacred and beautiful human experience.”

Mary Paulauskis, a former hospice nurse from Madison, has added what she calls end-of-life transitions counseling to her business, Mindful Awakenings, through which she teaches meditation.

Paulauskis focuses on helping people think about who and what they want around them as they die. She also coaches loved ones on what to say to a dying person and how to interact — letting them know it’s OK to lie next to the person if they want to, for example.

“It’s creating a space of whatever the patient said they want,” Paulauskis said.

Many people don’t realize that there are several ways to dispose of bodies without embalming, including new, greener types of cremation, said Angie Buchanan, a death midwife in Waukesha who trains death midwives around the country. She informs clients of the options and guides them through their choice.

“We’re the water that runs between the rocks of the medical profession and the funeral industry,” Buchanan said.

Dr. Toby Campbell, chief of UW Health’s palliative care program and a board member of Agrace Hospice and Palliative Care in Fitchburg, said he understands why death midwives are catching on. He said hospice care typically includes two or three visits a week from a nurse or social worker, and an occasional call from a doctor.

“That leaves about 99 percent of the time you and your family are on your own,” Campbell said. “That’s a big space. There are giant gaps between the health care system and death, even including hospice.”

Jim Olson, president-elect of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, said caring for a body after death and managing a funeral are big jobs. Most people will continue to seek help from funeral directors, he said.

Death midwifery is “another alternative for families, which we think is great,” said Olson, who owns Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan. “Am I afraid it’s going to affect my business? No, absolutely not.”

There is no licensure or government certification for death midwives. Experienced practitioners, such as Stewart and Buchanan, offer training, as does the New Jersey-based International End of Life Doula Association, which held a session in Madison last year.

Many training programs offer their own certification. The burgeoning field is in a similar situation to massage therapy in the 1990s, before doctors pushed for its regulation, Buchanan said. In Wisconsin, certification for massage therapists started in 2003, with licensure beginning in 2010.

Fees for death midwives vary. Buchanan said she charges $100 for a consultation and up to $2,000 for services covering the whole death process. Stewart has accepted donations of $100 or $200 from some clients, but she doesn’t plan to establish rates until she retires from her day job, at the state public defender’s office, and devotes more time to death midwife duties.

Paulauskis said she plans to charge $25 to $50 for a counseling session and negotiate rates for other services but let people pay what they can. An academic adviser at the UW-Madison School of Social Work, she plans to continue making her living in other ways.

Humphries, who started her end-of-life doula service last month, said she might charge $40 to $100 an hour but offer a sliding-fee scale for people with low incomes.

Humphries is also an organizer of Walking Each Other Home Madison, a group that started in 2014 to help people carry out home funerals and green burials. People can rent the group’s home funeral kit, which includes a body board, ice packs, soap, lotion, diapers, latex gloves and small bags of rice to place over the dead person’s eyes to keep them closed.

‘The personal touch’

Stewart, who has long volunteered at Monroe Clinic’s hospice program, said she saw the need for a more personal death service after her brother died in a car crash at age 19. She was 21.

Police came to the house in the middle of the night, told her mother her son was dead and left. Stewart wanted to see her brother’s body before he was embalmed, but the funeral director wouldn’t let her, she said.

“There had to be a better way,” she said.

Later, as a detective for the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department in Darlington, Stewart tried to deliver death notifications with more sensitivity. But she wasn’t able to do all she wanted to help grieving families. After a shoulder injury forced her to retire, she discovered death midwifery.

“I thought, ‘This is it. This is the personal touch. This is the attention that families need,’ ” she said.

At a death midwife class she taught last month, Stewart told students to help dying people reconcile with others if they ask, separate arguing family members at the bedside if necessary and encourage loved ones to say goodbye and leave the room if the dying person wants to die alone.

“Your job as a death midwife is to be an advocate for that dying person,” she said.

When Laurie Larson’s husband, Dennis Presser, died suddenly from a heart attack at age 54 four years ago, Stewart helped Larson and her two teenage children navigate the chaos.

Stewart joined Larson when she met with a funeral director to plan the funeral, which took place at the funeral home.

She organized an intimate gathering for family and close friends at the crematorium, with candles, incense and music. As Presser’s body lay inside an open cardboard cremation box, people read poems, told stories and colored the box. Then they placed him in the chamber, and Larson hit the ignition switch.

“I would never have had the energy to create that beautiful ritual,” said Larson, of Madison. “Sharon helped me in so many ways that I never would have thought I needed to be helped.”

Warren’s husband, Spencer, died at 64 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Stewart helped the couple carry out their wishes. His body remained at home for three days, instead of being whisked off to a funeral home. “I had time to be with him; it was very healing,” Warren said.

As family and friends came for the home funeral, volunteers changed ice packs beside his body as he lay on their bed for viewing. Warren drove him to Circle Cemetery, where gatherers sang and played guitar before shoveling dirt over his shrouded body.

“It was the most natural thing I’ve ever experienced,” Warren said.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/15/17

What It’s Like to Learn You’re Going to Die

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Palliative-care doctors explain the “existential slap” that many people face at the end.

By Jennie Dear

Nessa Coyle calls it “the existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.”

I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

There was a pause, and then a noise I can best describe as not quite a sob or a yell, but feral. It was so uncharacteristic that I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know, whether the sound came from my father or my mother.

For many patients with terminal diseases, Coyle has observed, this awareness precipitates a personal crisis. Researchers have given it other names: the crisis of knowledge of death; an existential turning point, or existential plight; ego chill. It usually happens as it did with my mother, close to when doctors break the news. Doctors focus on events in the body: You have an incurable disease; your heart has weakened; your lungs are giving out. But the immediate effect is psychological. Gary Rodin, a palliative-care specialist who was trained in both internal medicine and psychiatry, calls this the “first trauma”: the emotional and social effects of the disease.

The roots of this trauma may be, in part, cultural. Most people recognize at an intellectual level that death is inevitable, says Virginia Lee, a nurse who works with cancer patients. But “at least in Western culture, we think we’re going to live forever.” Lee’s advanced-cancer patients often tell her they had thought of death as something that happened to other people—until they received their diagnosis. “I’ve heard from cancer patients that your life changes instantly, the moment the doctor or the oncologist says it’s confirmed that it is cancer,” she says.

The shock of confronting your own mortality need not happen at that instant, Coyle notes. Maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and suddenly realize how skinny you are, or notice your clothes no longer fit well. “It’s not necessarily verbal; it’s not necessarily what other people are telling you,” Coyle says. “Your soul may be telling you, or other people’s eyes may be telling you.”

E. Mansell Pattison, one of the early psychiatrists to write about the emotions and reactions of dying people, explains in The Experience of Dying why this realization marks a radical change in how people think about themselves: “All of us live with the potential for death at any moment. All of us project ahead a trajectory of our life. That is, we anticipate a certain life span within which we arrange our activities and plan our lives. And then abruptly we may be confronted with a crisisWhether by illness or accident, our potential trajectory is suddenly changed.”

In this crisis, some people feel depression or despair or anger, or all three. They grieve. They grapple with a loss of meaning. A person’s whole belief system may be called into question because “virtually every aspect of their life will be threatened by changes imposed by the [disease] and its management,” Lee has written. In a small 2011 Danish study, patients with an incurable esophageal cancer reported that after their diagnosis, their lives seemed to spin out of control. Some wondered why they had received a fatal diagnosis, and fell into despair and hopelessness. “I didn’t care about anything,” one patient said. “I had just about given up.”

In the 1970s, two Harvard researchers, Avery Weisman and J. William Worden, did a foundational study on this existential plight. Newly diagnosed cancer patients who had a prognosis of at least three months were interviewed at several different points. At first, for almost all the patients in the study, existential concerns were more important than dealing with the physical impacts of disease. The researchers found that the reckoning was jarring, but still relatively brief and uncomplicated, lasting about two to three months. For a few patients, the crisis triggered or created lasting psychological problems. A few others seemed to face the crisis, then return to a state of denial, and then double back to the crisis—perhaps more than once. In the study, the researchers describe a patient who was told her diagnosis, only to report to interviewers that she didn’t know what it was—and then make it clear she wasn’t interested in receiving a diagnosis in the near future.

Palliative-care doctors used to think that a patient was either in a state of denial or a state of acceptance, period, Rodin says. But now he and his colleagues believe people are more likely to move back and forth. “You have to live with awareness of dying, and at the same time balance it against staying engaged in life,” he says. “It’s being able to hold that duality—which we call double awareness—that we think is a fundamental task.”

Whether or not people are able to find that balance, the existential crisis doesn’t last; patients can’t remain long in a state of acute anxiety. Coyle has found in her work that later peaks of distress are not usually as severe as that first wave. “Once you’ve faced [death] like that once, it’s not new knowledge in your consciousness anymore,” she says.

The existential slap doesn’t always entail mental suffering, and medical professionals who work with the dying say there are rare cases in which patients seem to skip this phase altogether, or at least experience it in a much less painful way. “People can gradually come to the realization,” Coyle says. “No one has to go through the sudden shock of awareness.”

But for most, figuring out how to adapt to living with a life-threatening disease is a difficult but necessary cognitive process, according to Lee. When patients do emerge on the other side of the existential crisis, she finds that many are better off because of it. These patients are more likely to have a deeper compassion for others and a greater appreciation for the life that remains.

To arrive there, they have to squarely face the fact that they’re going to die. “If you’re an avoidant person, and you don’t like to think about these things, that works better when life is going well,” Rodin says. “It just doesn’t work well in this situation because reality doesn’t allow it. It’s like trying to pretend you don’t need an umbrella or something, or it’s not raining, when it’s pouring. You can do that when it’s drizzling, but eventually, you have to live with the rain.”

Complete Article HERE!

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07/24/17

‘Are you saying I’m dying?’ Training doctors to speak frankly about death

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Two employees from Alive Hospice take on acting roles as a terminally ill patient and a family member as part of a training simulation to help a doctor learn to speak openly about end-of-life care.

By Max Blau

The doctor pulls up a chair next to his patient, a 74-year-old woman with lung cancer. He tells her she doesn’t need more chemotherapy. Her eyes perk up; has she beaten her cancer? As it turns out, no. Her cancer has metastasized. She only has six months to live, at most. But her doctor is unable to find the right words.

“My cancer’s not gone? I thought it was getting better,” the patient says, bewildered.

“That’s the tough part …” the doctor replies.

“So, no further treatment?”

“I think we need to focus on quality [of life] over quantity.”

“Are you saying I’m dying?”

From the other side of a two-way mirror, Anna-Gene O’Neal listens closely. She’s set up this simulation — the prognosis is part of a script; the patient is an actor; the physician is being recorded — to improve the way he broaches the topic of death with real patients. O’Neal hears the mock patient all but pleading with the doctor to give her a direct answer. He struggles to do so. After a few minutes, she opens the door to end the simulation.

O’Neal, who runs Alive Hospice here in Tennessee, launched the SHARE simulation lab last year. Participants run through four scenarios. The actors playing patients reply with all the emotions — confusion, denial, anger, grief — that doctors might encounter in real exam rooms. Afterwards, O’Neal sits with the doctors as they watch tape of these interactions on a big-screen TV.

Faced with the uncomfortable task of discussing death, doctors often avoid the topic. Only 17 percent of Medicare patients surveyed in a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation study said they had discussed end-of-life care — though most wanted to do so. Since that study, Medicare has begun reimbursing providers for having these conversations. Yet still, just a fraction of Medicare recipients at the end of life have those talks with their doctors.

In response, advocates for improving end-of-life care have launched training sessions for doctors around the country.

In California, Stanford’s palliative medicine department has trained dozens of hospice nurses using exercises similar to those carried out here by Alive. In New York, oncologists at the University of Rochester Medical Center observe their peers having conversations with real patients facing terminal illness. In Arizona, the administrators of Phoenix-based Hospice of the West hold regular training sessions, complete with small group discussions, at staff meetings.

Simulators with live actors have intuitive appeal, especially since doctors rarely get hands-on experience with these tough conversations in medical school. But Dr. Scott Halpern, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Palliative and Advanced Illness Research Center, said there’s little evidence that simulators are any more effective than any other clinical training to improve end-of-life counseling. They show a “tremendous amount of face validity,” he said, but they must be held “to a standard of showing benefits for patients, not a standard of an appealing anecdote.”

O’Neal, 50, agrees more evidence is needed. But she’s also so gung-ho about her simulator that she’s pushing to expand it across the country. Four health organizations — including faith-based Ascension Health — have agreed to let Alive train their clinicians. Later this year, O’Neal plans to work with medical students at one school in Tennessee. Down the road, she hopes to get some independent practice associations to require their members to undergo her training.

“It’s about doing the right thing,” O’Neal said. “I feel strongly that if you do the right thing by people, they’re going to make different decisions.” That shift could lead to more of what she calls “good deaths,” with patients fully aware of their prognosis and able to choose whether they want aggressive, long-shot treatments or would prefer to simply have their pain managed while they spend their final days with friends and family.

Alive Hospice CEO Anna-Gene O’Neal chats with a doctor who went through a simulated scenario about how he can improve his communication with patients.

The little things that can make a big difference

Two of O’Neal’s closest friends died young from breast cancer. Seeing their hospice nurses bring light to the darkness of death prompted O’Neal to think back on her own professional experiences caring for babies as a neonatal nurse and for the elderly as a health care executive. What stood out: the power of clear, concise communication between clinician and patient.

O’Neal came to believe health providers in all specialties should be trained to have such direct conversations. In 2012, she was hired as CEO of Alive Hospice, a nonprofit chain of hospice care facilities serving more than 3,500 patients and families a year in central Tennessee. She soon realized that many Americans lived in “a crisis of denial of our own mortality,” in part because “medical institutions encourage us to never give up.”

So she launched the SHARE simulator. Clinicians pay to participate — $350 to work through four scenarios and then watch the videos and get feedback from O’Neal or her staffers. (To give doctors more privacy, Alive deletes the footage after each session, handing them the only copy so they can review it later if they’d like.)

The work unfolds in a low-slung brick building near Nashville’s Music Row, in a room that looks like a typical hospice or hospital room, set up with a bed, a couch, a box of tissues, and a stack of travel magazines. Tiny microphones dangle from the ceiling to record audio without intruding on the intimacy of conversations. Video cameras shaped like domes are mounted on the walls.

So far, O’Neal has trained 12 doctors and 65 other clinicians, including nurses and social workers. O’Neal said some have already tweaked their communication style: Maybe they’re more comfortable with long pauses after breaking hard news to patients, or more aware of body language that may come off as too stern.

“Watching yourself, you get a feel for your posture, whether you’re using specific phrases, looking a person in the eye, or keeping focus on them,” said pulmonologist Dr. Richard Fremont. “It was helpful seeing what I thought I was doing.”

Dr. Robert Taylor, a nephrologist based in Nashville, initially found the cameras in the training room unnerving. But the actors quickly pulled him into the scenario.

“It’s awkward to see yourself,” he said, describing the experience of watching the footage later. But he noticed little things, like his posture and the inflection in his voice. When he saw the mock patients’ reactions, he realized that little shifts in his own approach could change their perception of the conversation.

Taylor said he’s been committed to frank discussions with patients ever since he recognized, early in his career, that dialysis patients rarely got a full picture of their options. Their doctors were often focused on keeping them alive. But the disease and the treatments often make them “so fatigued that it’s not the quality of life they desire,” he said. Ever since, Taylor said he’s taken pains to better communicate all options to his patients; he wanted to go through the simulator to hone that delicate art. “It can alter what you do,” he said, “but also confirm your answers.”

O’Neal said the simulator challenged other doctors’ views that a patient’s death must inevitably be viewed as a failure.

“Once you get doctors into the training, you create an opportunity for them to be vulnerable and see themselves differently,” O’Neal said. “Whether they admit to change or not, they will change.”

A political divide over end-of-life conversations

When the idea of paying doctors to talk about dying was first debated – during the early, bitter fights over the Affordable Care Act in 2009 – conservatives warned that such conversations could be a pretext for pushing the frail and elderly to give up on treatment. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said funding of end-of-life counseling amounted to a “death panel.” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said it could enable “pulling the plug on grandma.”

The debate still rages: Earlier this year Iowa Rep. Steve King introduced the Protecting Life Until Natural Death Act, which would end federal reimbursements for end-of-life discussions. King has described such conversations as “intolerable to those who respect the dignity of human life.”

But despite such efforts, O’Neal sees growing support for her approach on Capitol Hill. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia — filed a bill that would provide $50 million to fund access, education, and training related to end-of-life treatment for terminally ill patients.

“Encouraging patients and their families to have these conversations with their physician helps provide peace of mind and undoubtedly increases the likelihood a patient’s care will be consistent with their wishes,” Tennessee Congressman Phil Roe, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement.

O’Neal concurs: Such conversations, she said, empower patients to embrace death on their own terms — and can make those final days “the most meaningful part of the human experience.”

“If somebody’s faith is such that as long as there’s a beating heart, you keep doing everything, we’re 100 percent behind that,” she said. “But if someone says, ‘if I can’t walk to play 18 holes of golf, I’m done,’ we have to respect that as well.”

A doctor, sitting inside Alive’s training room, watches footage of his interaction with a patient and her daughter.

A second chance

O’Neal asks one of her staffers to turn on the big-screen TV in the simulator room so the doctor can review his performance with the 74-year-old patient. As the footage rolls, the doctor grips one of the arms of his chair, bearing a slight grin of discomfort as he watches his fumbling attempts to tell the mock patient she’s dying. Soon, he’s critiquing himself:

“I think I would have been much less polite if I wasn’t on camera …”

“I would’ve been more blunt …”

“That could’ve been done faster …”

After he’s finished, she chimes with nuggets of advice: Don’t let her chase answers. Communicate like it’s a conversation. Honesty is a form of compassion.

“It’s intimidating,” O’Neal reassures him.

The second scenario goes far better. In it, the same patient returns two weeks later with a slew of strange treatment suggestions a relative found on the internet, including a raw beet diet and blood transfusion at a clinic in Juarez, Mexico. The doctor listens intently, careful to let her finish, mindful of his body language.

After she’s done, he leans forward and steers the conversation in another direction. He makes eye contact.

Then, he says in a calm empathetic tone: “We need to start thinking ahead.”

Complete Article HERE!

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06/27/17

The Symptoms of Dying

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You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing. We’ll call it different names: cancer, diabetes, heart failure, stroke.

One organ will fail, then another. Or maybe all at once. We’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living with your original diagnosis or mine.

Dying has its own biology and symptoms. It’s a diagnosis in itself. While the weeks and days leading up to death can vary from person to person, the hours before death are similar across the vast majority of human afflictions.

Some symptoms, like the death rattle, air hunger and terminal agitation, appear agonizing, but aren’t usually uncomfortable for the dying person. They are well-treated with medications. With hospice availability increasing worldwide, it is rare to die in pain.

While few of us will experience all the symptoms of dying, most of us will have at least one, if not more. This is what to expect.

The Death Rattle

“The graves are full of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles” (Pablo Neruda)

We suspected the patient wouldn’t survive off the ventilator. A blood clot had crawled up one of the vessels in the back of his brain, blocking blood flow to the area that controlled alertness. He would die from not being awake enough to cough.

The beat of the death rattle began when the breathing tube was removed and continued until life was done. It was a gurgling, crackling sound, like blowing air through a straw at the bottom of a cup of water. The average time between the onset of death rattles to death itself is 16 hours. For him, it was six.

The death rattle is a symptom of swallowing dysfunction. Normally, our tongue rises to the top of the mouth and propels saliva, liquid or food backward. The epiglottis, a flap in the throat, flops forward to protect the swallowed substance from entering the airway.

In the dying process, the symphony of swallowing becomes a cacophony of weak and mistimed movements. Sometimes the tongue propels saliva backward before the epiglottis has time to cover the airway. Other times, the tongue fails to push at all and saliva trickles down the airway to the lungs in a steady stream. The death rattle is the lungs’ attempt to breathe through a layer of saliva.

Despite the sound’s alarming roughness, it’s unlikely that the death rattle is painful. The presence of a death rattle doesn’t correlate with signs of respiratory distress.

As often happens in medicine, we treat based on intuition. To lessen the volume of the death rattle, we give medications that decrease saliva production. Sometimes, we are successful in silencing the rattle. More of the time, we placate our instinctive concern for a noise that probably sounds worse than it feels. Without hurting our patients, we treat the witnesses who will go on living.

Air Hunger

“You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat” (Walt Whitman)

The patient was a wiry woman in her 80s who had smoked for seven decades. Cigarettes turned her lungs from a spongelike texture to billowing plastic bags that collapsed on themselves when she exhaled. It was like trying to scrunch all the air out of a shopping bag. Air got trapped.

Air hunger — the uncomfortable feeling of breathing difficulty — is one of the most common end-of-life symptoms that doctors work to ease.

The treatment? Opiates, usually morphine.

People sometimes ask why the treatment for painful breathing is a medication that can depress breathing. You’d guess that opiates would worsen air hunger.

The answer hinges on defining why air hunger is uncomfortable in the first place.

Some researchers think the discomfort of air hunger is from the mismatch between the breathing our brain wants and our lungs’ ability to inflate and deflate. Opiates provide relief because they tune our brain’s appetite for air to what our body can provide. They take the “hunger” out of “air hunger.”

Others believe that the amount of morphine needed to relieve air hunger may have little effect on our ability to breathe. Since air hunger and pain activate similar parts of the brain, opiates may simply work by muting the brain’s pain signals.

The patient traded her cigarettes for a breathing mask when she came to the hospital. She quit smoking for the umpteenth time and made plans to go home and live independently again. A few days later, her thin frame tired. She died in hospice.

Terminal Agitation

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas)

My grandfather screamed two days before he died. “Open that door and let me out! Right now! It’s a travesty! Open that door!”

It was the scream of a lost child. My grandfather’s eyebrows, which had been lost over the years from the outside inward so that only a centimeter of long gray hairs near the middle remained, tilted toward each other.

Until then, we were preparing for missing and absence. Not for an agitated delirium. Not for rage.

A famous poet once wrote that “dying is an art, like everything else.” For hospice doctors, the artists of death, terminal agitation is the subject’s revolt against the shaper. It’s uncommon, but it can be difficult to watch when it happens.

Instead of peacefully floating off, the dying person may cry out and try to get out of bed. Their muscles might twitch or spasm. The body can appear tormented.

There are physical causes for terminal agitation like urine retention, shortness of breath, pain and metabolic abnormalities. There are medications that quell it. Yet it’s hard to discount the role of the psyche and the spiritual.

People who witness terminal agitation often believe it is the dying person’s existential response to death’s approach. Intense agitation may be the most visceral way that the human body can react to the shattering of inertia. We squirm and cry out coming into the world, and sometimes we do the same leaving it.

Complete Article HERE!

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