Choosing death during a life with debilitating disease

By SHEILA HAGAR

Donna Coffeen remembers hearing about Washington state’s Death with Dignity Act when it passed in 2008.

That legislation allows terminally ill adults who want to end their life ask for lethal doses of medication from a physician.

Eight states, including Oregon, have right-to-die laws.

Coffeen was especially alert to the matter. Her husband, Jon, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003.

Both Coffeens researched Death with Dignity and were pleased with their findings at first, she recalled.

Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. The symptoms start gradually, sometimes with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, and so is stiffness or slowing down, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Those issues contributed to why the Death with Dignity act would fail Jon, who could no longer swallow by himself by the time he died last year.

Fatal doses of medication must be self-administered under the law.

Donna, a lifelong educator, wants others to know more about physician-assisted death and what changes would benefit others in her husband’s situation. Particularly in an area like Walla Walla, with fewer health care options, she said.

The Coffeens had been sure of two things for the past several years: Parkinson’s would take Jon’s life too soon, and he didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair or dependent on a caregiver, Donna said.

For better or worse

The couple met while attending Walla Walla University. Their engagement photo, a study of the 1970s in hair and wardrobe, shows two faces glowing with contentment. They married March 19, 1978, in Donna’s hometown of Miles City, Mont.

Jon had arrived in the Walla Walla Valley at age 12, when his family bought 35 acres of farmland along Old Milton Highway, south of College Place. While he and Donna were teaching middle school at Milton Adventist School, Jon built a custom home on a section of that land, Donna said.

“He would get up at 5, come build on this house, teach all day, then build on it at night.”

Jon craved activity. For 41 summers he fished commercially in Alaska. He built fiberglass boats. He loved to hunt and hike and camp. He served with Walla Walla Fire District 4 for more than 20 years, his wife said.

It seemed especially cruel when Jon got the diagnosis of Parkinson’s at age 49. By then, some signs had been present for a few years, such as unexplained fatigue and pain.

The average onset age of the disease is 60, according to Parkinson’s resources.

Donna said Jon was determined to stay healthy as long as possible, despite the diagnosis. Their sons, Phillip and Aaron, were just entering adulthood, and the parents were becoming more free to have adventures.

“He fought as hard as anyone could,” Donna recalled.

“He had nine surgeries in 11 years. He walked every day. He exercised. ”

In 2009, Jon underwent a procedure known as DBS, or deep brain stimulation. A surgeon implants a device similar to a heart pacemaker in the brain. The neurotransmitter delivers electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain, blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremors and other Parkinson’s symptoms, said Sherri Woodbridge in writing for Parkinson’s News Today.

Doing so added five or six years of “high quality” life to her husband’s timeline, even letting him captain his fishing boat another three summers, Donna said.

“It brought him back to a level of functioning … But it’s not a cure. The disease will progress past what the surgery will do for you.”

The Coffeen family could tell when Jon’s brain intervention had passed its efficacy. He gave up fishing and firefighting in the same week and eventually began falling at home. The travel they loved stopped. Jon’s exhaustion and pain enveloped everything.

Cannabis use helped a lot. “This was a man who’d never had a drink in his life,” Donna said with a laugh.

Looking back, she could see her husband was beginning to plan for the end of his life.

“I think he wanted to spare me. He didn’t want to use up our money, and he didn’t want to be in a nursing home.”

When Jon began worrying he was developing cognitive issues, “that was his line in the sand,” Donna noted.

Out of options

In September 2018, Jon mowed the lawn one day and entered Providence St. Mary Medical Center for foot surgery the next.

He ended up in rehabilitation care at a nursing home for about 10 days, his son Phillip said.

It was there his dad’s Parkinson’s symptoms worsened, likely from stress, he added.

Those increased symptoms sent Jon back to the hospital, where he spoke little and stopped eating, Donna said.

“‘This Parkinson’s is coming down on me like a freight train, and I won’t be able to make decisions soon,’ he told me. But I thought he was coming home. I bought a wheelchair and a wheelchair lift just a few days before we figured out what he was doing.”

What Jon was doing is called VSED — Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking. Because he could no longer effectively swallow, Jon could not drink a fatal potion of prescribed medicine, nor was that allowable at the Catholic-based St. Mary.

He was too sick to go to another hospital, Donna said.

“He was out of options.”

VSED is an intentional decision to stop taking liquids or nutrition. According to the National Institute of Health, some people at the end of their lives choose this over physician-assisted death to give them more time for family interaction and reflection. In a case of terminal illness, VSED is not considered suicide. Some patients side-step the medical system altogether when choosing this action.

Some accounts say fatal dehydration and starvation are a hard way to end life, but that wasn’t their experience, Donna said.

In any case, she’d already agreed to follow Jon’s wishes.

“He told me, ‘Don’t you dare give me water.’ He was worried about delirium but that never happened,” she said.

“It took awhile for my heart to catch up with my brain. But I had no urge to talk him out of VSED. I did some grieving in front of him, but I would never ask him not to.”

Hospital staff knew what was happening when Donna and her sons brought Jon home the day after he began the VSED process, she said.

“No one actively stopped us, but no one could officially help us. It’s a Catholic hospital; we knew it would be that way.”

Few people understand the real loss of Walla Walla General Hospital or limited medical care choices until it comes to times like these, Donna added.

Going forward

Friends continued to be a constant support, and the family made sure all home visitors were either on board with Jon’s decision or kept their thoughts to themselves.

While most VSED users die in about seven days, Jon took 12, she said, attributing that to his age.

Jon Coffeen died Oct. 7, 2018, surrounded by his family.

Donna said she believes her husband wanted to go while his wife could still have an active life.

“I miss him, but he would not be happy if I quit living life to the fullest … In the last year it was like living with a ghost,” she said.

Advances in medical technology are wonderful, and the Coffeens took advantage of those while it made sense.

“But many people prolong things, too. We were right on the edge of hell.”

She might choose the same, given Jon’s shoes to walk in, Donna added softly.

“Our family considers him a hero for doing this.”

After 40 years of marriage, it’s hard not to feel cheated by Parkinson’s, she said, noting Jon’s parents lived into their 90s.

But Donna is learning to live alone. Toby, the “mostly” shih tzu puppy, joined her not long after Jon died and provides a reason for routine, she said, offering the bouncing, barking dog a few Cheerios during the interview.

“We’re still working on manners.”

At 63, Donna said she’ll retire soon. She believes a mission is ahead for her and suspects it’s bringing awareness of end-of-life matters.

“I strongly feel something needs to be done. I just don’t know the next step yet,” she said.

“Maybe it’s time to take another look at the law.”

Complete Article HERE!

Struggling to die in peace:

A family fights to turn off a pacemaker

In 2010, the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, the American Geriatrics Society and other prominent groups issued a statement indicating that the deactivation of a pacemaker, an implantable device used to speed up slow heart beats, is ethically permissible.

By Jennifer Friedlin

For the past month, my mother and I have been advocating for the deactivation of my father’s pacemaker. Yet despite my parents having taken every measure to ensure that they would control the ends of their lives, two months since a severe stroke destroyed whatever quality of life my father, who was already suffering from advanced dementia, had left, his heart continues to beat against my family’s wishes.

In 2010, the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, the American Geriatrics Society and other prominent groups issued a statement indicating that the deactivation of a pacemaker, an implantable device used to speed up slow heart beats, is ethically permissible. Reaffirmed last year, the statement says, “Legally, carrying out a request to withdraw life-sustaining treatment is neither physician-assisted suicide nor euthanasia.”

Nevertheless, the team of medical professionals at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation has given us the runaround. Most recently, my mother and I met with my father’s team of medical professionals to discuss moving my father into hospice as well as deactivating the pacemaker so that my father could live out his days naturally. During the course of the meeting, my mother, who is my father’s proxy, made clear that this would be my father’s wish.

According to the law, the request is my mother’s prerogative. In 1990, in Cruzan vs. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the Supreme Court ruled that a competent patient could refuse life-sustaining treatments, including nutrition and hydration. This case gave rise to advance directives so that a proxy could carry out the patient’s will. In a later case, the Court affirmed the right of competent patients to refuse therapy.

The medical team agreed to hospice, but has so far refused to carry out the request to deactivate the pacemaker. We have had several long conversations with the medical team, and, while they seem to agree with our desire to give my father a dignified end, they offer confusing explanations as to why they will not carry out my dad’s wishes.

At one point, a staff member told me that because a pacemaker does not prolong life, we should leave it. But my father’s pacemaker is working 53% of the time to correct his condition, known as bradycardia, which can result in heart failure. I fail to see how this device is not prolonging my father’s life or, at the very least, interrupting the possibility for his natural demise.

We are certainly not the first family to confront the medical community’s refusal to deactivate a pacemaker. Katy Butler, author of “The Art of Dying Well,” has written extensively about her efforts to give her father the death he wanted by deactivating his pacemaker. Butler also uncovered other horrors, such as cardiologists recommending pacemakers for elderly people with advanced dementia.

Much of the motivation, Butler noted, seemed to stem from the financial rewards of treating people, even the terminally ill. Simply put there’s no money in death. And yet in its current design, at $450 a day for room and board alone, institutions like the Parker Institute rake in millions annually from people whose lives are being maintained artificially. The medical system could quite literally bankrupt healthy family members to keep a dying one alive.

Although estimates vary, each year approximately 400,000 people — half over age 75 — get implantable cardiac devices, including pacemakers. Primary care doctors, cardiologists, and elder care attorneys should inform people about how these devices can affect their end of life and encourage them to include their wishes in advance directives.

Yet, even if they do, they may hit the same wall of refusal my family has faced. It seems that despite the legal rulings and the ethicists’ writings, doctors are committed to keeping pacemakers ticking.

It’s unfair to the terminally ill and their families that this view prevails. The refusal to deactivate means the sick family member is denied a dignified death, while the need for constant advocacy leaves family members feeling like they are making an unseemly demand.

As the debate about healthcare builds in the run up to the 2020 presidential election, I hope that the candidates will discuss reforms to improve end of life care. There should be dignity in death for the terminally ill and no healthy person should be forced into bankruptcy to keep a loved one alive against his or her will. There are certain people we should spare no expense to keep alive, in our family’s opinion my father is not one of them.

Complete Article HERE!

Speak freely about realities of death, experts urge

Taboos around death and dying are increasing the risk of elderly patients “on their dying journey” being subjected to unwanted and invasive medical procedures against their wishes, experts say.

By Lucy Stone

Associate Professor Magnolia Cardona, from the Gold Coast’s Bond University, has led a PhD study into the use of rapid response system treatments on elderly hospital patients nearing end of life.

Professor Cardona said the research, published in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Public Safety, studied the files of more than 700 patients who received calls for medical emergency teams during hospitalisation at a large Sydney teaching hospital.

A medical emergency team usually consists of two or three specialists from the intensive care unit focused on maintaining life when a patient is in a hospital ward.

The research further focused on patients aged 80 and over, and found that 40 per cent were subjected to invasive procedures such as intubation, intensive monitoring, intravenous medications, transplants and resuscitation attempts.

Ten per cent of those patients already had medical orders in place limiting treatment, or requesting do-not-resuscitate.

“Those orders … are usually issued by their doctors in consultation with families,” Professor Cardona said.

Professor Cardona said the research showed the conflict between increasingly rapid medical advances, public perception of the capabilities of medical experts to revive or prolong life, and the emotive issue of death.

The findings were similar to those of 2017 studies conducted in Europe, but Professor Cardona said the Australian researchers had expected to find a smaller percentage of such incidents.

The research found that elderly patients in their last year of life were frequent users of ambulance and hospital services, including intensive care units, and that health professionals often felt under pressure to administer “aggressive” treatments.

“Health professionals do not always fully discuss a prognosis with families, or may lack the confidence to discuss patients’ preferences for care and treatment at the end of life,” the research said.

“They may decide to continue intensive treatment based on concerns about the family’s legal or emotional reactions, or in an attempt to avoid an in-hospital death, generally perceived as a ‘failure’.”

“Often these frequently heroic medical interventions do not improve patient survival and instead prolong suffering and adversely affect the quality of death.”

The study found that while patients under 80 years of age may benefit from such aggressive techniques, patients over 80 were less likely to benefit.

Professor Cardona also said it was critical that families and elderly people, or people with terminal illnesses, had open conversations about the decisions ahead, and wrote on paper their personal wishes, or appointed someone trusted as their medical representative.

Due to techniques such as CPR being treated as a cure-all on television shows and movies, Professor Cardona said the public often had some misconceptions about the safety and appropriateness of such techniques, particularly for elderly people.

She said the research would hopefully encourage both families and medical professionals to have fresh conversations about patient needs and values, and ensure the wishes of elderly patients were respected as they neared the end of life.

Professor Cardona said she hoped medical professionals could also think critically about the “do no harm” principle when faced with patients facing death of natural causes.

“The conclusion of the study that perhaps clinicians need to take a step back when they identify these flags of imminent death and offer a different alternative of management,” she said.

“That is the pathway of care of comfort care, and that includes giving the patient pain relief, other symptom control, psychosocial support and grief counselling for the families.

“And all of these of course preceded by an honest conversation with the patient and family about the poor prognosis, the inevitability of death and the fact that not every death should be considered a failure.

“Death is just a natural part of the life cycle.”

Complete Article HERE!

Your Body is a Teeming Battleground

It’s time to rethink the quest to control aging, death, and disease—and the fear of mortality that fuels it.

By Barbara Ehrenreich

[I] went to medical school, at least in part, to get to know death and perhaps to make my peace with it. So did many of my doctor friends, as I would find out. One day—usually when you’re young, though sometimes later—the thought hits you: You really are going to die. That moment is shocking, frightening, terrible. You try to pretend it hasn’t happened (it’s only a thought, after all), and you go about your business, worrying about this or that, until the day you put your hand to your neck—in the shower, say—and … What is that? Those hard lumps that you know, at first touch, should not be there? But there they are, and they mean death. Your death, and you can’t pretend anymore.

I never wanted to be surprised that way, and I thought that if I became a doctor and saw a lot of death, I might get used to it; it wouldn’t surprise me, and I could learn to live with it. My strategy worked pretty well. Over the decades, from all my patients, I learned that I would be well until I got sick and that although I could do some things to delay the inevitable a bit, whatever control I had was limited. I learned that I had to live as if I would die tomorrow and at the same time as if I would live forever. Meanwhile, I watched as what had been called “medical care”—that is, treating the sick—turned into “health care,” keeping people healthy, at an ever-rising cost.

In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich ventures into the fast-growing literature on aging, disease, and death, tracing her own disaffection with a medical and social culture unable to face mortality. She argues that what “makes death such an intolerable prospect” is our belief in a reductionist science that promises something it cannot deliver—ultimate control over our bodies. The time has come to rethink our need for such mastery, she urges, and reconcile ourselves to the idea that it may not be possible.

Ehrenreich is well equipped for her mission; she has a doctorate in biology and years of social and political work behind her, as well as decades of writing. I first discovered her in medical school, when I read her early book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1973). From it I learned that my small group of nine women in the otherwise male class of ’77 belonged to a long, if forgotten, tradition. I also learned that social progress is not always an upward-trending line. The author of more than a dozen books, Ehrenreich has a reputation for chronicling cultural shifts before others notice them. She delights in confronting entrenched assumptions, popular delusions, grandiose ambitions—and in teasing out their unexpected consequences.

Often she incorporates firsthand experience into her analysis. For her best-known book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), she spent a year working at unskilled jobs. In Living With a Wild God (2014), she recounted her own spiritual epiphanies in adolescence and her struggle, as a determined atheist, to understand her “furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” Before all that, in 2000, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and begun paying special attention to surprising new science about cancer, cells, and our immune system. Now 76, Ehrenreich explores that science in Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Once again, she is swept up by big questions. Not least among them is “whether the natural world is dead or in some sense alive” and behaving in unpredicted and unpredictable ways that have much to tell us about our approach to mortality.

She starts by looking at the many preventive medical procedures we are encouraged, even badgered, to undergo—those regular physical exams, colonoscopies, blood tests, mammograms. She had always pretty much done what doctors advised (she underwent chemotherapy), figuring that it made sense to treat disease before illness overwhelmed the body. But after watching many fitness-obsessed people die early, and realizing that she herself is now “old enough to die,” she questions that premise. Where is the evidence that all the effort at prevention saves lives or delays death?

It’s hard to find, she discovers. In people who have a strong family history of heart disease, treating high cholesterol does decrease mortality, on average. But for those who don’t have that predisposition, it doesn’t. Colonoscopies have not been proved more effective at reducing deaths from colon cancer than other, cheaper, less-invasive tests. Sometimes procedures cause more trouble than they prevent. Mammograms, for instance, detect tumors that might never be fatal, and can lead to over-treatment, which carries its own risks. The insight is counterintuitive—although finding diseases early on should prolong lives, the screenings we undergo don’t seem to lower mortality rates overall—and Ehrenreich decides that she will no longer get most preventive care.

She is just as clear-eyed about other approaches to delaying our decay—exercise, diet, meditation. Though she became a “fitness devotee” herself in middle age, she finds symptoms of cultural malaise rather than health benefits in the fitness and diet obsessions of the past 40 years. Wellness programs do little to reduce companies’ immediate health-care costs, and the pursuit of fitness, Ehrenreich argues, is often simply one more “class cue.” Workouts easily become just that—work, another demand for self-discipline, competition, and control. Ironically, when she reached her 70s, her knees began giving her trouble not from age-appropriate arthritis but from overexertion.

[T]urning from her critique of preventive medicine and fitness culture as death-postponement strategies, Ehrenreich is even more unsettled by research indicating that our immune system is not the magical “protective cloak” she learned about in graduate school. What really gets her rethinking her scientific beliefs is the evolving story of the macrophage—the specialized white blood cell that she always thought of as her good shepherd “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Macrophages have traditionally been understood as one of our crucial first-line defenses against disease. They are found throughout our body—in our bones, brain, lymph nodes, lungs, and breasts—and circulate in our blood. They look like the amoebas we learned about in high school, those slippery, one-celled, independent creatures that move by stretching out and contracting, and eat by wrapping themselves around their prey, invaginating and absorbing it. The usual story went like this: Whenever macrophages find threats to our well-being in our midst—bacteria, viruses, fungi, or cancer cells—they kill them and eat them by engulfing and absorbing them. Ehrenreich assumed that keeping her immune system—and valiant macrophages—strong through exercise, diet, and positive thoughts was the key to not getting sick, not getting cancer, not getting old.

But research around the turn of the millennium suggested a different view. Macrophages do not always kill our cancer cells; sometimes they even help them grow and spread. They escort certain cancer cells through the tight walls of our blood vessels, and protect them as they circulate in our bloodstream, looking for a congenial new home. When such a site is found—in a bone or breast, liver or lung—macrophages then support those cancer cells as they mature into the metastases that will go on to kill us.

Scientists are now discovering that the macrophage is as much wolf as shepherd in other diseases as well. It may play a role in auto-immune disorders, and even in the usual afflictions of aging—heart attacks, strokes, arthritis. We thought we knew the causes of those (cholesterol, cigarettes, inactivity) and therefore the recourse (diet, abstinence, exercise); but now it appears that inflammation, caused in large part by our macrophages, may be a trigger. Ehrenreich ponders the heretical question: Can it be that instead of working to keep our immune system healthy, we should all along have been doing the opposite?

[E]hrenreich is not, however, an apostle of unwellness, and Natural Causes is not a how-to book. Instead she focuses on the conceptual and “deep moral reverberations” of the discovery that our immune system can aid and abet a “cellular rebellion against the entire organism.” What if our convenient “holistic, utopian” view of the “mindbody” as a “well-ordered mechanism”—kept in harmony by positive thinking and solicitous tending—is wrong?

Ehrenreich proves a fascinating guide to the science suggesting that our cells, like the macrophages that sometimes destroy and sometimes defend, can act unpredictably and yet not randomly. It is almost as if our cells can choose when and how to behave—unregulated by any deterministic mechanism. But that would mean they have “agency, or the ability to initiate an action,” as she puts it. And what would that imply? If macrophages are actually deciding which cancer cells to destroy or to preserve, “maybe, crazy as it sounds, they are not following any kind of ‘instructions,’ but doing what they feel like doing.”Researchers are now finding this same agency everywhere, Ehrenreich reports—in fruit flies; in viruses; in atoms, electrons, and photons. Such discoveries must mean that agency, the capacity for making decisions—electrons jumping up a quantum level or not, photons passing through this hole in a screen rather than another—is not the rare, and human, prerogative we once thought.

Ehrenreich detects a paradigm shift in the making, away from holism and toward “a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body’s own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen.” This vision of the body as an embattled “confederation of parts”—the opposite of a coherent whole, subject to command and control—is “dystopian,” she writes. And yet it has liberating, humbling implications. “If there is a lesson here,” she proposes, it’s that “we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.” Of course, the struggle to win the battles within our body may be one we’ll never be able to resist. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll devise high-tech ways to induce, or persuade, our traitorous immune cells to cooperate with our health. But whatever technological miracles appear in our future, Ehrenreich hopes we can come to accept that the ultimate outcome will be, as it has always been, out of our control.

Researchers are now finding this same agency everywhere, Ehrenreich reports—in fruit flies; in viruses; in atoms, electrons, and photons. Such discoveries must mean that agency, the capacity for making decisions—electrons jumping up a quantum level or not, photons passing through this hole in a screen rather than another—is not the rare, and human, prerogative we once thought.

Ehrenreich detects a paradigm shift in the making, away from holism and toward “a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body’s own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen.” This vision of the body as an embattled “confederation of parts”—the opposite of a coherent whole, subject to command and control—is “dystopian,” she writes. And yet it has liberating, humbling implications. “If there is a lesson here,” she proposes, it’s that “we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.” Of course, the struggle to win the battles within our body may be one we’ll never be able to resist. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll devise high-tech ways to induce, or persuade, our traitorous immune cells to cooperate with our health. But whatever technological miracles appear in our future, Ehrenreich hopes we can come to accept that the ultimate outcome will be, as it has always been, out of our control.

No, because I’ve noticed, in my life as a doctor, that the truism is true: People die the way they’ve lived—even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control, and Ehrenreich is a fighter.

Yes, because I’ve also noticed that everyone I’ve seen die does come to accept the inevitable loss of control at his or her finally unevadable death. Usually that happens over weeks or months, sometimes over years; occasionally it happens over days, hours, or even minutes. This acceptance is perhaps as developmentally determined as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. At the end, something magical appears to occur—something beautiful, something Other—that seems to heal the spirit, allay all fear, and settle, finally, the struggle for control.

Complete Article HERE!

At the End of Life, a Way to Go Gentle

By

[W]hile confronting the prospect of death, people like me — grappling with a diagnosis of advanced cancer — often consider what sort of care they want and how to say goodbye. Given the delicate negotiations in which the dying need to engage, do intensive care physicians with their draconian interventions act like proverbial bulls in a china shop? My fear of pointless end-of-life treatments, performed while I was in no condition to reject them, escalated when I read Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter’s book, “Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.”

Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter

Dr. Zitter confronts the sort of scenario that haunts me because she works in specialties that are sometimes seen as contradictory: pulmonary/critical care and palliative care.

In her new book, she refers to the usual intensive care unit approach as the “end-of-life conveyor belt.” She argues that palliative care methods should be used to slow down and derail the typical destructive I.C.U. approach that often torments people it cannot heal.

Over the past few years, quite a few studies have indicated that physicians are less likely than the general population to receive intensive care before death. Many doctors choose a do-not-resuscitate status. Dr. Zitter highlights the insight upon which her colleagues base their end-of-life decisions.

According to Dr. Zitter, even what are intended to be temporary intensive care measures can put a patient on that conveyor belt to anguish and isolation. She writes of breathing machines, feeding tubes, cardiac resuscitation, catheters, dialysis and a miserable existence prolonged within long-term acute care facilities. In an account of the evolution of her own ideas about doctoring, she also explains why it remains so difficult to change intensive care units so they can better serve the terminally ill.

“Extreme Measures” analyzes a complex cluster of suspect but ingrained attitudes that bolster hyperaggressive methods. Medical training fosters a heroic model of saving lives at any cost. American can-do optimism assumes all problems can and should be solved. Both doctors and patients tend to subscribe to a “more is better” philosophy. If technology exists, surely it should be used. Physicians’ fears of litigation plays a part, as do patients’ fantasies of perpetual life. For too many, death remains unthinkable and unspeakable.

One of Dr. Zitter’s compelling patient narratives teaches a clear-cut lesson. It involves an 800-pound man “too large to fit into the CT scanner,” but “too unstable to be transported to the nearby zoo’s CT scanner.” Surgery would therefore be impossible. The patient, a 39-year-old she calls Charles, is bleeding from his intestinal tract, his heart is exhibiting erratic behavior, his kidneys have failed and his liver is foundering. Yet he and his relatives want the doctors “to do everything.”

Although Dr. Zitter tries to explain to Charles and his family that chest compressions would break his ribs and electric shocks would burn his skin, they insist on “a full-court-press resuscitation attempt when he died.” To Dr. Zitter, “Running a code on this dying man felt… akin to punching him in the face and would probably have had the same utility.” Honoring his wishes would require breaking the oath: “First, do no harm.”

Other case histories in “Extreme Measures” are more troubling because their moral implications are less obvious. After a dramatic brain bleed from a major clot, a 45-year-old she calls George faces an operation that cannot return him to who he had been. His wife wants to know what Dr. Zitter would do if he were her husband. She explains that her husband would accept paralysis if he could remain communicative with her and their children at home.

Although Dr. Zitter fears that the surgeons who operated on George never broached the topic of his quality of life after surgery, she is heartened upon his return to the I.C.U.: He gives a thumbs-up. “What if, as a result of our talk, his wife had not consented to the surgery? Would I have been his unwitting killer?” This moment of self-doubt is followed by another turn of the screw. When Dr. Zitter later phones George’s wife, she says: “I am a single mother, but with another angry child.”

“Extreme Measures” includes a number of stories that explore the difficulties of talking about the subject of death with dysfunctional families, wracked by depression or feuds, and across racial, religious and ethnic divides. Often and to her credit, Dr. Zitter finds herself baffled, unsure of how to balance cultural priorities, human needs and medical possibilities. Throughout, she struggles personally and professionally to redefine common responses to terminal conditions.

In place of hope for recovery, Dr. Zitter emphasizes “the miracle of time at home, of pain management, of improved quality of life. These are all concepts I have seen families embrace in place of survival — the only concept of hope previously imagined.” And to people refusing “to play God” by withdrawing a breathing tube, she asks whether “they were playing God by keeping [a relative] alive when her body was actively dying.”

For readers who wish to avoid the end-of-life conveyor belt, Dr. Zitter concludes “Extreme Measures” with some practical advice on, for example, procuring a Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST), a legal directive that emergency responders, paramedics and emergency room doctors are supposed to follow (but sometimes don’t, as Paula Span reported in The Times earlier this week).

Without this sort of documentation of end-of-life wishes, Dr. Zitter writes, a 90-year-old with metastasized prostate cancer ended up paralyzed and tethered to machines after cardiac arrests. “Our well-intentioned resuscitative efforts had crushed his cancer-weakened neck bones, rendering him quadriplegic.”

Passionately and poignantly, Dr. Zitter reminds us that “conveyor belts, regardless of their destination, are not meant for human beings.” Sometimes less is more.

Complete Article HERE!

Medical advancements have changed the way we die and view the process of death

The process of dying is a more complicated issue today because of advancements in life-sustaining technologies

“Due to innovations in medical technology, our perception of death has changed as we are more able to alter the natural path of the human life.”

By Yasmine Mian

[H]ow we die is a profoundly personal journey.

As college students, we don’t consider the topic of death frequently, let alone the process of dying. However, it is a universal theme that does not discriminate against anyone, no matter their age.

Throughout history, the process of dying is represented differently across cultures and religions. While some religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism believe it marks the beginning of rebirth or reincarnation after death, others, like Christianity, believe it marks the beginning of a journey to Heaven.

Regardless of the beliefs, to fully understand the process of dying and its aftermath, we must examine how the dying process has changed over time.

Throughout our history—particularly recently with medical advancements—the human race has looked far and wide to answer a complex question: What is a natural death? With so many life-sustaining technologies to potentially keep us alive indefinitely, many don’t know what a natural death entails anymore.

Universities like ASU offer courses exploring the cultural and religious aspects of death and dying. 

While the biological process of dying is universal, the behaviors associated with expressing grief are very much culturally bound. Courses like these offered at universities allow students to learn how cultures have developed ways to cope with the process of dying.

Sally Johnson, a professor of psychology at Glendale Community College, believes that all students should study the cross cultural aspects of death.

“By learning about the way different cultures and religions treat the dying process, we can gain more insight into how they deal with the heartache and pain that comes along with death and how it manifests itself in the funeral/death process,” she said. 

However, it is important to remember that the process of dying has drastically changed over the past several decades with the development of modern resuscitative technologies. It seems as if a “natural death” has no place in our society anymore.

The idea of a natural death is merely a reflection of the social and scientific context of the time that death took place in.

When we picture a natural death, we envision an individual lying in bed surrounded by loved ones, taking their last breaths in a place of comfort and homeliness, a sight of peace and tranquility often dreamed of in literature.

However, with the help of modern medicine and innovative technology, our perceptions of natural death have now changed.

Thanks to modern medicine, diseases like polio, scarlet fever and others have been rendered preventable, treatable, or far less common now. This has led to a dramatic extension of life.

However, these new technologies have also been used to prolong the life expectancy of individuals with terminal illnesses, such a cancer.

While the idea of prolonging life might sound like a good thing, it often forces patients, their loved ones and their doctors to make difficult, painful decisions.

In some cases, when patients have no hope of surviving, we use technology and drugs to simply keep them alive in a biological sense. 

Families and doctors may feel as though they need to exhaust every available treatment or medication to prolong the dying process, however, that can be a naive and selfish outlook. 

But what we don’t understand is that there is a difference between being alive and living. Medicine can’t cure everything, but we often act as though death is optional.

The dying process is usually centered around the elderly, who are approaching there last few months of life due to natural causes. When younger individuals do die, it’s usually the cause of an accident or life-threatening disease.

However, individuals of all ages, especially students should be aware of the cultural significance of death, especially as we begin to cope with the loss of loved ones or go into professions where death is common. 

We must recognize the limits of our human knowledge and technology and accept the fact that eventually, all of us will die. As morbid as it sounds, it is a natural process of life and should not be pegged as a taboo topic. 


 

Complete Article HERE!

A Death in the I.C.U.

By

[O]n a recent night, I watched a man with terminal cancer die in the intensive care unit.

He was intubated. Meds ran through intravenous catheters in his bruised arms. Outside his room, alarms beeped. On the face of it, this death was precisely the kind we are told to avoid. But I think that for him, the I.C.U. was actually a good place to be.

My patient had thought he was healthy until a few months before, when the cough that wouldn’t go away turned out to be cancer in his lungs. Chemo slowed it down, but there would be no cure, his doctors told him. He was 75, and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and bones.

But he was living at home, eating the foods he liked, chatting with his wife. He went along that way until one day he spiked a fever and his cough worsened. The doctors in the emergency room sent him up to the I.C.U. And there we were, standing around the bed, as his breath grew ragged, wondering whether we could make him better.

Maybe with a few days of antibiotics, we could get him back home. Maybe. If we were to push ahead, with the hope that he would improve, he would need to be intubated. I turned to his wife.

She knew that he didn’t want to linger in a machine-enabled purgatory. But he would choose to undergo our interventions if there was a chance he could get well enough to return home, to be with her and the family, for whatever time he had remaining. We would take the chance.

I called the anesthesiologists. My patient’s wife held his hand as they sedated and paralyzed him so that they could place a breathing tube down his throat.

And with that, a man with a terminal illness ended up in the I.C.U., intubated, maybe dying. We know the numbers. More than 80 percent of people say they would prefer to die at home, and yet more than half of them die here in the hospital, surrounded by noise and strange smells and tubes and machines.

It’s a message that I continue to hear: Dying in an I.C.U. is a bad death that occurs when communication and understanding break down, while dying at home is a success. There is some truth to this. I have seen many men and women, bald and withered and suffering, tethered to machines that serve only to prolong an end that is inevitable.

But to cast an I.C.U. death as the negative outcome of poor communication and decision-making is too simple. Intensive care at the end of life is very often fluid, our treatments and decisions nuanced. Consider another patient, a frail man in his 80s, also with lung cancer, whose oncologist had told him he had maybe a month, at most. As his breathing grew more labored, he ended up in the I.C.U. We could not cure him — his doctors knew that, and he did, too. But perhaps we could help. We supported his breathing with high levels of oxygen, while we drained the fluid around his lung and gave him intravenous diuretics. We subjected him to the stress of the I.C.U. and a procedure, yes, but his breathing improved, not enough for him to go home again, but enough for him to be able to return to the general medical floor of the hospital. Some might argue that his story exemplifies what is wrong with our system, an example of an invasive, resource-intensive intervention in the last few weeks of life. And yet, seeing him sitting up in bed and able to take a deep breath, I considered his treatment a success — even if it bought him only days.

A procedure or an I.C.U. stay at the end of life can be a gamble. There are times when it ends the way we hope, with a treated infection, a return home. But there are times when it does not, and often, we do not know what is possible from the start. So we explain this uncertainty, and we continue to evaluate new treatment decisions with patients and their families in the context of their goals. And when the burden of disease grows too great, with further interventions more likely to cause harm than benefit, our focus can shift toward comfort. Navigating that shift is part of our training, too.

There my 75-year-old patient lay, intubated in the I.C.U. At first, the antibiotics seemed to be working, and he seemed to be getting a little bit better. We told his wife this, and she looked hopeful. But a few days passed, and then a week. He could not breathe without the ventilator. In a small conference room off the I.C.U., we told his wife that we were sorry. We had treated the pneumonia but because of the cancer, her husband’s lungs were too weak to recover. He was not going to get home. But we could maintain his dignity here, in the I.C.U., as he died. We promised her.

That night, we shut off the monitors inside his room. The screens went dark. My patient’s nurse increased the dose of his morphine drip. The respiratory therapist stepped in and removed the breathing tube. My patient breathed quickly for a moment, a little gasp, and then the morphine hit him and his breaths quieted.

We brought in his wife and two children, who gathered by the bedside. We slid shut the glass doors. From outside the room, I watched them stand there. I watched the monitors that remained on outside the room, holding my own breath as my patient’s heart rate slowed, then stilled completely. Inside his room it was quiet. There were no alarms. Through the curtains, I saw the shadow of my patient’s wife as she hunched over and began to cry, and her daughter leaned over to hold her.

And that was it. A man with metastatic cancer had died in the I.C.U.

Complete Article HERE!