Patients, their families and their doctors need to be open about the inevitable as the virus sweeps through our population
As the coronavirus spreads through the population, there is one fact we can all agree on. Whether we like it or not, society’s greatest taboo – death and dying – has been thrust unequivocally centre stage.
How could it not, when government strategy is to allow the virus to infect huge swathes of the country in the hope of building sufficient “herd immunity” to protect from future harm? The virus has killed an estimated 3.4% of those it has infected, according to the World Health Organization, although this figure is expected to decline as the true number of people infected becomes apparent. Herd immunity, according to Downing Street’s chief scientific adviser, requires a minimum infection rate of 60% of the population. Thus we may face a potential early and unexpected death toll of hundreds of thousands of Britons.
There is, therefore, a glaring imperative to confront the topic so many of us long to squirm away from: the inescapable fact of mortality. As a palliative care doctor, I am intimately acquainted with our reluctance to square up to dying, and with the unintended harms of such squeamishness. Advance care planning – the phrase doctors use to describe proactively how much medical intervention you would wish for in extremis – is too frequently neglected, by patients and doctors alike.
Sometimes, for example, if an oncologist is less than candid about a patient’s frailty precluding any further rounds of chemotherapy, a family may be unaware that time is running out. Profound and vital conversations between family members never happen. Final messages hang in the air, forever unsaid.
Suddenly, the patient is comatose and fading. And no one has sought to find out if they would like heroic efforts at prolonging life – or if, perhaps, their final wish is to die at home, neither gowned nor tubed, with no machines and only loved ones at their side.
We are fast approaching a crunch time. NHS intensive care beds will be imminently overwhelmed with patients in dire need of mechanical ventilation. Italy’s experience has shown all too graphically that peak infection rates demand draconian rationing of health resources. In Lombardy, for example, some beleaguered hospitals have been forced to impose bans on ventilators for coronavirus sufferers aged over 60 – this despite knowing that it is predominantly the elderly who will die.
As Britain approaches peak infection, we therefore owe it to each other to start talking now. Would your mother, approaching 80, even wish for an intensive care bed? Do you, her anxious offspring, even feel able to find out? No one can pretend these discussions are easy. Our dearly beloved mums and dads are no less loved for their years; how on earth do we begin to broach the prospect of each other’s deaths?
If there is one thing I have learned from my time in a hospice, it is that these conversations rarely measure up to the degree with which we dread them. Indeed, for some elderly patients – conscious of their frailty – a little candour about the future can bring immense relief. It is fine to stumble, feel awkward, grope your way, get the words out wrong. In the end, all that matters is motive: the sincerity of your fumbled aim to tease out your loved one’s views.
Two medical truths may help you find the strength to talk and listen. First, every medical intervention has cons as well as pros. Even for young and healthy patients, intensive care is a gruelling experience that can leave serious, long-term medical problems. For the elderly, survival is more doubtful, let alone full restoration to good health.
Second, not every problem can be fixed. Sometimes, a disease is so aggressive that intensive care cannot cure, but only harm. When doctors conclude intensive care is not an option, it is not discrimination but a weighing-up of what might work, the sober balancing of benefits and risks.
In the end, an advance care plan need be nothing more technical than a chat over a cuppa. Steel yourself. Find out your loved ones’ wishes and tell them yours at the same time. There is kindness in being informed and prepared.
And – please – know that however besieged the health service becomes, we will never stop caring for every patient. You may be young, you may be old, but we will always do our best. How much you matter to us will never, ever run dry.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!