By Jane Brody
Robert H. Laws, a retired judge in San Francisco, and his wife, Beatrice, knew it was important to have health care directives in place to help their doctors and their two sons make wise medical decisions should they ever be unable to speak for themselves. With forms from their lawyer, they completed living wills and assigned each other as health care agents.
For example, Judge Laws said in an interview, he’d want to be ventilated temporarily if he had pneumonia and the procedure kept him alive until antibiotics kicked in and he could breathe well enough on his own.
What he would not want is to be on a ventilator indefinitely, or to have his heart restarted if he had a terminal illness or would end up mentally impaired.
Nuances like these, unfortunately, escape the attention of a vast majority of people who have completed advance directives, and may also discourage others from creating directives in the first place.
Enter two doctors and a nurse who are acutely aware of the limitations of most such directives. In 2008, they created a service to help people through the process, no matter what their end-of-life choices may be.
The San Francisco-based service, called Good Medicine Consult & Advocacy, is the brainchild of Dr. Jennifer Brokaw, 46, who was an emergency room physician for 14 years and saw firsthand that the needs and wishes of most patients were not being met by the doctors who cared for them in crisis situations.
“The communication gap was huge,” she said in an interview. “The emergency room doctor has to advocate for patients. I felt I could do that and head things off at the pass by communicating both with patients and physicians.”
Sara C. Stephens, a nurse, and Dr. Lael Conway Duncan, an internist, joined her in the project. Ms. Stephens flew to La Crosse, Wis., to be trained in health care advocacy at Gundersen Lutheran Health System. Through its trainees, tens of thousands of nurses, social workers and chaplains have been taught how to help patients plan for future care decisions.
“People often need help in thinking about these issues and creating a good plan, but most doctors don’t have the time to provide this service,” said Bernard Hammes, who runs the training program at Gundersen Lutheran. “Conversation is very important for an advance care plan to be successful. But it isn’t just a conversation; it’s at least three conversations.”’
A Necessary Decision Process
Dr. Hammes, editor of a book, “Having Your Own Say: Getting the Right Care When It Means the Most,” said that while he is especially concerned that people 60 and older make their wishes known to family members and develop a cohesive plan, this should be done by someone who develops a serious illness at any age.
“People need to sit down and decide what kind of care makes sense to them and what doesn’t make sense, and who would be the best person to represent them if they became very ill and couldn’t make medical decisions for themselves,” Dr. Hammes said.
“If, for example, you had a sudden and permanent brain injury, how bad would that injury have to be for you to say that you would not want to be kept alive? What strongly held beliefs and values would influence your choice of medical treatment?”
Divisive family conflicts and unwanted medical interventions can be avoided when people specify their wishes, he said. His own mother “told us that if she had severe dementia, it would be a total waste of her life savings to keep her alive. She would rather that her children got the money.”
“We help people work through the decision process and involve those close to them so that the family shares in their goals,” Dr. Hammes said. “When patients have a care plan, the moral dilemmas doctors face can be prevented.”
At Good Medicine in San Francisco, Dr. Brokaw and her colleagues have thus far helped about two dozen people explain their goals and preferences, at a cost of $1,500 for each person.
“In today’s health care systems, families will be asked when patients can’t speak for themselves and many families are very unprepared to make these decisions,” she said.
Her colleague Ms. Stephens pointed out that only about a quarter of American adults have advance care directives of any kind, and only half of them have them in hand or know where they are should they be needed.
Furthermore, only 12 percent had any input from a physician when filling out the forms, which are often done alone or with a lawyer.
“Your lawyer shouldn’t be writing a medical contract any more than you’d want your doctor to write a legal contract,” Dr. Brokaw said.
The kinds of questions she said people should consider: What was your state of health at the start of the illness? What state are you likely to be in at the end of the illness? What, if anything, can provide a soft landing?
Proper Planning Helps Avoid Troubles
Judge Laws writes in the directive he is preparing, “After family, I value clarity of mind and the capacity to make decisions. To live well is to continue to possess the ability to converse, to read, to retain what I learn and to coherently reflect and understand. I do not want my life prolonged if I undergo a marked lessening of my cognitive powers.”
Judge Laws also does not want “to live with severe, distracting pain.”
His directive will request that any treatment he receive be compatible with those goals. He also writes that he expects his sons and his wife to support his decisions even if they disagree with them and not to let any quarrels over his care cause a rift in the family.
Studies have shown that advance care planning reduces stress on patients, their families and health care providers. It also results in 30 percent fewer malpractice suits, greater patient and family satisfaction, and a lower incidence of depression, drinking problems and other signs of complicated grief among survivors.
Ms. Stephens said that advance directives are “organic documents that can be changed at any time if circumstances or a person’s wishes change.” They should be reviewed at least once every 10 years, she added.
Complete Article HERE!
by MONICA WILLIAMS-MURPHY, MD
Those who know and work with me have heard me state without hesitation that it’s morally wrong to do CPR on 90-year old great grandmas. So, it was with great relief that I read the “Do Not Offer CPR” option in a recent JAMA article urging a revision of our present approach to the use of CPR for those who are unarguably at the end of life.
Medicine attempts to balance patient autonomy with the grand directive: “First, do no harm.” Recently, I have also discovered that as a doctor, it is also my job “to do no harm” to the families and surrogate decision makers of those in my care.
Last week, I learned that even asking families to make CPR or DNR decisions in the face of almost certain death creates unnecessary harm for them as well. In the following case, I created a decision-burden for a family that they neither wanted, needed, nor could handle—a decision-burden that would not change the outcome (death), yet would likely trouble them for the rest of their lives.
This case drove home to me another compelling reason why CPR should not be offered to those who are imminently dying: not only does the act of CPR harm the dying patient, the actual act of asking the families to make futile CPR vs DNR decisions harms them as well.
Mr. Gray was an 80-year old great-grandfather of 12. For years he had taken a blood thinner for his heart condition, without any complications, until 3 days before I saw him.
3 days prior, he had fallen and hit his head, developing a large bruise across his forehead. Despite his family’s urging, he had not gone to a doctor to get it checked out. Instead, he went about his daily activities, bothered only by a mild headache. This headache suddenly became severe on the 3rd day and he began to vomit. Immediately after vomiting, he became confused.
No more messing around, the family called 911. Mr. Gray was now too confused to argue or refuse a medical evaluation.
EMS loaded him up easily enough though, and told the family to follow them for what would be a short ride to the hospital. The ride was short enough, but something terrible happened during the transport-Mr. Gray fell unconscious and stopped breathing.
What ensued on arrival to my ER was high-end aggressive emergency care: he was intubated, placed on a ventilator, we placed multiple IVs, gave mannitol, ordered emergency plasma and ran with Mr. Gray to the Cat Scanner, all within minutes.
I tapped my foot impatiently awaiting the images of his brain to load up on the computer.
“Darn it,” I muttered when I saw the pictures confirming what I had already clinically diagnosed and begun treating. A large hematoma had developed on his brain. According to the radiologist there were already signs that his brain was herniating.
Just then, I got a call from the lab. Mr. Gray’s blood thinner levels were toxic. It would take hours to correct this before Mr. Gray could even go to surgery, and what Mr. Gray did not have was hours to wait. What he did have was a large, loving and very concerned family whom I had yet to talk to in detail.
I spoke with the neurosurgeon before I gathered this family. The specialists said that due to the blood thinner toxicity, the delay would most likely make the injury unsurvivable — meaning, we expected him to die.
I let out a long sigh and said, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Hanging up the phone, I braced myself to talk to the family.
When I walked into the family waiting area it seemed to be standing room only. I asked those who could to take a seat. Sitting or standing, everyone leaned forward, anxiously, with expressions mixing dread with hope.
No matter how many times one has done this, these conversations are never easy. First, I gave the general explanation of what had occurred and how bad things looked for Mr. Gray. I explained that surgery to remove the hematoma could not be performed until the blood thinner problem was corrected and that this wait would most likely prove to be “too long” for him.
Tears began to flow. Children grabbed the hands of parents and siblings looked at each other in shock.
Next, I outlined all of the “doctor-driven” decisions that would be made and explained possible outcomes. If A happens then we can do B, but if C happens then B is not an option.
Then, finally, I laid the most serious decisions on them. How would Mr. Gray die, when his time comes? Would they allow natural death by withholding CPR? Would they request an attempt at CPR? Finally, would they consider withdrawing artificial life support measures.
Already grief-stricken, I watched their eyes glaze over in fear and pain as I gave them these final options and explained that eventually we would need to have a family decision on these choices (in the absence of a pre-selected decision maker to speak for Mr. Gray).
Looking around the room at heads hung low, there was deep silence. I stared at my feet, not looking at them in an attempt to give them space for thought.
But in that quiet moment, something shifted within me. I began to feel ashamed that I had even asked such questions at all. In that moment, I began to understand that the burden I had given them was too great and complex. I was asking them to participate in choosing his death, a task that they clearly did not want- something they obviously had never discussed. And, saddest of all, after pressuring them for an answer, this answer was not going to change the outcome for Mr. Gray-he was still probably going to die and all that they would have gained from this situation is a persistent guilt burden about whether they made the right choice or not.
Suddenly, it became so clear to me that this should not even be their burden at all. In that moment, I grew to understand that it was wrong to even ask families to make such decisions in futile circumstances – that should be my job. I should be the one who guides them through this time by saying, “CPR will not bring him back to who he was, it will not help him, it would only cause us to do further damage to his dying body. Because of this, we will not perform CPR on Mr. Gray when his heart stops, but we will care for him in every other way. We will make sure that he is comfortable and that you are with him. Now is your time to say, ‘Thank you, I love you, and good-bye.’”
I lifted my head. Looking around the room, I saw the strain on everyone’s faces and knew more than ever before that the way we practice end-of-life medicine must change.
Mr. Gray and his family, taught me first hand that it is cruel to burden families with CPR decisions in the face of futility. This type of decision-making should be built into medicine. It should be part of an end-of-life algorithm that is created and supported by the entire medical establishment for 3 reasons in addition to those cited in the JAMA article:
The maxim of “first, do no harm” should be extended to not just the patient, but also to the families of the dying patient in our care. We should not harm their emotional lives and consciences by asking them to make decisions about CPR that are ultimately futile. Such a burden is pointless and creates unnecessary suffering.
The Patient Self Determination Act of 1990 states that a patient or patient representative has the right to refuse or accept any medical procedures offered to them. This is the legislative back bone of modern concepts of patient autonomy. Presently, CPR is the default option and is therefore automatically offered by the medical system. But, as we learned from Mr. Gray and his family, there are times when this is inappropriate. I support the position of the JAMA article: “Physicians should not offer CPR to the patient who will die imminently or has no chance of surviving CPR to the point of leaving the hospital.” (Like Mr. Gray, whom we expected to die within 24 hours). Instead, we should spend our energies focusing the patient and families on creating comfort, peace, and closure with their remaining time together.
If the entire medical establishment agrees to create and adhere to guidelines outlining the exclusion criteria for CPR, like exclusion criteria for thrombolytics in stroke, then it cannot be argued that not offering CPR is a violation of patient autonomy. A patient or family cannot demand a procedure that is not offered when it is considered medically contraindicated.
In the end, it is we doctors who need to shoulder the burden of CPR decision making in futile situations. It is the burden for which we were trained, the years of experience caring for the dying, the hours of studying statistics and outcomes. We cannot in good conscience guide all other life-sustaining medical decisions then suddenly shift all death-determining medical decisions back to the family … it is a burden they are not equipped to bear and one they may never shed.
Complete Article HERE!
IT IS a common refrain from doctors doing the ward rounds in the intensive care unit of any major hospital: ”Please don’t ever let this happen to me.”
”He might be 80 years old, severe dementia, type two diabetes, previous strokes and a bit of renal failure, and now he’s fallen in the nursing home and suffered a head injury,” says Ken Hillman, professor of intensive care at the University of NSW, ”and the family wants him continued on life support hoping for a miracle.”
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There might be six specialists, eight junior doctors and when one finds the courage to say the words, ”We’ll all nod,” says Professor Hillman.
Professor Hillman believes many doctors would not put themselves through ”the same hell we often put other patients through”.
Professor Hillman is a speaker at a conference at NSW Parliament House next week on living well and dying well. The conference is organised by the non-profit organisation LifeCircle which helps people caring for loved ones at the end of their life. ”We support people having a good life right to the end with the conversations that will benefit the person dying and those they love,” said Brynnie Goodwill, the chief executive of LifeCircle.
With daily reports of miracle cures and medical breakthroughs, many people with advanced life-threatening cancers and other terminal illnesses pursue every possible treatment, no matter how gruelling, in the hope of extending life.
But do doctors choose the same path for themselves? The silence around doctors’ views was shattered earlier this year when Ken Murray, retired clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Southern California, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that ”what’s unusual about [doctors] is not how much treatment they get … but how little.” He said doctors did not want to die any more than anyone else did. ”But they usually have talked about the limits of modern medicine with their families. They want to make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic measures are taken.”
Medical scepticism about life-saving interventions was revealed in a 1996 German poll where about half the specialists admitted they would not undergo the operations they recommended to their patients. A study last year, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, showed doctors often advised patients to opt for treatment they would not choose for themselves.
For example, asked to consider treatments for colon cancer, 38 per cent of doctors chose the option for themselves that had a low rate of side effects but higher risk of death (over an option with a high rate of side effects but lower risk of death). But only 24 per cent recommended this option for their patients.
Martin Tattersall, the professor of cancer medicine at the University of Sydney, said: ”I suspect very few doctors would opt for second or third line chemo therapy; my suspicion is that doctors are more likely to prescribe futile therapy than accept it. They’re aware of the statistics. The fact we’re not invincible is something doctors are reminded of every day of their practice and it probably slightly colours their attitude to fighting death as opposed to accepting it.”
Dr Rodney Syme, the author of A Good Death, said his father, a surgeon, when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, refused surgery to relieve his jaundice even though he had performed the surgery on others many times. ”He didn’t believe there was enough merit in it,” Dr Syme said.
But Richard Chye, the director of palliative care at Sacred Heart, part of St Vincent’s Hospital, said doctors were distributed along the same spectrum as everyone else. ”I’ve known doctors to continue treatment right up until the end,” he said. ”It’s very much about their age group and attitude.”
Professor Hillman said 70 per cent of Australians said they wanted to die at home but 70 per cent died in hospitals.
Complete Article HERE!
Customer: “He’s not pining! He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! . . . His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!”
— Monty Python
It was a great program full of interesting workshops. There was also a small vendors area. A bunch of cancer-related agencies set up tables and on them they displayed their brochures for the programs and support they offer people living with cancer.
I thought this would be the ideal setting for networking with other like-minded folks, so when I visited each of the vendors I introduced myself and proudly handed the person at the table a copy of my book. The reactions were nearly always negative or at least alarm. Once the person saw the title, The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life, the smiles that greeted me when I first approached the table soon turned to dismay. Their reaction to the book was as if I had handed them something disgusting.
It was immediately clear to me that bringing a book about death and dying to a cancer survival event was a huge faux pas. Despite my protestations that the work their agency was doing and the information in my book were very much alike. The only difference being their outreach is disease-specific, while my book is about mortality. I wasn’t able to convince them.
So ok, I get it. Death is a hard sell to the disease-specific crowd. Apparently contemplating one’s mortality, even when it is staring us in the face is not the politically correct thing to do. But why is that? Facing our mortality doesn’t undercut a person’s commitment to fighting his/her disease process. I contend that consciously facing the prospect of life’s end really helps put our effort in fighting a disease into perspective.
Curiously enough the reaction I got from the other participants at the Moving Beyond Cancer to Wellness event was much different from that of the vendors. I think most people who encounter their mortality through a disease process, like cancer, know, deep down inside, that this could be the beginning of the end. Why else would people react as they do when they get a diagnosis?
The other participants at the event, the ones I showed my book to, had a much less phobic reaction to it. I contend that this is because they’ve already put themselves there, at death’s door. This sort of takes a lot of the sting out of death.
Were they any more enthusiastic about taking a long hard look at their own mortality? Probably not. But then again, they weren’t as resistant to the idea as were the ostensibly well people manning the vender tables.
I try to imagine what things would be like if we all were encouraged to examine the end of our life, much in the same way as women are encouraged to do a periodic breast self-exam. I mean, examining one’s breast for lumps, or other abnormalities doesn’t increase your risk for breast cancer, right? Neither does facing one’s mortality in a conscious, upfront way hasten death.
Finally, on Sunday I met with a young couple for their weekly couple’s counseling session. Once we were all settled in, I handed them a copy of my book. (I just love watching people’s reactions.) The young man spoke first. “That’s a bit scary.” He said after he read the title. “Scary, I mean for the people who need this book.” I replied, “I suppose it is. But you know what’s even scarier? Not thinking about the end of life before it’s too late. I mean, are you certain that you’re not among those who need this book? Are you certain that you will live to see the end of the day?”
Death is a hard sell in our death-denying culture. Yet, each of the people I encountered this past weekend will, in time, face the end of their life. That’s a given. The big question is; will they have the time or even the inclination to face their mortality in a way that will enrich their lives as they live it to the end?
Comedian Alexei Sayle produced this short video, entitled “Last Laugh,” to help people confront attitudes about terminal illness.