The Pandemic Broke End-of-Life Care

In a Boston ICU, staff members orchestrate goodbyes over Zoom and comfort patients who would otherwise die alone.

by

When the coronavirus came to Boston, doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital noticed how silent certain floors became. Any patients who could be discharged were discharged. Anyone who could stay away stayed away. “The hospital had this eerie quiet,” says Jane deLima Thomas, the director of palliative care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But in the intensive-care units set up for COVID-19, machines beeped and whirred in room after room of the sickest patients. Those patients were sedated, intubated, and isolated. Many of them would die.

Palliative care is about providing comfort—physical and emotional—to patients who are seriously ill, including those who may be close to death. Before the pandemic, deLima Thomas’s team worked with patients with kidney disease or cancer or heart failure, but this spring, they all switched to COVID-19. They embedded themselves in the ICUs. Palliative care is a field especially invested in the power of a hug, a steadying hand, and a smile. In other words, palliative care is made especially difficult by a virus that spreads through human contact.

The first day the palliative-care doctors walked into the ICUs, Thomas says, “we felt like tourists.” They were dressed in business casual, while their ICU colleagues raced around in scrubs and masks. But the palliative-care team—which includes physicians, nurses, chaplains, and social workers—found ways to integrate themselves. In the early days of the pandemic, when protective gear was scarce, no visitors were allowed. Palliative caregivers, along with ICU nurses, held iPads cocooned in plastic bags so families could say goodbye on Zoom. They were sometimes the only one in the room when a patient died, otherwise alone. I interviewed several members of the Boston-based palliative-care team, and their stories, which have been condensed and edited for clarity, are below.

Samantha Gelfand, Fellow

In the ICU, the most immediate thing is the personal experience of walking down the hall. Nearly every patient’s room, the door is closed, and the patient is alone. And they’re often on their bellies for prone positioning. You can’t even see their faces often.

Seeing anyone who is critically ill with a breathing tube, lots of monitors and beeping, it’s not easy. When we facilitate Zoom calls with family, I say, “Listen, it may be alarming to see that your loved one has tubes and tape and monitors on their head.” They may have soft wrist guards on their arms to stop them from trying to take out their own tubes.

It doesn’t always work. I did a Zoom call with seven family members. The patient was a man in his 50s and he had seven kids, and they ranged from 18 to late 20s. I told the siblings what I could to prepare them, and still I’m holding the iPad and they start wailing. There’s a visceral experience of just devastation.

As someone’s who lost my own parent, I think wailing is appropriate. I let them. I actually think holding the silence and bearing witness is the right thing to do first. It’s very uncomfortable to watch, but I think it’s misguided to try to hush or try to shorten it. How do you comfort someone on Zoom? It sucks.

Our department has a reflection conference on Tuesday mornings. In COVID-19 times, we’re still doing this, but now we’re doing it by Zoom. One clinician will read the names of patients who died last week in our care. It’s very, very eerie to hear the list of names and have worked with probably half of them and not have seen their faces.

Usually when we sit in that room and we remember the dead, we are remembering what it felt like to talk to them, what they looked like. And this, it’s like we’re remembering what it felt like to think about the patient or what their family members’ voices sound like. I really missed the times when I could think of a face the patient made or a comment that they said. It feels like a new way of grieving.

Ricky Leiter, Attending Physician

COVID-19 doesn’t just affect individuals. It’s affecting families. I’ve had a couple cases where a married couple is in the ICU, next to each other. I was talking to a daughter whose parents were both intubated in the ICU. They were in their 70s to late 80s. Her father wasn’t doing well, and we were asking, “Should we try to resuscitate?”

I remember her saying, “I can’t think about the hard stuff right now. This is all too much right now. I can’t do that.” And of course she couldn’t. How could she? Her parents were relatively healthy before they came in. It was the suddenness of all this. In my normal palliative-care practice, those are patients who have been sick for a while. They have been diagnosed with a serious and life-limiting illness. A lot of COVID-19 patients are otherwise pretty healthy; maybe they have high blood pressure. This is an entirely new universe.

One of our fellows did five or six tough conversations like this with families in one day. I had a day like that early on. Our team walked back to our office, and everyone there asked what happened to us. We were so shell-shocked, and it felt like we were having the same conversations over and over. I don’t normally have six conversations where it’s the same disease, the same coronavirus.

Reverend John Kearns, Chaplain

My brother died 30 years ago this September. It was a life-changing experience and really oriented me into the life of loss and grief. He died of AIDS, which seems so similar now with the fears surrounding an illness that wasn’t well understood. People then were afraid to touch him or hug him. My parents were very dedicated to his care. He died at home in our bedroom that we shared as brothers.

It’s natural for people to take care of their loved one when someone’s sick. Being present for someone is part of what helps people get through it. They’re participating in some way. During this, the families have none of that participating. The first few weeks of COVID-19, we didn’t go inside the patients’ rooms. Now that we have more protective gear, they’ll let us go in, and the department has developed an iPad ministry to connect patients with family who can’t be at the bedside. Sometimes the family will email photographs and we’ll print them out and hang them in the room—photographs of the patients’ kids, wife, spouse, partner. Whether these sedated patients can see or hear is questionable, but the family gets to see, or the family gets to speak to them.

I’ve spent as much as two hours in a patient’s room. I’ve gently wiped the forehead of a patient. I’ve led prayers with the family over the patient. And they will ask us to hold their loved one’s hand. Often there’s a hope to see there’s a response, whether it’s a simple squeeze of a hand, a blink, the movement of the head—anything that gives them hope that their loved one is going to make it.

When the family wants to be seen by the patient, then you have to do the reverse camera and then hold it in such a way that they can see the patient’s face. You’re trying to orchestrate this intimate moment and sacred moment, and you’re fumbling with this iPad. Where is the camera lens on these things? And at first, we were putting these iPads in plastic bags, like a Ziploc bag, to keep it from getting germs on it. So now it’s sliding around in this bag that’s a little too big. You also have the problem of fogging up your glasses and fogging up the shield. At times, it is hard to see the face of the person or to read something or to manipulate the iPad.

There was a Muslim patient who was dying. We have a couple imams. One is actually out of the country; he has not been able to get home since COVID-19 started. The other imam wasn’t available. When the patient took a bad turn, I got called in by Ricky Leiter. As an interfaith chaplain, we also visit everyone. I had an iPad with 20 or so family members who were all over the globe. They were reciting prayers. At one point it reminded me of church bells. All those voices all over the world, coming together at the same time.

Stephanie Brook Kiser, Fellow

I’ve had family members say to me, Just please go in person and tell them in person that I love them and promise me that they won’t die alone, that you’ll be there at the bedside.

A patient I took care had been sick with COVID-19 and in the hospital for two or three weeks. He was 80 years old. His wife was just a few years younger. They had been together since they were teenagers. You can just tell in her voice that it was so hard for her to be apart from him. She said, “I can’t remember a time I’ve been apart from him for this long. I think this might be the first time since I’ve known him.” At the same time, she was living in fear in her home because she knew she had been exposed to him. Because of her age and other medical problems, she was at high risk to be at the same place he was: really sick in the ICU, with a breathing tube, not getting better at two weeks or three weeks.

It was pretty clear medically, no matter what we were doing, he was continuing to get worse and worse and worse. We had a really difficult conversation over the phone about what his wishes would be, and it was clear to her and to their children that the biggest thing we could do was transition to focus on his comfort. We knew what that would mean is he would die pretty quickly.< With the hospitals’ changing policy, if someone is actively dying, we can now allow for a family member too at the bedside. My experience in the ICU when that’s offered, more times than not family members actually say no, that they don’t actually want to come to the ICU. There’s a real infectious risk to them, and I’ve had a lot of family members say, “I don’t know that I want to see them again the way they are now. I want to remember them the way they were before.” The wife was in such distress and despair over the idea that she was so physically close in Boston but it wasn’t the right decision for her to come into the hospital. I spent a lot of time and I was even grasping at things: Can I arrange a Zoom call? Maybe I can record a video and send it to you guys? And the family was saying, We want to remember him in a different way.

They said, We just want you to go to his bedside and hold his hand so that he knows he’s not alone. And I did that over the course of about 15 minutes. He died pretty quickly.

I’ve been part of a lot of deaths of patients in palliative care. We don’t see a lot of death like this—without any family members present. We aren’t used to being that person at the bedside, trying our best to provide the comfort that a family member’s presence would provide and feeling inadequate in that at best. Afterwards I gathered his nurses and respiratory therapist and we talked. Everyone agreed it was unlike anything they had been part of.

It was the first time I had touched him. And in the ICU, probably one of the only times I’ve physically touched the patient.

Natasha Lever, Palliative-Care Nurse

I’ve been a nurse practitioner for seven years, and I was hired at Brigham to do heart-failure and palliative care. Literally the week after I started, COVID-19 happened. They had this whole very carefully planned out 12-week orientation, and I got a phone call from our director, Jane, and she said, “Either we’re going to keep you at home for the next few months or we’re just going to put you in the ICU.” I kind of got thrown into the deep end.

I went into nursing because I love to be at the bedside and with patients. Not having families and loved ones at the bedside was probably the most difficult part of all of this. It felt so wrong to us that families were having to make decisions about withdrawing care when they haven’t seen their loved ones.

I remember the one that hit me the most was a woman whose son had given her COVID-19. He had been quite ill himself, and he had recovered. The immense guilt that he felt was so profound. He kept saying—he’d obviously been watching the news—“Please, don’t throw her in a body bag if she dies.” He kept talking about how they had been so excited they were going to move into a house together and he was going to buy his first house. He had plans for her and just wanted her home so badly. She passed away and it was very difficult.

That was one of my first cases. And this was week two of my job as a palliative-care practitioner.

I remember the first day I was in the ICU, it was completely chaos. It was very loud, lots of people. Almost this adrenaline rush you felt. A couple of weeks in, things sort of settled down. Now the ICU numbers are down. I had a really strange feeling when they were closing down the COVID-19 ICUs. I walked down the hallway and it was dark and all the rooms were empty and clean and there was no one there. Two weeks ago, this was one of the most busy, chaotic places in the hospital and there was just this silence. No alarms, and no people. It was almost as though, Is this a dream, did that really happen?

Now I have just started doing the orientation that I was supposed to be doing. I’m going back to the hospital. I’m extremely excited to be at the bedside. I have never been so excited to talk to a patient in real life.

Complete Article ↪HERE↩!

Sometimes a ‘Good Death’ Is the Best a Doctor Can Offer

Despite everything we do, we have lost so many battles with Covid-19

By Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa

There has been so much clinician distress with the Covid-19 pandemic. So many physicians, nurses, and health care professionals have suffered physical, emotional, and moral difficulty taking care of severely sick patients. Some have even committed suicide.

As an ICU physician, I feel this firsthand and believe the reason for the anguish is that we, as critical care doctors and nurses and health professionals, are used to making a difference in the lives of our critically ill patients. Yes, we do lose some patients despite all that we do. But, for the most part, the majority of the patients we see and care for in the ICU get better and survive their critical illness.

Covid-19 has upended all of that.

Before Covid, I would not think twice about placing someone on a ventilator. It is a life-saving measure. With Covid, however, many patients who go on ventilators never come off. This is very distressing.

It is just so hard to try and try and try — spending many waking and sleeping hours — to help these patients pull through, only to have them die on you. Many times, the deaths are expected. Sometimes they are not, and those deaths are the most difficult to bear.

We are used to seeing death in the ICU. It is inevitable that some patients, despite all that we do, are going to die. With Covid, however, it is different. So many have died, and what makes it so hard is that these people are dying alone. Their families are only left to watch them die, if they so choose, on FaceTime or Skype. I’ve lost a daughter to critical illness. I cannot imagine the horror of not being able to be there at her side.

I was speaking to a fellow ICU doctor, and he told me that it seems all he is doing in the ICU is ensuring a “good death” for his patients, and this has deeply bothered him. He is not used to this amount of death. None of us are. It is very, very hard.

Is there any such thing as a “good death”?< It seems oxymoronic that the words “good” and “death” can be juxtaposed. As doctors, our whole existence is to prevent our patients from dying. So, in one sense, there is no such thing as a “good death.” To be sure, I have seen plenty of “bad deaths” in the ICU. Of course, those include patients whose death was unexpected. At the same time, there are patients who we know (despite everything we do) will not survive. In those cases, we do our best to make sure the patient does not suffer. If a patient dies while suffering pain or distress, or they get care that is not consistent with their values and wishes, then — to me, at least — this constitutes a “bad death.” But, indeed, there can be a “good death.”

None of us knows when or where we are going to die… If, however, we can die with comfort, without pain, without distress, and with complete dignity, then that is sometimes the best outcome.

As a doctor, especially an ICU doctor, it is awesome to see our patients do well and survive critical illness. It gives me an indescribable feeling of warmth and joy, and it is the fuel that keeps me going for a very long time. This joy has only been amplified during the Covid crisis. Watching one of our patients — who was very sick and I thought for sure going to die — walk out of the hospital on his own made me absolutely ecstatic.

Sadly, however, that experience has been fleeting with Covid, which has been so disheartening. Yet, even in death, there is an opportunity to do good. Even in death, we can do all that we can to ensure our patients die in peace, without pain, without suffering, and with the dignity they deserverecent study found that approximately 25% of patients experienced at least one significant pain episode at some point in the last day of life. More than 40% of patients experienced delirium. Delirium is an altered state of consciousness, and as ICU doctors, we work very hard to minimize this experience in our patients. In more than 22% of ICUs in America, there were high rates of invasive therapies at the time of death. Almost 13% of patients were receiving CPR at the time of their death, and more than 35% of patients died on a ventilator.

If getting CPR or being on a ventilator will only prolong suffering, or if either is not consistent with a patient’s wishes or values, then I — as their physician — must do everything I can to ensure this does not happen.

When I speak to families on the phone, trying to comfort them in the face of the death of their loved one, I promise this one thing: “I promise you that your loved one will not suffer. I promise you that I will make sure they are not in pain or in distress.” It doesn’t make the death of their loved one any easier, I know, but it is the absolute least I can do to make a horrible situation better.

None of us knows when or where we are going to die. Many (if not most) of us do not know what will cause our death. Those factors are beyond our control. If, however, we can die with comfort, without pain, without distress, and with complete dignity, then that is sometimes the best outcome. That is a “good death.”

And if it is inevitable that a patient will die, and I can help that patient die a “good death,” then that is my job. And in that duty, there is some good, some light, in the overwhelming darkness of this pandemic.

Complete Article HERE!

Coronavirus reminds you of death

– and amplifies your core values, both bad and good

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Death and Life’ suggests the way many people are unaware of death’s ever-present influence.

By &

There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic and its incessant media coverage to get you ruminating on the fragility of life. And those thoughts of death triggered by the coronavirus amplify the best and worst in people.

The results of this psychological phenomenon are all around: people hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, hurling ethnic slurs and attacking Asian Americans, heaping praise or scorn on President Trump, hailing new political and health care heroes. Sheltering at home has drawn some families closer together, but is a crucible of domestic violence for others. For many, social distancing has increased feelings of isolation, boredom, anxiety and despair.

What’s behind these attitudinal and behavioral shifts?

Back in 1986, we first developed an idea called terror management theory that explains how people double down on their essential beliefs, without even noticing, when confronted with their own mortality.

Hundreds of psychology experiments from the past 30 years have explored how people react to the thought of their own death. These reminders bolster people’s core worldviews, making racists more hateful, the religious more devout, the charitable more giving and constituents more suportive of charismatic leaders.

At a moment when the idea of death is front and center for many people, this psychological tendency has important implications for everything from how grocery store cashiers are treated to how people will vote in the upcoming presidential election.

No one gets out alive

Terror management theory acknowledges that human beings are animals biologically predisposed to try to survive. But at the same time, people also realize how dangerous the world is, how vulnerable we are and that ultimately the quest for continued existence is doomed to fail.

Knowing that we will all die, and it can happen at any time, can give rise to potentially paralyzing terror. To manage this fear, people work to see themselves as valuable contributors to a meaningful universe. Viewing yourself as an important worker, entrepreneur, teacher, artist, scientist, lawyer, doctor, parent, spouse and so forth allows you to feel like you’re not just a material creature who will disappear upon death.

Rather than dwelling on that disturbing thought, you can believe in things like immortal souls, in your offspring carrying on your genes and values or in your work having an enduring impact. It’s comforting to believe that some part of you will continue after death, through your connections to your family, profession, religion or nation.

Thoughts of death lead people to cling more tightly to these soothing beliefs. Such thoughts can be triggered by simply reading a news story about a murder, being reminded of 9/11 or even glancing at a funeral home sign.

Death reminders first trigger immediate, front-line defenses – you want to feel safe by getting death out of your mind right away. Then subconscious downstream defenses work to fortify the protective bubble of the symbolic reality you believe in. Researchers have found that these downstream defenses include more punitive reactions to criminals, increased rewards for heroes, prejudice toward other religions and countries and allegiance to charismatic politicians.

Pandemic provides nonstop reminders of death

Because of the coronavirus, death reminders are all around. Front-line reactions range from efforts to shelter at home, maintain social distancing and wash hands frequently to dismissing the threat by comparing it to the flu or calling it a political hoax meant to undermine the economy and thwart President Trump’s reelection effort.

People who are more optimistic about their coping skills and have confidence in health care providers are prone to react constructively. They typically follow the recommendations of health care experts.

But people prone to pessimism and skepticism regarding health care authorities are more likely to deny the threat, ignore recommendations and react hostilely to expert advice.

These first-tier defenses banish death thoughts from consciousness, but do not eliminate their influence. Instead the thoughts linger just outside your attention, triggering downstream defenses that reinforce your valuable place in your world.

One way to enhance your value is through contributing to and identifying with heroic efforts to defeat this threat. That can happen via your own behavior and by lauding those leading the charge, such as first responders, health care workers, scientists and political leaders. Even those who inhabit social roles not usually given their due are recognized as heroes: grocery cashiers, pharmacists and sanitation workers.

At the same time, many people question their value more because of the pandemic. Earning a living to provide for one’s family and connecting with others are fundamental ways to feel valuable. Pragmatic health and economic concerns and impoverished social connections can combine to threaten those feelings of meaning and value. In turn they can increase levels of anxiety, depression and mental health problems.

Existentially threatening times also tend to create heroes and villains. American scientists, like Anthony Fauci, and political figures, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, are more widely admired. President Trump’s approval rating temporarily increased. In times of crisis, people typically turn to their leaders, and put additional faith in them.

At the same time, people also seek to assign blame. Some turn their fear and frustration about the coronavirus that first emerged in China into hate toward Asians and Asian Americans. Others, depending on their political leanings, blame the World Health Organization, the mainstream media, or President Trump.

Even if the coronavirus abates, thoughts of mortality will linger on the fringes of consciousness as the November election approaches. If President Trump is perceived as a heroic wartime president who got the country through the worst of this invisible enemy, such death reminders could work to his advantage.

If, however, the president is viewed as an incompetent bungler responsible for the virus spreading and the economy collapsing, the same death reminders could undermine his chances.

We’re all in this together

If you’re interested in trying to short-circuit some of these unconscious defenses, our research suggests a few promising possibilities. Maybe the best approach is to consciously acknowledge your mortal fears. By doing so, you can gain some reasoned control over their influence on your judgments and behavior.

We also suggest keeping in mind that all human beings are one interdependent species sharing the same planet. Recognizing that the coronavirus poses the same existential threat for all of us helps underscore that humanity is a group we all belong to. It’s by working together and not turning on each other that we will be able to recover our economic, physical and psychological vitality.

Complete Article HERE!

How Dying Taught Me to Live

By Brad Dell 

His little ribs rose, then fell, then rose, then fell, then stayed still. The spark left his green, curious eyes — I swear it wasn’t a trick of the light. They were dull … dead.

I loathed myself for letting my first cat be put to sleep without me by her side. I swore I’d be there for my second when he passed less than a year later. I swore I’d look him in the eye, even if it meant nothing to him. And so I did.

The odd thing was that he wasn’t afraid. He was calm. He’d spent a good life of hunting, cuddling, and lounging. He knew his place in nature’s cycle. I didn’t understand that. Not then.

But my time came.

Sepsis destroyed me. As my soul ripped loose from my bones, I gasped to my girlfriend that I loved her but I would soon need to die. Then I pissed the bed. I realized that dying isn’t romantic like in the movies. I stank from rolling around in a soiled, sweaty bed, and my voice was hoarse from begging for an end.

While death isn’t romantic, it can be peaceful. In my time, I’ve known many who have passed — they’re either ready or they’re not. I wasn’t yet ready. I was ugly and bitter in my death, outraged by the unfairness of this world.

Somehow, I survived.

The paradox of death is that it teaches you how to live. The tragedy of death is not everyone gets a chance to apply what they’ve learned.

I woke up in an unfamiliar world. All details seemed illuminated and emotions felt overwhelmingly potent. I cried a lot more, hugged a lot more, prayed a lot more, loved a lot more.

Former priorities fell away; ambition, money, and comfort lost their gleam. Each day during recovery, I composed an obituary in my head: “Boy dies of cystic fibrosis. He had caustic humor, good grades, and a decent savings account.” I craved depth and vowed to thrive with passion and weave a legacy of compassion.

Did my old friend know I’m sorry for calling him fat in fifth grade? Did my sister know I look up to her? Did my parents know I regret every single time I lashed out at them? Did everyone know that I mostly only pretended to love, yet always yearned to learn its power?

I lay in my soiled bed and tried recalling instances in which I’d helped people out of love rather than for the potential of a self-serving debt. I sobbed at the realization that I’d lost myself long, long ago. In prayer, I begged for redemption, for help with becoming the Brad I was designed to be.

It’s been 47 months since that prayer. I’m nowhere close to perfect, but I’m far from who I was. Today, my joy comes from expressions of vulnerability, wide smiles and belly laughs, the bonds forged through struggle, the light in people’s eyes, the warmth of another body, the tears poured in prayers, the little acts of love and the big acts of love, the feet that tap along to music, the winding conversations over meals, the exhilaration of adventure, the richness of sharing nature and sunsets with strangers.

I am ready to die, when that time comes again, though I’d love to learn even more about life with a third pass. Death is liberating, driving me to be fully present and live intentionally for the things that truly matter.

Like my old cat, I know my place in nature’s cycle. Mine is to love and be loved in return. Maybe that seems sappy to those who haven’t yet died. But one day you’ll understand, too.

Complete Article HERE!

I Accept Death.

I Hope Doctors and Nurses Will, Too.

Bodies being moved into a refrigerated truck outside of Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, in April.

A lesson from hospice care might help.

By Theresa Brown

Nurses crying. That’s what I hear from the front lines treating Covid-19 patients. A nurse will begin the shift crying and end it crying. Crying. And we are not a profession that cries easily.

“Untenable” is how the sister of Dr. Lorna Breen, a physician in New York who died by suicide in late April, described her sister’s work situation. She was right. In hospitals with Covid-19 patients, understaffed clinicians often lack sufficient personal protective equipment and tests for the virus, and they fear for their own lives. These conditions would wear on anyone. But they amount to a staggering burden for doctors, nurses and health workers of all kinds whose deeply ingrained duty is to save the lives of their patients.

These medical workers remain devoted to curing and easing the pain of the desperately ill. But what can be done about their pain? Their feelings of failure? Frontline clinicians all over the country are experiencing anxiety, insomnia, a sense of acute inadequacy, and feelings of being betrayed by hospital administrators. Many will likely end up with PTSD. Helplessly watching so many people die, especially when many of them die without their loved ones present, is professionally “untenable.”

We know there is no universally effective treatment for the sickest Covid-19 patients. But their deaths are clearly not the fault of their caregivers. Is it possible to ease clinicians’ burdens so that they feel less personally responsible when these patients die? I believe that another type of care situation, that of a hospice, may offer some lessons.

The most fragile Covid-19 patients are not unlike hospice patients: There is no cure for their condition. While they differ from hospice patients — their deaths often come on suddenly and cannot be foreseen — clinicians might more easily make peace with their deaths by viewing them through a hospice lens.

Even though we are all going to die, death fits uneasily into the world of health care. Fundamentally, health and healing apply to the living, not the dying or the dead, and helping the living get better is why most nurses and doctors got into this work. When I worked in oncology, I saw this principle acted out by physicians who viewed death as failure, and nurses who equated talking honestly about bad prognoses with destroying patients’ hope.

Hospice care approaches death very differently. Practicing as a nurse in home hospice, I understood that patients were going to die. The goal was for them to have the best life possible for as long as possible and to die with minimal distress. Some people associate hospice with “giving up” on dying patients, but that is mistaken. Hospice staff do not hurry death along. Rather, hospice clinicians concede that curative treatment either does not exist for, or has been declined by, the patient, and accept that patients will die under hospice care.

As a hospice nurse, I managed symptoms — pain, trouble breathing, delirium — treated wounds, listened to stories from the past and acknowledged hopes and fears for the future. My intention was that all of my patients would leave this earth without suffering, and though that wasn’t always possible, I tried.

People often say that hospice nurses are angels. I tended to demur and say, “Nope, I’m human.” What the praise shows, I think, is that being comfortable with death is unusual. “Comfortable” is the wrong word: I accept death. I accept its inevitability, but also its importance. Death is the end of each person’s time on earth; it is a privilege to care for people in that moment. I embrace the cycle of life while recognizing the sadness of every death.

(That acceptance is somewhat conditional, though. Two and a half years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I chose to take a leave from hospice work. My diagnosis brought the cycle of life a little too close.)

What’s more, a century ago, all of us would have been much more familiar with death than we are now. There were no high-tech emergency departments or I.C.U.s; most people died at home. Modernity made it possible to hide death in hospitals, behind beeping machines and snaking tubes and wires. But now that the entire world is threatened by a previously unknown virus, death has once again come closer.

I am not suggesting that health care workers become indifferent to Covid-19 deaths, or that a certain amount of death from this disease should be callously dismissed as inevitable. No. Instead, I’m urging nurses and doctors to feel less overtly responsible when Covid-19 patients die. As a hospice nurse, I never experienced a patient’s death as failure. Some deaths seemed unjust in a universal sense, like a young mother succumbing to cancer or a dying patient saying she was denied the full scope of cancer treatments because she was black. But the trajectory toward death — I accepted it.

When a patient dies on home hospice, a hospice nurse legally pronounces the death by calling the medical examiner and getting the body released. At pronouncements I did the required paperwork, and I also helped hold, or emotionally contain, the death for everyone gathered. I witnessed the ending of a cherished life and honored loved ones’ grief.

Hospital staff caring for Covid-19 patients need someone to help them hold all the deaths. It is too much to feel responsible for so many imperiled lives, day after day, to rub up against one of the most challenging and often unacknowledged paradoxes of modern health care: Even though we work very hard to heal people, sometimes they still die.

It might be possible to plant a hospice nurse in every Covid-19 I.C.U., but frontline clinicians can also do the work of acceptance by admitting that despite their training, intelligence, tenacity and technology, patients will continue to die of Covid-19. That fact is tragic, and knowing that the mortality rate has been compounded by the failings of our health care system doesn’t help. But it is still possible that the sum of human suffering in this situation can be lessened if nurses and doctors put the blame for their patients’ deaths where they belong — on the virus, not on themselves.

Complete Article HERE!