Let’s talk about dying

The most unavoidable topic that everyone avoids

By Hannah Mirsky

No one talks about death. I didn’t for a long time.

Sometimes the words spilled out when I was with a friend, but I never felt satisfied. Other times it was late at night and I would mope out to the living room past midnight to sit with my mother and briefly discuss how much we missed those in our family who died.

That was it though. Death would be brought up, but the conversation never was discussed for too long.

In the summer going into seventh grade my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, then my aunt ten months later from bladder cancer. Then my grandfather a few years later.

As I coped with the death of my family members, I began excessively planning out my future. I developed the ideal life from the city I’ll reside in, to the color I would paint my apartment walls. When I committed to college I vowed I would take every opportunity I could possibly get and fill each day with experiences that could help me with this vision.

But I worked so much when I got to college. It got to the point last fall that I lost a part of myself. There were no moments of peace in my day. I took a full course load, managed my school’s broadcast news department, worked an internship, another part-time job and choreographed for Quinnipiac University’s Tap Company. In every way, I was disconnected from the people around me and myself.

Yet during this particular semester, I was enrolled in a course called “Sociology of Death/Dying” where we discussed social interaction between the dying person, professional caregivers and loved ones. The class flowed like an open forum.

I joked that I would start and end my week with death since I only had that course on Mondays and Fridays. My friends didn’t laugh too much.

Three times a week I was forced to consider death in ways I hadn’t considered. For the first time, I was forced to confront the topic of death on a daily basis.

More than anything, this course revealed the significance of starting conversations about the dying process before death itself. While the person is dying, family and friends are often so wrapped up in trying to keep them around for a bit longer. However, the person dying may feel an obligation to fight for their family when it isn’t something they want. We begin making decisions not for ourselves anymore and we become alienated from the people that we should lean on the most.

Conversations need to begin with health workers and doctors, it needs to trickle down to the family.

Death is isolating in our world— a stigma that many don’t talk about directly. It wasn’t until I met a very close friend of mine when I was in Washington D.C. that I mentioned that I joked about death a lot. No one had ever told me that I brought it up that often.

Maybe, had I allowed myself to discuss how I felt about death when I was growing up, I wouldn’t weave it into my conversations so much now. However, death changes you. I don’t think I would be as articulate with how I spend my days or have had such a clear path. In a way, it helped me understand my priorities and know I don’t have forever to meet them. If I want something, I no longer wait.

It shouldn’t have taken so long for me to feel comfortable talking about death, but it is something many people still struggle with. Neglecting conversation on the certainty of something each one of us will go through ends up forcing us to not consider what we want in life.

Complete Article HERE!

I have terminal cancer.

A houseplant is helping me confront mortality.

David Meyers has placed his lucky bamboo in a living room window. He has found comfort in caring for the plant since his brain cancer diagnosis.

Watering the bamboo, as small an act as it was, connected me to a core part of my old identity and taught me I could still be a caregiver

by David Meyers

My wife and I usually don’t keep houseplants. Anything in pots gets either overwatered or underwatered. After my diagnosis with glioblastoma — a terminal brain cancer with a prognosis of little more than a year to live — I loved the idea of having something new and green and alive around us.

When my friend Mitch gave me a lucky bamboo plant in a deep-green pottery bowl with three pencil-size stalks braided together, we decided to place the plant in the living room window across from the couch where I spent much of each day.

I smiled when I looked over the rim of the mug of coffee Hannah brought me each morning.

I told Hannah I wanted to care for the plant myself. When it didn’t immediately turn yellow or brown or lose all of its leaves, I was pleasantly surprised.

Tending to the plant gave me a sense of accomplishment at a time when I sometimes felt useless. Glioblastoma limited my ability to walk, and the treatment left me fatigued, making it hard for me to accomplish everyday tasks.

Being dependable again

As a physician, I was used to being the one who provided care, not the one who received it. Since my diagnosis in August 2018, far too often, it seemed, I had to rely on help from other people. The enormous change left me feeling adrift and unsettled. Watering the bamboo, as small an act as it was, connected me to a core part of my old identity and taught me I could still be a caregiver. Plants and people could still depend on me.

Over the next few months, I recovered from surgery and completed radiation and the first round of chemotherapy. Even after I returned to work, I continued to care for the plant. Soon, it had nearly doubled in height and its leaves were shiny and lush. Both the tree and I were thriving.

Then, mysteriously, it began to show signs of stress. I increased my watering, then decreased it. I nestled coffee grounds into the soil. I fed it commercial plant food. No matter what I did, the leaves kept browning and dropping to the floor. I grew more and more frustrated and uneasy.

“I can’t even care for a simple plant!” I yelled. “I’m failing!”

Hannah reminded me that we’d seen houseplants die before. She asked me why I was getting so worked up about this particular one.

“If my lucky bamboo dies,” I blurted out, “I might die, too!”<

I couldn’t shake the feeling that the plant had become a symbol of my own precarious health.

Solace and control

Identifying with the green and growing plant had offered me solace. Now that the tree was struggling, I felt increasingly fearful. Its shriveling leaves, I worried, might signal the recurrence of my brain tumor.

I realized I had wrongly connected my careful nurturing of the plant — something over which I had at least some control — with my own survival — something over which I had no control.

When my tumor inevitably returned, it would not be because of any failure on my part — not because I didn’t atomize essential oils in my office, not because I ate sugar occasionally and certainly not because I failed to keep this plant alive.

As my anxiety lessened, I began to pore over online tutorials to help me figure out how to care for my bamboo. Following the instructions, I transplanted the tree to a larger pot, untangling its roots to give it room to grow. When it was back in the sunny window, we both began to thrive again.

Whenever I look at the tree with its braided stalks in its new pot, I make a point to think of Mitch and the other people who have cared for and supported me. If the lucky bamboo outlives me, I hope it will comfort Hannah and remind her that our large community will continue to nurture her after I am gone.

Complete Article HERE!

‘A Last Act of Intimate Kindness’

I had barely seen my brother in decades, but when time was short, he let me in.

By Michelle Friedman

The message I had dreaded for years appeared on my phone: “Looking to find the sister of my patient, Jay Friedman.”

My ensuing phone conversation with the doctor brought ominous news. My 65-year-old brother, Jay, had advanced pancreatic cancer. He and I grew up together in Divine Corners, N.Y., a hamlet in the Catskills, raised by secular Holocaust survivor parents who stumbled into raising chickens. Their histories, coupled with the isolation and poverty of the farm, rendered my father brutal, especially to his only son.

I am the only family member with whom Jay maintained contact for the last three decades. Over that time, we communicated exclusively through email and cards I sent to a post office box. Despite working a quarter century in I.T. for the local school system, my brother did not own a cellphone. His doctor found my number via Google.

Jay was admitted to a fancy Seattle hospital where I called him via the landline next to his bed. His voice sounded weak, plaintive.

“Jay, I’ll come,” I said. “Let me be with you.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “My house is a mess.”

“I can stay in a hotel.”

“I’ll let you know.”

I panicked. I knew the prognosis was dire, but my brother’s lonely life cast an even darker shadow.

The hospital discharged Jay with a bag hanging from his chest to drain bile from his tumor-blocked liver. A few days later the doctor called again. Jay wanted my help.

I caught a flight to Seattle, picked up a rental car and drove around Puget Sound to a town in Kitsap County. Before entering Jay’s house, I muttered an ad hoc prayer for strength. Following the sounds of his weak voice through the maze of papers, boxes and computer parts, I found my brother lying on the couch. The disease had consumed him, leaving his body whittled, skeletal. Only Jay’s voice sounded familiar, a gravelly baritone.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I’m sorry I was snappy over the phone.”

The blanket wrapping my brother was full of holes. A brown crust covered his kitchen floor and counters. Jay drank tea with lemon in the one glass he possessed. Not owning a kettle, he boiled water in an old pot.

I brewed tea and baked a piece of chicken. After a few sips of liquid and child-size bites of food, Jay felt full. He slowly climbed the stairs to the single bed in his bedroom. The sheets hadn’t been changed in months. All I found in the closet was a cotton duvet cover that I recognized from the farm where we grew up. The faint smell of the detergent and crisp lines from our mother’s iron told me Jay had never used it.

Retreating to a Best Western hotel two miles away gave me guilty relief. It was no palace, but it was clean and orderly.

In the morning, the doctor outlined my brother’s stark medical options. Surgery was out. Jay could pursue radiation or chemotherapy, but neither was likely to yield much in terms of quantity or quality of life.

Jay made his choice in seconds — no aggressive medical intervention. The focus shifted to palliative care at home.

He didn’t have much time, weeks. How was I to start a conversation with him about his death? I knew he took pride in his money management and had saved a lot (though I had no idea then how surprisingly much), so that’s where I started.

“Jay, have you thought about what you want to do with your money?”

“Yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. I want to give it to Planned Parenthood.”

“All of it?”

“Yes.”

His calm answer startled and pleased me. Throughout our decades of sparse contact, Jay stayed vague when it came to his personal opinions.

“Jay, that’s amazing! How did you come to this decision?”

“There are too many people in the world, and I believe that people should have autonomy over their own bodies.”

I sat in silence thinking about my brother’s autonomy, the little boy overwhelmed by our rageful father, the awkward teenager who wanted to join the Navy to get away but lacked nerve. My practical mind kicked in. “Jay, do you know a lawyer?”

Once again, he surprised me. “Yeah. One of the teachers I know went to law school at night. He’s a good guy.”

Jay had no contact information for the lawyer, but I found him through the school. He answered my text within minutes and got to work preparing the necessary papers.

By the next day, Jay could no longer crawl up and down the stairs and spent most of his time in his bedroom. We moved the mattress to the floor in case he rolled off during the night. I pleaded with hospice to fast-track Jay onto their service, and soon a nurse arrived and taught me how to dose the medication: morphine for pain, Haldol for nausea and Lorazepam for anxiety. Each floated in a medicine-dropper-topped bottle so that liquid relief could be applied to the inside of the patient’s cheek.

Jay’s condition deteriorated quickly, and I no longer retreated to the Best Western. My first night in Jay’s house, I slept downstairs on the sofa. The next night, I worried that I wouldn’t hear his whimpers, so I moved to the floor next to his mattress. My younger brother’s vulnerability pierced me; he was the innocent little boy on the farm who trusted me. I cried, silently.

When he no longer ate or drank, I repurposed a medicine dropper to drip orange juice and seltzer onto his parched lips.

The lawyer met privately with Jay and later told me of his firm wish to be cremated.

A clutch grabbed my heart. Jewish law, which I follow, prohibits cremation. “Can I at least get Jay’s ashes so that I can bury them according to our faith?”

“Yes. I think that will be OK.”

“We haven’t talked about this, but I’m wondering if you are part of a religious tradition?”

“I am. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

His answer bolstered me, given what I was about to request.

“Can I ask you one more favor?”

“Sure.”

“When the time comes, I want to do a Jewish ritual washing for Jay. It’s called a tahara. It means purification. I’ll need help; it’s too hard to do alone.”

“Of course. Call me when you need me.”

The days passed in a kind of waking dream. Jay talked on and off, disclosing struggles of all kinds. He liked hearing stories about Divine Corners, how we played in the snow and explored the brook behind the coops. I emptied his drainage bag and changed his adult diapers.

“This is disgusting,” he said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m here for you. There’s nothing else I want to do.”

As our mother did when we had fevers as children, I gave Jay a sponge bath and changed his worn pajamas to a clean set.

Jay quietly slipped away. He told me that his dream was to buy a house on a lake with a few acres of land.

“That’s such a nice idea, Jay,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

And then I made a plea I knew people have uttered for millenniums. “Send me a sign, Jay. Please send me a sign from the other side.”

Early Thursday morning I woke up inches from my brother to find him gone. No labored breathing, no death rattle. His skin had cooled, his limbs stiffened.

When the sky was fully lit, I called his friend, and we performed the tahara. We removed Jay’s pajamas, removed the drain and bag, all the while using a clean sheet to keep his frame covered and dignified. I repurposed the battered teapot to pour water over his body, starting with his head and moving to his feet. We toweled him dry, dressed him in long underwear and wrapped him in the duvet cover from our childhood farm. The work felt tender, holy, a last act of intimate kindness.

The mortuary people came and removed Jay’s body. At 6 o’clock I boarded the van for the airport. Only one other person got on, a white-haired woman in a sweater set. I saw that she bid a sorrowful farewell to the man seeing her off. She sat a few rows behind me. Drizzle and traffic caused delays, but our elfin driver navigated the trip and asked us which terminals we needed.

“American,” she said, turning mournfully in my direction. “It’s a sad trip. My brother is dying of brain cancer in Florida.”

“United,” I said, and to her: “I just left after taking care of my brother, who died this morning. I hope you get there in time.”

We reached across the aisle and held hands. Jay had made good on his sign.

Complete Article HERE!

Ask Me About Death and Dying

— On the Work of Palliative Care

Anna DeForest Wrestles With the Calculus of Whether a Life Is Worth Living

By Anna DeForestIt has never been obvious to me that life is worth living. Throughout my medical training, where we have ample exposure to the tools of psychiatry, the taxonomy, I have considered that this disposition may be an illness, a disorder of mood or personality, or a maladaptation secondary to the traumas of my upbringing. But try as I might I cannot seem to be otherwise.

For almost a decade now my life has been in medical training, which is schooling that is also labor, for five years paid but the first four I paid for, and part of what they train us to do at these elite institutions is to be leaders in whatever fields we go into. We are made to practice giving academic talks, and whenever it is my turn, almost without meaning to I start talking about Rene Descartes, about thinking in relationship to being, about how wrong he was and how fucked up the world got, or I’ll talk about neuroscience and free will and confabulation, and I wonder if people with psychiatric illness feel the way I feel when I give these talks, the comforting grip of an ultimately ineffable concern.

The title of the training I have just wrapped up is Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Hospice means a roadside inn for pilgrims and indigent travelers. Palliative means more concerned with the experience than the reason it happened to occur. It is very important to the people who advocate for the field of palliative medicine, for its funding, legitimacy and worldwide integration into medical practice, that we always stress at every public opportunity that palliative care is for the living. Of course we are all of us dying, but their concern is worth a note. Because doctors care poorly for patients who are on the way out, and they wait too long to talk with the dying about death.

On the spectrum of death, unless you are to die instantly, in your sleep, say, or as my father did recently, in a chair in front of the television, so suddenly you do not even have time to rise, to try to get to a phone, so shocking and abrupt it can hardly register for you, the participant, the decedent, as having any quality, a good death requires a little bit of time—to rest, to reflect, to say the four things they say it helps to say: I am sorry, I forgive you, and the other two I forget. Hospice, though etymologically a place, is in modern usage a philosophy of care you can receive in your home or a nursing home or a hospital or anywhere, a team of nurses, doctors, social workers, chaplains and others who help you navigate the process of becoming dead.

Once on hospice, you stop receiving treatments that slow down the dying process and your care is focused on medications, practices and routines that can make your experience at the end of life less unpleasant. Palliative care, distinct from hospice, is a broader concern for anyone in a body enduring illness, a team performing symptom-focused assessments on anyone whose health is at times at odds with their quality of life.

Doctors care poorly for patients who are on the way out, and they wait too long to talk with the dying about death.The first person I ever saw die, and the second, and the third, were people in late age, their seventies or eighties, who died of cardiac arrests in the hospital. It goes like this: A call goes out overhead and a team comes at a run through the halls of the hospital, to where whoever found the patient pulseless is already over them, performing chest compressions. The body is stripped, legs and arms each a separate place, a project, someone placing a new line or stabbing for an arterial blood gas. The air fills with a tension you could tell yourself is excitement, although in tenor it is more like watching someone being arrested, surrounded, attacked. Every action argues for itself, right on the line of brutality.

Even before I saw all this, I often feared my heart would stop, mostly when it was night and I could not sleep. I would listen to my heart beat and beat, willing another, on and on and on. One of the unit physicians, when he learned I was not even enrolled yet, still in my first line of work, adjuncting in an English department, begged me to stay where I was. This job, he said, it eats your whole life, it is terrible. I can only guess what he meant, that his hours were long and his life and work not clearly delineated, that whatever he had imagined that his life would be like here, he had been wrong. The patients with heart failure were unfixable, noncompliant, always coming back.

Years later, I had finished medical school and was resident, training as a specialist in disorders of the brain. The patient was well-appearing, able-bodied, mid-fifties, a construction worker presenting with a few weeks of dizziness. An MRI showed small bright lesions all over his brain, a shower of metastasis. The word innumerable is never one you want to hear from a doctor. A pan CT showed the likely source of the mets, a large chest mass concerning for lung cancer. He had no idea, no other symptoms, just a little lightness in the head.

What does this mean, he asked, and his doctor, the attending physician who was my boss, told him he would have to wait, to see a number of specialists: the interventional radiologist, who would biopsy the lung mass; the medical oncologist, who would match the tissue sample to a course of chemotherapy; the surgeon, who would tell him his tumors are inoperable; the radiation oncologist, who would blitz his brain and chest with radiation.

He waited for days in bed as we coordinated the other doctors. The teams came and went, each saying its piece, in long speeches of words that made sense one by one but kept not adding up to anything. I had been taught not to tell him much, and it was true, we wouldn’t know the whole picture until after the biopsy, until the tissue was sent for tumor markers, and the treatment course sketched out. What I wonder, he said to me one afternoon when I was at the bedside, is why no one will just tell me that this is really bad.

One reason he never quit smoking was he was afraid of gaining weight. He didn’t want to get diabetes, which is the disease that killed his father around his same age. On the bloodwork we sent before his scans came back we found out that he had diabetes anyway. When I told him this, he laughed, and we shared the cannoli his wife brought in from their favorite Italian bakery. It is bad, I told him. It is really bad. He died, he did, a few months later.

As soon as there are choices to make, it is reasonable to talk about goals and values, because the math you do is about what makes your life worth living, what your life is not yours without.There is a stance that appears most in medical-school application essays that the purpose of medicine is to relieve human suffering, but it is truer to say, in Western medicine, that the goal is the prolongation of life. Nothing wrong with that, on its face, in some cases, though it may be reasonable to wonder, since everyone dies, what is the cumulative effect on medical practitioners, our hearts and heads, that we miss our goal in every case; a failure rate of one hundred percent.

But for you, for now, you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, so take this pill to bring it down so that it doesn’t give you a stroke or kill you. If the cost is low and the benefit is high, the choice is clear, but in chronic illness and in life-limiting illness we find a need to add a little background math: this treatment, say it is whole-brain radiation, will prolong your life, and the cost of that prolongation is, say, aging your brain by forty years. This treatment, a percutaneous endogastric tube, will prolong your life but you will never be able to eat food by mouth again. As soon as there are choices to make, it is reasonable to talk about goals and values, because the math you do is about what makes your life worth living, what your life is not yours without. And this is the work that palliative care is about.

What is it, exactly, that you want me to do? The woman who was asking had metastatic cancer in her abdomen. Yesterday we told her that she had no options  left for treatment. With her permission we shared a prognosis of weeks to a few months. Her face didn’t move as the news broke. She looked off to the left at the wall. And someone gave the speech on the philosophy of hospice, and she shared a hope to go home. It is the next day, with the logistics all already in process, that she asks.

What am I supposed to say now, what am I supposed to be thinking about? I can’t tell you how everyone I meet feels about the things we tell them, though young in this work I have seen a few trends. And something I see a lot is people who feel that their lives got away from them, they were always just watching, as from the station looking at faces flicking by on a moving train, and what is left to them now in the time they have left is only fear and suffering of unclear significance. What do I do with a thing like that? I hear it, and I help where I can.

What I am always saying in my Descartes speech is that we are not what we think, but we become what we are doing. I am worried about what this means for the doctors. Whenever I am lost, I try to stop moving, in case I am running off again in the wrong direction. It is never too soon to sit down and map out our values, to consider if we want to end up in the place where we are going. No, not yet, we aren’t there yet, says the oncologist. This is just a bump in the road.

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A History of Present Illness by Anna DeForest is available now via Little, Brown.

Complete Article HERE!

Finding A Reason to Stay Alive Past Age 75

At 90, a grieving widower read an essay from medical ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel and realized he’s grateful for all his years, even in the face of sadness

I understood my life would have purpose only if I touched others with acts of kindness and brought love to every encounter with my family and close friend

By Robert W. Goldfarb

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist, medical ethicist and adviser on health care to President Obama, decided he wanted to die when he became 75 years old. He announced his intention in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly when he was 57. Emanuel saw only decline after 75, when the heights to which he had ascended would pitch downward.

As a father, he would have already celebrated the college graduations and career choices of his children, their marriages and the birth and growing independence of his grandchildren. It would be time, he felt, to abdicate the role of patriarch, stepping aside so his children could climb their own mountains.

When Muriel died suddenly and unexpectedly, grief mounted my back and drove me into despair’s black waters.

As a physician, concern that declining dexterity, reading of medical advances but not leading them, being a patient rather than treating patients and taking medication he previously prescribed, only hardened his resolve. He would die up there on the mountain, not laced to a catheter in a nursing home down in the valley. Emanuel is now 65, and nothing he’s written since that I’ve read indicates he’s changed his mind.

Finding A Way to Live

Shortly after my wife died in the early days of the pandemic, a friend sent me Emanuel’s essay. I had already lived 15 years beyond my own 75th birthday and was thankful I hadn’t read the article in the first agonizing months of my loss. For Emanuel, 76 years would have been one too many to live. Would his words have tempted me to think a day without Muriel was one too many to endure?

When Muriel died suddenly and unexpectedly, grief mounted my back and drove me into despair’s black waters. Had I already read Emanuel’s essay, I might have stroked deeper, hoping to drown. But I hadn’t read it and imagined the arms of my children thrashing the dark water, hoping to grasp my hand and pull me to the surface. My death, so soon after their mother’s, would have devastated the family Muriel and I had built. I would have to find a way to live even if I wanted to die.

Since I was 22, just off a troop ship from Korea, I turned to Muriel in moments of uncertainty. I was now 90 and doubted I had the resources and will to go on without her. Emanuel — a physician and medical adviser to a president — saw no point in living beyond age 75. What reason did I have to leave my empty bed to go to other empty places? If there were reasons to live, I would have to reach deep within myself to find them.

The few reasons I did find seemed to have no purpose, certainly nothing important enough to live for. Yes, I speak every day with my children and each weekend with my grandchildren. But the emptiness within me left me with little to give them. I understood that if I found no reason to go on, the despair I felt could kill me. That would take time when every clock seemed stopped at midnight. But, unexpectedly, time’s slow crawl proved to be a blessing: it gave me hours to think of nothing but what made life worth living.

Gradually, in those midnight hours, flickers of light began piercing the darkness. A friend called and said “I don’t like the sound of your voice. I’m coming over. Meet me outside and let’s talk.” It was the first of the acts of kindness that carried with them a hint that I could heal.

A Buddhist friend urged me to talk with Muriel. “She’s not gone,” he said. “She’s in your being. Talk with her!” I was about to shrug off his advice but was in such pain I would try anything.

Understanding Life’s Purpose in My Nineties

Just thinking of Muriel began to fill the empty places within me. I called out to her, hoping she would hear my voice and that I would hear hers. Her first words sounded so like her. She told me it wasn’t what I lost that mattered. What mattered was what we had for all those years. Her words, as they always had, brought with them the gradual return of my courage.

I am certain I have found reason to press deeper into my nineties.

Now, three years since I lost Muriel, I realize what kept me from drowning in those dark waters. I was startled to find how unimportant many of my relationships and activities had been. If I were shaken awake in the middle of the night and asked what kept me alive, I could think of only two reasons. It was being surrounded by the love of my family and by acts of kindness from friends, sometimes from strangers. It was these that gave me the strength to go on, not dinners with people I barely knew.

I understood my life would have purpose only if I touched others with acts of kindness and brought love to every encounter with my family and close friends.

I need no reminder that I’m one of the “old-old.” The slightest graze leaves an angry welt; a scratch I barely feel bleeds through multiple band-aids.

But I am certain I have found reason to press deeper into my nineties. My children and grandchildren will have to climb their own mountains, but I believe they’ve seen that mountains can be climbed even when bearing the heaviest of burdens.

Perhaps that’s reason enough to be grateful I’ve remained alive in the years Dr. Emanuel has chosen to forego.

Complete Article HERE!

In the I.C.U., Dying Sometimes Feels Like a Choice

By By Daniela J. Lamas

My patient’s wife had just one question: Was her husband dying?

She knew that he was still on the ventilator even after all these weeks, his lungs too sick and his body too weak to breathe on his own. That he still needed a continuous dialysis machine to do the work of his kidneys. That he had yet to wake up in any meaningful way, though his brain scans showed nothing amiss. That it had been more than 50 days since he entered the hospital and we needed to talk about what would come next.

But when she stood there at the bedside, her husband looked much the same to her as he had a week ago, much the same as he might look next week if we continued to push forward. And she had to ask: Why did we need to have this conversation today? Was her husband dying?

You might think this is an easy question to answer. And yet here in the intensive care unit, it is not. Our medicines and machines extend the lives of patients who would otherwise have died. But what happens when it becomes clear that a patient is not actively dying, but not getting better either? How do doctors and family members navigate death when it is not imminent and unavoidable, but is instead a decision?

During my medical training, death happened in one of two ways. It was either a moment of crisis, doctors rushing into a room, all sound and fury and chest compressions for minutes that felt like hours. Or it was something quieter, entirely divorced from machines, family gathered for the last breaths when the lungs were failing, or the cancer had spread too far.

But there’s a third form that dying takes, when it becomes clear that the life that we can offer is not one that would be acceptable to the patient. It is a death that is made imminent only by the withdrawal of medicines and machines — a death that we plan for. It is a strange thing to plan a death, but I have come to understand that this is part of our work in the I.C.U.

A few months ago, I took care of a cancer patient in her 70s who had been intubated because of a flare-up of an underlying lung disease. In the moments before the anesthesiologists put her to sleep and placed the breathing tube down her throat, she had given her son instructions: Give her a chance to get better, but if that failed, she did not want a tracheostomy tube for a longer-term connection to the ventilator or months at a rehabilitation hospital. Her cancer was progressing, and that was not the way she wanted to spend the last year of her life.

I told her family that we would continue our intensive interventions for two weeks, a “time-limited trial of critical care,” as we often call it. If my patient was not breathing on her own at that point, then she never would never be — not without a trach and protracted rehab, a best-case scenario that she would find unacceptable. A week passed. She improved a bit and her family let themselves hope, only to be devastated days later when she worsened again.

Then, the day before the time-limited trial was to end, my patient’s son and daughter took me aside. They could not bring themselves to leave that night and return the next morning to hear the words that now seemed inevitable. If their mother was not going to improve, they wanted to take her off the machines that evening. The next day was her grandson’s birthday. She would not have wanted the little boy’s celebration to be forever intertwined with the sadness of her death. Perhaps they could wait until the day after the birthday, but that might only prolong their mother’s suffering.

There is something uncomfortable about these conversations, where it feels as though we are asking family members to plan the end of a life. It begins with a moment in the family meeting, when we have made the decision to “transition to comfort,” and family members ask me what comes next. What they are asking, really, is how their loved one will die.

As gently as I can, I tell them that when they are ready — as anyone really can be for any of this — we will stop the medications and the tubes that are prolonging life. I tell them that the bedside nurse will give other meds, often morphine or a similar drug, to make sure that their loved one is not in pain. Sometimes they ask if this medication will hasten death, and I explain that it can, but that our primary goal is always to relieve discomfort.

We even have a term for this balance, the “principle of double effect” — as doctors, we accept the risk of a negative consequence like hastening death, so long as our intended outcome is to help the patient by alleviating symptoms. The pain-relieving meds that we administer do not themselves cause death; instead they ensure that our patients are as comfortable as they can be while dying from their underlying disease.

Some family members ask us to stop everything all at once. Others ask for a longer process, to stop one medicine and then another. Someone recently asked the nurse to let every medication run out and not to replace the IV bags. Some ask us to remove the breathing tube, others do not. I am often surprised to what extent people have ideas about what feels right to them, about how the unimaginable should play out. Sometimes there is music. Jerry Garcia. Beethoven. For others, this is all one decision too many, and they sit in silence.

A resident doctor in training came to me recently after one such family meeting, worried that by telling a family that their loved one was dying, he had made it true. If we define dying solely by physiology, by a falling blood pressure or oxygen level, then perhaps that concern is valid. But if we broaden our definition, if we think of dying in the intensive care unit as something that begins when an acceptable outcome is no longer possible, then we are acknowledging the inevitable.

Which is what I told my patient’s wife that day outside his room. We had given her husband every chance to rebound, to show us that he could make it through, but the insults his body faced were too great. We could press on, but to what end? He would never make it home, never be able to do the things that made his life worth living.

She was right, the timing of this conversation was, in a way, arbitrary. Had I been dealing with a patient in extremis, I might not have stopped her outside the room that day. But once we recognized the reality of her husband’s medical condition, what choice was there?

That night, my patient’s wife made the decision to take him off the ventilator. The nurses titrated the pain medications that ran through his veins as she held vigil at his bedside. And after weeks of critical care limbo, the answer to her question was finally clear. Her husband was dying.

Complete Article HERE!

3 Stress-Melting Benefits of Box Breathing

(And How to Try It on Your Own)

Try this basic, ancient breathing technique to slow down, reset, and lower stress.

By Lacey Muinos

Focusing on your breath during heightened states of alertness can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, calming anxiety, and cultivating mindfulness. There are many different breathing exercises to keep in your toolbox for when you need them, and one basic breathing technique known as box breathing is gaining mainstream momentum as people discover how straightforward it is and how helpful it can be in everyday life.

While it may seem new to you, the practice of slowing down your breathing with intention has ancient Ayurvedic roots. Box breathing has been used for thousands of years and in practices such as yoga and meditation to calm an anxious mind, engage the rest-and-digest state (the parasympathetic nervous system), and stay grounded in the present moment. It’s even used by Navy SEALs for keeping cool and laser-focused in high-stress, high-pressure situations.

But you don’t need to be a yogi, Zen master, or SEAL to incorporate breathwork like box breathing into your own routine. This uncomplicated, four-step breathing technique is easier than you might think and can be done anywhere and at any time—settle your nerves before a work presentation; slow your breathing while trying to fall asleep; or take a literal breather when you get angry or agitated. We spoke to breathwork pros to find out why this breathing method has resurfaced as an effective and science-backed solution to stress and anxiety.

What is box breathing?

Box breathing goes by many names: four-square breathing, square breathing, four-count breathing, Sama Vritti Pranayama, tactical breathing, and yogic breathing.

“Box breathing is a four-step breathing technique during which you breathe in, hold, breathe out, and then hold for the same number of counts throughout,” says Sophie Belle, a breathwork facilitator and founder of online breathwork studio Mind You Club. So each step of the breath cycle—inhale, hold, exhale, hold—makes up one side of the box. 

Practicing box breathing involves slowing the breath by following a specific pattern:

  1. Inhale for four counts
  2. Hold your breath for four counts
  3. Exhale for four counts
  4. Pause for four counts

(You won’t always have a stopwatch on hand, so “counts” can refer to approximate seconds here.)

Not only does the box breathing physically alter your breath to become slower and deeper, but it also forces your mind to become focused on and conscious of your breath. This can be especially powerful during times of tension or distress, but also beneficial anytime, anywhere as a daily habit. “When we’re consciously breathing, we have the ability to regulate our body and take it from an overstimulated state of stress and nervousness to actual calm,” says breathwork specialist Ali Levine. “Box breathing is a way for you to consciously monitor your breath and pay attention to your rhythm—it’s a reset to your breath.”

The Benefits of Box Breathing

1 Reduces the body’s stress response.

Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing (in other words, taking big, deep, gentle breaths that fill your belly) counteracts both the physical and mental elements of stress. Deep breathing has even been shown to reduce the physiological consequences of stress in adults. “Box breathing is a simple, yet powerful way to take yourself from fight-or-flight mode back to a normal rhythm,” Levine says.

When you’re stressed or tense, one of the ways your system reacts is for your breathing to become faster and more shallow (this is all part of a normal, natural stress response). This kind of rapid breathing, known as hyperventilation—essentially where you exhale more than you inhale—lowers carbon dioxide levels in the body and makes you feel lightheaded. Slowing down your breathing helps to control hyperventilation. It restores the rhythm of your breathing, correcting those fast, shallow breaths associated with stress and anxiety.

During states of stress, another thing that happens is that your heart rate increases. This is when your body enters fight-or-flight mode, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which cause your heart rate to speed up and blood pressure to rise. Slow breathing has been shown to have a profound effect on cardiovascular function. Box breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of fight-or-flight mode, helping the body return to a rested state.

2 Halts unhelpful thought loops.

Box breathing comes with the enormous benefit of calming the mind. Stress and anxiety often come with a cluttered headspace and racing thoughts. “Box breathing focuses your mind, so it’s incredibly good for stress, rebalancing, and [attention],” Belle says. When your thoughts won’t stop swirling, it can feel impossible to quiet them. Using a mindfulness-based breathing exercise like box breathing forces you to bring your attention to something other than upsetting, overwhelming, or just plain obnoxious thoughts. It gives your brain something else to fixate on (what a relief!). And one of the best long-term side effects of doing something like box breathing is that the more you do it, the better your brain will become at redirecting attention away from unhelpful mental chatter. It’s actually a skill that gets sharper with practice.

3 Helps you focus on the present moment.

Anxiety typically involves worrying about the future or harping on the past. Box breathing is heavily associated with meditation and mindfulness, two of the best techniques for anchoring yourself in the current moment.

“The focus on the breath enables you to become very present,” Belle says. “This helps you to practice non-attachment to unhelpful thought patterns, which over time can lead to more positive automatic stress responses.”

How to Try Box Breathing on Your Own

This breathwork practice is rewarding and grounding—and it’s easy to get started. You don’t need any special equipment or even a secluded place, just your mind and your breath. Give it a try when you feel stressed or on a regular basis to encourage relaxation.

How to do it:

  1. Ground yourself (e.g. sit in a chair, sit on the floor, stand in a comfortable position). Sit or stand up straight (but not rigid) and relax your shoulders.
  2. Bring focus to your breath.
  3. Take a slow, deep breath in as you count to four, making the inhale last for all four counts. Feel your belly expand with air.
  4. Hold your breath for four counts. Try to think only about counting to four.
  5. Exhale through your mouth: Breathe out steadily for four counts, making the exhale last for all four counts. 
  6. Hold again for four more counts.
  7. Repeat this cycle as needed.

If you’ve never engaged in breathing techniques before, it will likely feel strange at first—that’s completely normal. “Don’t be disheartened if it feels difficult,” Belle says. “Just reset and reduce the counts or try again at another time when you have a bit more space to focus on the breath.” Instead of attempting to carve out time for box breathing, Belle recommends stacking this habit onto another daily activity that doesn’t require much effort, like waiting for the shower water to get hot or the kettle to boil.

Complete Article HERE!