The Final Chapter

By Melissa Red Hoffman, MD

The first time I saw a death certificate, I was 19 years old. The cause of death was listed as “laceration of the trachea and esophagus, also laceration of heart and lungs with fractures and bleeding caused by two gun shots in the neck and chest.” The death certificate belonged to my father, killed by a terrorist while on a business trip in Cairo. By the time I laid eyes on it, the certificate only served to confirm a very painful truth: My father’s story had come to a very tragic and bloody end.

It’s 26 years later and I’ve managed to use this tragedy to inspire a career focused on both trauma and hospice and palliative medicine. In the simplest terms, I spend half my time trying to save lives and the other half trying to ensure a good death. For me, it works. But there’s no denying that my father’s legacy is always lingering in the background, whether I am in the trauma bay or at a patient’s bedside. The cause of death imprinted on that death certificate, along with the fear, pain and suffering that I assume it caused my dad, and the grief, sadness and never-ending longing that it evoked within me and many members of my family, is never far from my mind. And for reasons that I don’t fully understand, I have reread that death certificate more times than I can count.

That being said, the first time I was actually handed a death certificate to complete, I was well into my yearlong hospice and palliative medicine fellowship, and my only response was, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Despite 10 years of training including medical school, general surgery residency and critical care fellowship, I had never seen this form in the hospital, much less received any guidance on how to complete it. My hospice attending provided some cursory instruction and assured me she was available if I had questions, and that was that.

Since then, I’ve filled out more than 100 of these forms; when I work as a hospice attending, it’s not unusual for me to fill out a half-dozen death certificates during an eight-hour shift. The CDC publishes a free guide ( nchs/ data/ misc/ hb_me.pdf) that has proven to be helpful to me as I’ve attempted to correctly determine and report the cause of death. State medical boards stress that physicians should exercise their best clinical judgment when filling out the form and that lawsuits involving death certificates are exceedingly rare, but I still sometimes find it nerve-wracking to determine the exact steps that led to a patient’s ultimate demise. While completing a death certificate presents an intellectual challenge and demands a short, but not insignificant, time commitment, I have recently come to view the process as something more profound than another item on my to-do list. Because this form is required for both burial and cremation, I now regard it as both the final chapter of a patient’s life story and the first chapter of a family’s bereavement narrative.

I often think of my father when filling out these forms and it always gives me pause. When I open the medical record, I’m usually touched by the thought that I’m very likely the last physician who will ever study this information. Reading through the chart, I like to linger for a moment or two and think: Who was this patient? What did he do for work? Who did she love, and, just as importantly, who loved her? I also find myself wondering what happened. What, if anything, could we have done differently or better? Could we have caused less suffering? Provided more comfort? Consulted palliative care earlier or at all?

Last week, while I was working at the local inpatient hospice facility, a female patient, five years younger than me and recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer, died before I had the opportunity to round on her. When I went to view her body, I was struck by the stark difference between the glowing, robust woman pictured in a photo hanging above her bed and the bald, gaunt corpse lying curled up on her side. “She truly had nothing left to give,” I commented to the nurse and the chaplain as they gathered her few belongings to return to her family. As I was getting ready to leave for the day, the funeral director arrived to collect her body and asked if I had a few minutes to complete her death certificate. I knew almost nothing about this woman—she had been under my care for only a few short hours—and yet I was tasked, and blessed, with signing off on the final chapter of her life. With this last act of patient care, I was able to support her family in the first steps along their grief journey.

As a surgeon trained in hospice and palliative medicine, my personal narrative has changed from “There’s nothing more I can do” to “Let me walk with you.” Taking the time to complete a death certificate is another way for me, and all surgeons, to follow a patient’s story to the very end.

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