Monday, March 22, 2010


We all know in our heads that no one lives forever, but it's a different matter altogether when our loved one is dying in front of our eyes. For adult children facing hard choices about their desperately ill parents, the dynamic is often filled with grief and pain.

Recently I was asked to see Adele, a woman in her eighties who'd sustained a large stroke involving the left side of her brain. It was clear to all that her massive brain damage meant she'd never function independently again. And then there was the cancer. An abnormal admission chest x-ray prompted a CT scan that showed a nasty-looking nodule in her right lung. Other tests convinced Adele's primary medical team that the cancer had spread from another source. The consulting oncologist recommended comfort measures instead of aggressive diagnostic efforts. I was asked to consult. Adele was unresponsive and not arousable, holding her eyes at half-mast, and breathing through her mouth.

Adele's husband was distraught to the point of paralysis. "My daughter will be here soon, " he kept saying. When she arrived, it was obvious there was no love lost between parent and child; it seemed that every third or fourth sentence she said was a variation on the theme of, "Dad, be quiet." With some difficulty we talked about hospice as a means to help Adele die comfortably and with dignity. Adele's daughter accepted my advice to start down the comfort path. She and her father signed the papers, her mother was moved to the hospice part of the hospital, and staff worked to align her treatment orders with the exclusive goal of reducing pain and suffering.

The next day, all hell broke loose. Both father and daughter announced loudly that Adele wasn't getting good care and that they had moved to hospice way too soon. They wanted out, and they wanted out now.

It's actually a simple matter to quit hospice. You sign a couple of forms, and -- abracadabra! -- you are right back in the conventional health care system. Adele moved back to a regular medical floor. For the next ten days, various doctors once again noted her dismal prognosis and the near-zero possibility of improvement. The stomach specialist, who gets paid to put in feeding tubes, wrote an eloquent note about why it would be immoral to put one in Adele. All to no avail. The family insisted that Adele would soon recover and be like her old self. At the family's request, the social worker found a nursing home that would take her, and off she went. 

Now, I haven't visited Adele's nursing home. But I'd wager that its care doesn't compare to that provided every day on our hospice unit by nurses who want to be there and who specialize in end-of-life care. So the decision to revoke couldn't have been based on care delivered, at least not when assessed objectively. But why would this family make a decision so obviously not grounded in objective reality? Why give up a good thing like hospice? Why, as nurses and physicians wondered aloud, did they want to torture her?

The author Francine Russo recently wrote, “The real challenge in making decisions about life-extending treatment is how much we can focus on what our dying parent needs rather than our own anguish. This is the ultimate test of emotional separation.” I believe Adele's family had trouble with emotional separation. I think their anguish at the thought of losing her blinded them to a loving and compassionate assessment of what she needed when she needed them to put her needs first.

Adele will die at the nursing home, unless she develops an abnormal vital sign that panics the facility into sending her to the emergency room. In that case, she'll die in the hospital while facing the full brunt of modern, disease-oriented medicine. Either way, it will be an entirely preventable tragedy. We need to put our loved ones first.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Medicate, Medicate

Families of hospice patients often complain that their loved one is "over-medicated." Dad isn't arousable and isn't talking, so it must be the morphine. If only we would turn down the drip, Dad would wake up and interact, or so the reasoning goes. A variation of this theme is the request that we reduce the pain medicine while family is visiting so that they can chat with Dad, then turn it back up later once everyone's left so that he can sleep. One of our many jobs is to gently explain that it's the disease, not the drugs, that is responsible for the patient's decline. We can't manipulate our patients' level of consciousness the way families often think we can.
A central tenet of hospice is that we don't hasten our patients' death, nor do we stand in the way of death. So we're sensitive to the charge that we're giving too much medicine when what we are trying to do is assure our patients' comfort. We give drugs the way Goldilocks might -- not too much, not too little, but just right.

Not long ago, I ran into the opposite problem. Anne was in the last phases of her colon cancer, admitted to our inpatient unit and, by the assessment of every staff member, comfortable and pain-free. "Not so," said her two adult daughters, "we want her sedated even more. Our mom is a stoic. She wouldn't report pain to you. But we know she's in pain, and we want her to have more morphine." Anne was intermittently conscious, and she had blinked when the daughters asked her if she was in pain. That was their evidence. But her face and body were relaxed, and her breathing was easy -- all signs that tell hospice workers their patients are pain-free. The staff felt they were being railroaded into giving more medication than they felt was justified. A nursing supervisor recorded a conversation at four o'clock in the morning with one daughter. "Are you telling me you want euthanasia for your mother?" she asked. "Yes" was the reply.

I spent a couple of hours with the daughters over the last two or three days of their mother's life, talking in great detail about how we assessed patients and why we thought she was comfortable. I explained how we balance giving enough medication to relieve suffering while trying to avoid any hastening or acceleration of the dying process. The daughters didn't buy it. Right up to the end, when Anne was deeply unconscious and skipping breaths for 30 seconds or more, they clamored for more drugs. Our staff was convinced that Anne died peacefully, but there was no peace for those she left behind.

What motivates families to make a request like this? There are cynical explanations -- a son needs to get back to work, or there's a lot of money to be inherited. It's hard to believe that getting a will into probate faster would motivate a child to ask for euthanasia for a parent, but I suppose it's happened now and then. Or there may be an ambivalent relationship between players in the end-of-life drama. Perhaps there are unresolved issues stemming from childhood. Now that the child can, in effect, exercise parental power over his parent, it may be tempting to turn the tables once and for all. That, too, has probably happened from time to time.

But I believe the reason lies most often with the intense pain that people feel when their loved ones are dying before their eyes. Pain...and impotence, the inability to change the outcome, to protect a loved one from the finality of death. If I have no power to prevent my wife from dying, then I'll exercise my power to prevent her from feeling any pain at all. Both hospice workers and families share the goal of relieving suffering. But because we work in the fishbowl that is America's ambivalence about dying -- think of the "Obama death panel" insanity -- hospice people also must be sensitive to charges that "all you do is give them morphine and kill them." That need to balance is irrelevant to families grieving the loss of a loved one in advance of the loss itself. And therein, I think, lies the seed of the conflict we had with Anne's daughters. I know of no easy solution to the "medicate, medicate" dilemma other than to educate, educate.