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.