Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lighten the Load

For what seemed like the umpteenth time, Judd was back in the hospital. A family friend had found him semi-conscious on the living room floor, surrounded by empty bags of cookies and potato chips. Since he was a diabetic on dialysis, neither of those was a health food for Judd. His blood sugar was over 1000 -- normal is around 100 -- so the medical team got to work with fluids, insulin, and dialysis to get him back to his baseline. Our palliative care team was called by the hospitalist more out of frustration than anything else. Help me figure out what to do, she asked us. Was this a suicide attempt? Is this what the future looks like -- multiple episodes of what doctors call "non-compliance," with one of them ultimately proving fatal? Is there an alternative to the revolving door of home to hospital to home to hospital again?

All good questions that we in palliative care often lump together under the heading of "goals of care." When we got to Judd's room, we found his wife Anne crying outside the door, saying, "I can't keep doing this." We quickly learned that this was a second marriage for them both. And Anne was dealing with another family tragedy -- her son from her first marriage was dying of cancer, and at the moment the friend found Judd on the floor, Anne had been visiting her son in a nearby hospice.

Even though his mental state was not entirely normal, Judd insisted from the beginning that he hadn't been trying to take his own life by overdosing on cookies and chips. "I'm tired of people talking about it," he said, even as Anne said that was just what she thought he was doing. "But I'm not interested in being an invalid," Judd added. "I used to be able to go hunting or camping or fishing, and now I can't." And he mentioned something that a lot of our patients ask about -- whether I could give him a shot or a pill to put him out of his misery, since in his eyes he was obviously worthless to anyone.

All of us in palliative care have figured out a couple of ways to deflect requests that we murder our patients. I said something about him not being a horse needing to be put down and my not being a veterinarian. This got the expected laugh, and we moved on. Over the next couple of days, as Judd's condition stabilized with medical treatment, we learned a few more things about him. He'd been a veteran and a law enforcement officer and had grown up in a part of the country where manliness was defined in a conventional way. You protected your family, you put food on the table, and if things didn't go well or tragedy befell you, well, you just sucked that up and kept on going.

But it turned out that Judd had a philosophical streak as well. He and I had a private conversation a few days into his hospital stay. Referring to his diabetes and kidney failure, he said, "I've figured out that this is my new reality, like it or not. Not only do I have to accept it, but I have to give up being angry about it, because being angry isn't helping anybody." This helped me understand that the cookie and potato chip binge -- the multiple binges, really -- weren't so much about suicide as they were an expression of his frustration with his limitations. By losing the ability to be the man he thought he was supposed to be, he had lost any sense of meaning in his life.

The conversation turned to Anne and her dying son. Tears welled up in his eyes as Judd talked about how hard it was for him not to be there for his wife. He felt she needed him, but he was too sick himself to help. "It's natural for a man to want to lighten the load of the woman he loves," I told him. "Sometimes you do that literally. You take a heavy package from her hands and hoist it onto a shelf she can't reach. But there are other ways to lighten the load. Part of what's burdening Anne is your illness. Did you ever think that a big part of her load is the thought of losing her son and her husband both?"

Judd admitted that he had not. "So lighten her load by taking care of yourself," I suggested. "Lighten her load by staying alive, by living as well as you can. Lighten her load by being able to tell her you love her when she really needs to hear that, and by being alive so you can hold her had at her son's funeral. You're not an invalid even though you have some limitations because of your illness. If you get to the point where you really are an invalid, the two of you can talk about what to do next."

The philosophical side of Judd realized I had a point, and he told me so. He thanked me, we shook hands, and I took my leave. Judd was discharged the following day, and Anne's son died a couple of days later. So far, Judd has stayed out of the hospital.

"One need not turn upside down to see the world differently," the author Ray Bradbury once wrote. "All it takes is a tilt of the head, an inch to this side or that." Finding meaning in the face of life-limiting illness can be difficult, but sometimes all it takes is a tilt of the head.

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