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Something I learned as a medical intern is that there are worse things than dying.

As I recall, it was sometime in April, 1988. I was putting a line in an old man with end-stage kidney disease, cancer (maybe), heart failure, bacteria in his blood and no consciousness. Prince was on the radio, loud, by his bedside. If you could call it that – the uncomfortable, curtained compartment didn’t seem like a good place for resting.

An attending physician, a smart guy I respected, approached me as I completed the procedure.

“It’s kind of like Dante’s seventh circle,” he noted.

Indeed. A clear, flexible tube drained greenish fluid from the man’s stomach through his nose. Gauze covered his eyes, just partially. His head, hands and feet swelled with fluid. A semi-opaque hard-plastic instrument linked the man’s trachea, through his paper-taped mouth, to a noisy breathing machine. His skin, barely covered by a stained hospital gown, was pale but blotchy from bleeding beneath. An arterial catheter inserted by his wrist, just where I might have taken his pulse had he been healthier. A fresh adhesive covered the cotton gauze and brownish anti-bacterial solution I’d placed over his lower right neck.

“Yeah,” I said as we walked out of the room to review another patient’s chart.

I wondered if the ICU staff would mind my changing the radio station, just in case the patient could hear but not tell us he preferred WQXR.

“There’s no way I would let this happen to me,” I remember thinking.

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This month, a report in the ACS journal Cancer indicates that most U.S. physicians don’t talk with their patients about end-of-life issues until death is imminent, if they do so at all.

The study, based on canvassing over 4000 doctors who care for cancer patients in California, North Carolina, Iowa and Alabama revealed that only a minority of physicians would raise the subject of a DNR (do not resuscitate) order or the possibility of hospice care for a patient with metastatic cancer with a life expectancy of 4-6 months. The article has generated considerable, appropriate attention in the press and for good reason – it bears on health care costs, patients’ rights, doctors’ communication and time constraints and a host of points relevant to the practice of medicine in 2010.

For purposes of this post, today, what I’ll say is this much:

Don’t wait for your doctor to talk to you about death and dying. Be proactive about your wishes and the kind of care you wish to receive, especially if you’re sick with a serious medical condition. Take the initiative – document your end-of-life preferences as best you can, according to the law of your state, and tell your physicians about any limits you’d like to set on the care you might receive.

It’s a conversation worth having, early.

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Here’s a very-partial list of resources for people who’d like to learn more about advance directives, living wills, DNR orders, hospice care and other end-of-life concerns:

MedlinePlus on Advanced Directives;

New York State: information on Health Care Proxy forms and DNR orders

Family Caregiver Alliance on End-of-Life Choices

Hastings Center on End of Life Issues

American Hospice Foundation

Cisely Saunders Foundation

Hospice Foundation of America

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

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