DNR

If you were from a foreign nation looking at the United States news right now, you would think that this was a nation that had declared war on death. Or perhaps we could state it better as a total denial of death. In California, Jahi McMath, a teenage girl who has been medically and legally dead for nearly a month (death certificate was issued December 12) has been moved to an unnamed facility and given surgical procedures to introduce air, water, and food more easily while her body continues to degrade and decay.

And in Texas, Marlise Munoz, a woman who may be brain dead or may be in a persistent vegetative state (the hospital isn’t saying and the experts are split), is being maintained because of the hospital’s interpretation of a state law, so that she can be used as an incubator to keep her 14-week old fetus growing despite the wishes of her parents and husband that she be disconnected from the ventilator and supportive measures.

In California, a mother is being criticized for exercising her autonomy beyond reason to define death on her own terms. While in Texas a family’s autonomy to make surrogate health care decisions is being denied. Both of these women have become objects and tools of various groups. In California, the girl is an object of unrealistic hope and political factions. In Texas, a woman is being made into an object and tool to gestate a fetus that may never be born and may not be viable after being deprived of oxygen. Not only has the family expressed their wishes but Marlise also had deliberate and specific conversations with her family about not wanting to be maintained by machines. And lest we forget, the human incubator is also being used as a tool of politics, for elected officials trying to further their career and standing with certain political/religious/social factions to further their agendas.

Continue reading “It’s the Ventilator’s Fault”

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I am a doctor working both in the UK and in Baltimore. Recently I took care of a patient at a hospital in the US who was bleeding to death. Advanced cancer was consuming his body. Doctors at another hospital said there was nothing more they could do, but his family desperately wanted him to live so they brought him to our hospital.

The fistulas in his abdomen were so large, his bowels were open to the air. Blood frequently gushed out of his wounds, necessitating blood transfusions and other desperate measures. The only way to stop the bleeding was to push hard on these wounds, which inflicted excruciating pain. Despite these aggressive treatments, there was no hope of long-term survival.

His family was not ready to let him go and so they told us to take any measures possible to keep him alive. In order to do this, I would have to crack his ribs during chest compressions and electrocute him in an attempt to restart his heart. Regardless of whether we could keep the heart beating, the rest of his body would still be irreparably consumed by cancer.

Continue reading “Hippocratic Hypocrisy: When It Comes to CPR, Is Less Care Actually Better Care?”

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She was 94 years old with advanced Alzheimer’s. She thought it was 1954 and asked if I wanted tea. Not a bad memory for someone in a hospital bed with a broken left hip.

She’d fallen at her assisted living facility. It was the second time in as many months. She’d broken her collarbone on the previous occasion.

Over the past year, she’d lost thirty pounds. This is natural in the progression of Alzheimer’s. But it’s upsetting to families all the same.

My patient was lucky. She’d lived to 94, and had supportive children who were involved in her care. Her son had long ago been designated as power-of-attorney for her health care. This meant officially that his decisions regarding her care were binding. She was not capable of making sound decisions, medical or otherwise.

The patient had been under the care of a geriatrician. His office chart told me that the option of hospice and palliative care had been discussed with the family. They were interested in learning more; the son had agreed that “Do Not Resuscitate” status was appropriate for his mother. Doing chest compressions on a frail 94 year-old is something none of us want to do.

The morning after her hospital admission for the broken hip, the medical intern called me with an ethical dilemma: “She’s DNR,” the intern explained. “She’s having intermittent VTach on the monitor, and I fear she won’t be stable enough to have the hip repaired. The family is open to the idea of hospice, but I don’t know whether to treat the arrhythmia or not.”

Elaine (not her real name) is one of our brightest interns. She’s thinking about going into geriatrics. Situations like this are in many ways the most meaningful for doctors. Too often we stress about minutiae at the expense of the big picture; helping guide a family and patient through a period of critical illness is of true service.

Continue reading “Building a Better Health Care System: End of Life Care – A Case Study”

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Here is a little appreciated fact: Patients cannot order medical care; they can only accept or refuse it.

Only a doctor can order medical treatment.  In an extreme medical situation, the doctor can offer CPR, but it is the patient’s job to accept or reject.

Any patient can refuse CPR.  This refusal is known as Do Not Resuscitate or DNR, and for obvious reasons needs to be made ahead of time. The question is, when is making the decision to be DNR appropriate?

A further definition is needed.  DNR (and its colleague, Do Not Intubate, DNI) is not the same as DNT, or Do Not Treat.  A patient, at their discretion, may receive maximal medical care, including drugs, dialysis and surgery, and still be DNR.  The DNR order in that situation is simply a line that the patient will not allow the doctors to cross.  “Do everything you can to help me, but if it fails I do not want to end my life on a machine or with some gorilla pounding on my chest.”

On the other hand, a DNR can be a part of a hospice or palliative care program, so that all care is focused on comfort and not treatment.  It is even possible, in very unusual circumstances, to receive hospice care without being DNR.  A DNR order is like any medical decision, it can be changed if appropriate.  DNR is not the same as “pulling the plug.”

How aggressive to be in receiving medical care is a personal decision.  In order to make certain that our individual desires are followed it is critical that, as much as possible, these decisions be made ahead of time.  This avoids panic, confusion, and guilt.  In that spirit, let us review a few cases.

Ben is a 54-year-old gentleman with lung cancer, which has spread to bones and liver and is growing despite the third chemotherapy.  His doctors inform him that a fourth chemotherapy has a 5% chance of helping him and a 20% chance of killing him.  He wants to try the chemo.  His physician says, “OK Ben, we will order the chemo but if things fall apart and your body starts to fail and we cannot fix it, do you want to be put on a machine?”  Do you think Ben should make himself DNR?

Ben made himself DNR.  He survived the chemo, but the cancer progressed and he died one month later.

Continue reading “To DNR or Not to DNR”

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Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”

She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”

Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.

We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.

You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.

Continue reading “End of the Line in the ICU”

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Recently a patient with advanced lung cancer was admitted to a local hospital.  Pain in his abdomen was diagnosed as a gallbladder infection.

Because he had metastatic cancer, in addition to the new problem, the patient and family decided that if things deteriorated he should not be given CPR or put on a respirator. A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order was entered in his chart. Treatment for the gallbladder was continued, but it was decided that there was a line that the doctors would not cross.

This made sense to me.

Try conventional therapy, but if he was too weak to recover, then do not continue treatment which could cause more suffering than benefit.  Give him the opportunity to survive the gallbladder problem, but respect the terminal nature of the greater disease.  We were all gratified when his pain and fever went away, and he recovered from the emergency.

When we were discharging him from the hospital, a surprising thing occurred.

The patient and family requested that since he had survived the infection, that the DNR be reversed.  They decided that when a sudden new major medical complication occurred, that CPR be performed and he would be placed on a respirator.  The clear protective line vanished.

In difficult lengthy discussions with the patient and family, it became clear that they were riding tides of emotion.  When things looked better, they focused on life and “cure.”  When things grew worse, they were ready to withdraw.  They became defensive and angry at the suggestion that this decision might cause suffering.  We were not able to redefine limits to his care.

Continue reading “Crossing the Line”

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