Did you read yesterday’s New York Times article by Anemona Hartocollis, entitled “Helping Patients Face Death, She Fought to Live“?
It was about a palliative care doctor who faced her own end-of-life issues in a very different manner from the way she would have advised many of her patients.
[A]s the doctors began to understand the extent of her underlying cancer, “they asked me if I wanted palliative care to come and see me.”
She angrily refused. She had been telling other people to let go. But faced with that thought herself, at the age of 40, she wanted to fight on.
While she and her colleagues had been trained to talk about accepting death, and making it as comfortable as possible, she wanted to try treatments even if they were painful and offered only a 2 percent chance of survival.
It is never right to be judgmental about these matters. Each person faces this kind of situation in his or her unique way, and we have no right to dispute the choices people make.
But I was struck by how this doctor personified the public policy debate that surrounds terminally ill patients. Here’s a an example of that kind of discussion from Canada (single payer, government run system!):
The high cost of dying has more to do with soaring health care costs than the aging population does, according to the Canadian Institute of Actuaries. In its submission to the Romanow commission on the future of health care, the institute said that 30 to 50 per cent of total lifetime health care expenditures occur in the last six months of life. Noting the sensitivity of the subject, the group suggested greater use of less expensive palliative care and living wills.
Dr. Pardi’s experience shows how hard it is to go from a policy-level discussion of such matters to the decisions made by individual patients and their families. Without giving credence to the nasty and politically inspired debate about “death panels,” the ambiguity in such situations suggests the difficulty in adopting formulistic approaches to the decisions around end-of-life care.
Besides abortion, it is hard to think of a part of medical practice that is more likely to be politically divisive and personally uncomfortable. Given that, is it worth the debate? Alternatively, how can we best have a productive discussion about it?