By James Salwitz, MD
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.