It was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer…
He was a middle-aged gentleman, neatly dressed—very simple and unassuming. He blended like a lifeless statue in the waiting area. What sparked my notice of him was his accompanying robust file, crammed with familiar pink discharge slips from the ED.
He was clearly what we call a “frequent flyer”, but this would be his first visit in our surgical clinic.
I escorted him into the assessment room, exchanging the usual salutations as he edged unto the exam table, wincing with discomfort. His chief complaint read, “acute abdominal pain and constipation x 1 week.”
Vying to understand more about his issue, I asked, “Sir, how long have you had this problem?” Embarrassed, he lowered his head.
I retreated and instead remarked, “Ok. Let’s start from today. Where do you have the most pain?”
Tenderly, his frail digits unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a wasted torso, which hoisted an extraordinarily distended abdomen. It appeared rigid and tense. I reached out to gently palpate it to confirm the realism of my observations. He flinched. His stoic affect instantly collapsed into an aching frown.
Tears welled in his eyes. Something terrible was going on inside. Cancer.
He needed to be admitted and surgery would be very likely, if not too late. I was aplomb in my explanation of his condition, feeling proud of my thoroughness and precision. Yet, seemingly unengaged, he politely interrupted and asked, “How much will it cost to let me die?”
I paused. It was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer. During my training, I was taught to order tests wisely, to avoid superfluous exams and to minimize inefficiency of resources; in spite of this, I had not ever stopped to think about cost in this context.
In my mind, it was my duty to provide the best, quality care to extend life, foremost. Yet, his concern was different. How much would it cost to die?