On a Saturday around noon, an 85-year-old woman was brought by ambulance to the Emergency Department with severe abdominal pain. She was confused and unable to provide any medical information. Her X-rays showed marked accumulation of abnormal air in her abdomen, a dreaded sign of a perforation in the intestinal tract. Her blood pressure was quite low, requiring treatment with intravenous medications. As the general surgery intern on call, I was asked to see her.
A physical examination showed her abdomen was rigid and extremely tender, which confirmed this was a surgical emergency. Laboratory testing indicated a serious infection, likely the result of intestinal contents leaking into the abdomen, as well as mild kidney injury. Multiple efforts to reach either family or friends by telephone were unsuccessful, and a conservator or someone with durable power of attorney could not be identified to provide informed consent. The patient clearly needed surgical intervention, so two surgeons wrote notes documenting the need to bring her immediately to the operating room as this was a “life-threatening emergency situation.”
During a 6 hour procedure in the operating room, she underwent repair of a benign perforated ulcer in her stomach. She was brought to the recovery room with the breathing tube in place only because it was late in the evening, with the plan to remove the breathing tube promptly in the morning. I saw her during a post-operative check around 9pm, and all seemed to be improving. She was now requiring much lower doses of medications to maintain an adequate blood pressure, and her kidneys were recovering with a good urine output.
About an hour later, I was notified by the nurses that the patient’s children had arrived. They demanded immediate withdrawal of support. One produced paperwork indicating that she was her mother’s durable power of attorney. She stated that her mother would never have wanted to be “on life support, intubated, and in need of dialysis or blood pressure medications to artificially maintain her blood pressure”.