Palliative Care: Rush Limbaugh vs the Grannies

The patient was in four-point restraint, which means his hands and feet were tied to the bed. He was shouting over and over, in Spanish, “Help me!” but no help came. Until Diane Meier happened upon the scene.

The back story, she learned, was that the man had end-stage cancer for which he had declined treatment. After he fell at home, his adult children had found him on the floor and called 911, landing him back in the hospital. There, among other interventions that were put into play, a feeding tube had been inserted through his nose. When he repeatedly pulled it out, his hands were tied. After he then pulled it out three times with his knees, his feet were tied. You could say these treatments were being performed over the patient’s not-quite-dead-body.

“Why,” Dr. Meier asked, “is it important to have the feeding tube?” The attending physicians answered, “Because if we don’t, he’ll die.”

It was at this point that Diane Meier, M.D., F.A.C.P., already honored for her work in geriatrics and for her personal and medical skills, became a crusader for palliative care. “A light bulb went off,” she told a group of physicians and other professionals in the field today in San Francisco. “I realized it was an educational problem, and thus a solvable problem.” She saw that the doctors and nurses were only doing as they had been taught, and the results were distressing also to many of them. “All I did was say ‘It’s all right to care about your patient.'”

Meier’s pioneering efforts to shift care of critically ill patients from aggressive, often futile treatment to comfort care focusing on the patient instead led to formation of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, which she currently serves as Director. They also resulted in a MacArthur Fellowship she was awarded in September, 2008.

“The MacArthur,” says the self-effacing physician, “was in recognition of the tens of thousands of people working in palliative care.” But those tens of thousands are not enough to have eliminated the tragedies of patients such as the unfortunate man cited above. Walk the halls of almost any hospital, nursing home or similar institution in the U.S. and you will hear the incessant “Help me!” cries of people being treated over their almost-dead bodies.

Helping them with comfort care rather than aggressive treatment, though, is referred to by the Rush Limbaughs of the world as “Killing off the grannies.” It is a handy sound bite, and it is tilting the balance against sanity in our lurch toward health reform. Unless Mr. Limbaugh can convince me I’d rather be 4-point-restrained with a tube inserted in my nose than gently treated with comfort care when I encounter my next critical illness, this particular grannie would appreciate his butting out of my rights. Palliative care should be a right.

It is, unfortunately, a campaign of the political right to keep palliative care out of health reform. They will prevail, Dr. Meier said, unless voices of sanity are raised, whether Democrat or Republican. She urged her audience, representative of a wide variety of compassionate groups, to help get the message out and get the calls, e-mails and letters in. Legislators behind the three bills working their way through Congress, she said, need to hear from the citizenry.

The citizenry is unquestionably in favor of comfort, and where palliative care can be understood it is welcomed. Hosting Dr. Meier’s informal talk were the California HealthCare Foundation, the California Coalition for Compassionate Care, Archstone Foundation and the University of California, San Francisco, four of many organizations committed to making palliative care understood, available and effective.

The question of whether they or Rush Limbaugh will prevail is as yet unanswered. Having Mr. Limbaugh forming our health policy, though, is almost as scary to this granny as 4-point restraint.

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