End-of-year look at end-of-life issues

Two end-of-year stories offer stark insights into end-of-life issues in the U.S., one from a purely financial perspective, the other purely about compassion. Between the two, the conflicted American way of dying comes into focus.

First the finance. The Wall Street Journal of December 30 features a front page story by Laura Saunders about wealthy families coming to grips with the disappearance, thanks to a quirk of Congress, of the estate tax beginning January 1, 2010. It will only disappear for a year, and in 2011 it will return at a higher rate with lower exemption. For those approximately 5,500 super-rich taxpayers to whom this tax applies, a lot of money is at stake. Presumably if a member of one of these families is now near death every possible measure will be taken to keep him or her alive into the new year and presumably that will be done for the best of reasons. But imagine the struggles involved if someone is near death this time next year, and his or her heirs stand to benefit in the millions if that death happens before January 1st rather than soon after. An altogether new meaning will have to be added to “letting go.” Not something one really wants to think through.

But the last two sentences of the WSJ article demonstrate how extensively the scenario is indeed being thought through, not from the heir’s point of view but from the soon-to-be-departed:

The situation is causing at least one person to add the prospect of euthanasia to his estate-planning mix, according to Mr. (Andrew) Katzenstein (a lawyer with) Proskauer Rose (LLP in Los Angeles.) An elderly, infirm client of his recently asked whether undergoing euthanasia next year in Holland, where it’s legal, might allow his estate to dodge the tax.

His answer: Yes.

However hard we might try to eliminate costs (and cost/benefit ratios) from considerations of end-of-life care and decision-making, they are here to stay and sure to remain complex. Another complexity — and this one should not be as difficult as it continues to be — surrounds the subject of palliative care. Palliative care is simply comfort care. It means, do everything possible to insure that a dying person might go about his or her dying with as little pain and anguish as humanly, medically possible.  A long, careful look into the issue is in the New York Times most recent “Months to Live” series article, “Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death” by health writer Anemona Hartocollis.

In almost every room people were sleeping, but not like babies. This was not the carefree sleep that would restore them to rise and shine for another day. It was the sleep before — and sometimes until — death.

In some of the rooms in the hospice unit at Franklin Hospital, in Valley Stream on Long Island, the patients were sleeping because their organs were shutting down, the natural process of death by disease. But at least one patient had been rendered unconscious by strong drugs.

The patient, Leo Oltzik, an 88-year-old man with dementia, congestive heart failure and kidney problems, was brought from home by his wife and son, who were distressed to see him agitated, jumping out of bed and ripping off his clothes. Now he was sleeping soundly with his mouth wide open.

“Obviously, he’s much different than he was when he came in,” Dr. Edward Halbridge, the hospice medical director, told Mr. Oltzik’s wife. “He’s calm, he’s quiet.”

Mr. Oltzik’s life would end not with a bang, but with the drip, drip, drip of an IV drug that put him into a slumber from which he would never awaken. That drug, lorazepam, is a strong sedative. Mr. Oltzik was also receiving morphine, to kill pain. This combination can slow breathing and heart rate, and may make it impossible for the patient to eat or drink. In so doing, it can hasten death.

Mr. Oltzik received what some doctors call palliative sedation and others less euphemistically call terminal sedation. While the national health coverage debate has been roiled by questions of whether the government should be paying for end-of-life counseling, physicians like Dr. Halbridge, in consultations with patients or their families, are routinely making tough decisions about the best way to die.

Writer Hartocollis covers in thoughtful detail the long, sometimes conflicted process through which the medical team and the patient’s family arrived at his eventual, peaceful death. The article looks at the multiplicity of issues that cry out for reasoned public dialogue — palliative care, physician aid in dying, end-of-life choice, family decision-making — that have been raised on this page in recent months and will be back again. It’s a story worth reading in full.

And meanwhile, the beginning of the year is a fine time to get your advance directives and other documents completed and to have those conversations with friends and loved ones that keep you from becoming another Terri Schiavo. Getting this done is one great way to put dying behind you and go about the business of living for a happy new year.

Months to Live – Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death – Sedation – Series – NYTimes.com.

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