Arguing With the Doctor – A plea for end-of-life choice

Dandelion

Does the doctor always know best? And in the case of one’s own precious life and death, is it wise to argue the point?

“No One Here Gets Out Alive” – a quote from Jim Morrison – led the title of a lively (pun intended) debate about aid in dying held recently at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Part of a series on the intersection of science and politics, the event’s full title was “No One Here Gets Out Alive”: The Science, Politics and Law of Death and Dying. The program sought to address a few issues not easily covered in two hours – but still – including (reprinted verbatim):

Is there a constitutional right to “physician-assisted suicide”? What about a “dignified death” – and what is a dignified death? Should terminally ill patients facing mental incapacitation or unbearable pain have access to fatal ingestion – also known as physician aid in dying? Or would that jeopardize our society’s progress toward more compassionate, comfort-based care?

Participants included John M. Luce, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Medicine and Anesthesia at the University of California San Francisco; Laura Petrillo, MD, a Hospice and Palliative Medicine fellow at UCSF; and program host David L. Faigman, Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law and Director of the UCSF/UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science and Health Policy.

The program kicked off with a discussion of the science of death itself – defining death being more and more problematic these days. Think Nancy Cruzan, kept alive through a feeding tube in a “Persistent Vegetative State” for nearly a decade until her family managed to convince the State of Missouri that she would never have wanted to be “kept alive.” Or Terri Schiavo, whose PVS ordeal lasted even longer. More recent is the tragic story of 13-year-old Jahi McMath, declared brain-dead by multiple physicians more than a year ago but whose body is still existing somewhere, connected to machines that keep her heart beating.

Those cases are just a few of the markers on the path toward today’s critically important death with dignity movement. This writer’s involvement in the cause began with work as a hospice volunteer in the 1980s, a member of an HIV support group in the ’90s and a volunteer with Compassion & Choices (and its predecessor organization Compassion in Dying) since the late 1990s. C&C is currently leading the fight to make aid in dying legal throughout the U.S., having won significant battles – five states now protect that right for terminally ill, mentally competent adults – with others underway in many areas.

And that issue – should medical aid in dying be legalized in California (and elsewhere) – was the heart of the two-hour program. Of the two physicians, Luce was eloquently in favor, and Petrillo was adamantly opposed. In this writer’s admittedly biased view, Luce’s lifetime of experience as a distinguished physician and professor rather embarrassingly outweighed Petrillo’s credentials, but it is possible to see her emerging-palliative-care-physician status as basis for her absolute certainty that everyone on the planet can experience graceful, pain-free death if only he or she has access to palliative care.

I am less certain. Thus my argument.

In the Q&A period, I posed this question to Petrillo: “If you were my doctor, which is unlikely, and I were dying, which is increasingly likely (I’m 81, for heaven’s sake,) and I have expressly, repeatedly made clear that I do not wish to linger – why should you have the right to insist that I linger?”

Petrillo dodged the question. “I would ask what is causing your pain,” she said. “I would try to determine if you are depressed, and talk about how we can alleviate your pain and possible depression…”

After several abortive attempts to get a response to my question, and figuring the audience had not paid good money to listen to me rant, I gave up. But here are the arguments I had for Dr. Petrillo, questions I wish the minority of physicians who do still oppose aid in dying would answer:

Why should you have the right to insist that I linger, when I am dying?

How can you presume to understand my pain better than I? And why should I have to describe it if I don’t choose to do so?

When I have watched dying people with the very best care and pain control suffer in ways I would not choose to suffer, how can you insist on my going that route?

Why should your conviction about the efficacy of your medical field trump my autonomy?

Dr. Petrillo said she is not religious, so this question would be addressed to others: Why should your religion overrule my religion? Or dictate to me?

It’s my only precious life, after all. Why should I be denied control of its precious end?

 

 

 

Peaceful dying vs Doctor Knows Best

credit acpinternist.org

Barbara Coombs Lee, the sharp and articulate president of Compassion & Choices, spoke to the issue of death with dignity on PBS NewsHour tonight, with opposing views presented by Ira Byock, noted physician, author and advocate for palliative care. Neither really won; the time was too short and the issue is too complex. The Death With Dignity movement though, is not going away, and we the people will only win when the movement wins.

Lee spent 25 years as a nurse and physician’s assistant before becoming an attorney and devoting her life to personal choice and autonomy at life’s end. She believes a terminally ill, mentally competent adult should have the right to end his or her life when and how he or she chooses. Byock, chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring, believes that if doctors were properly trained in pain management and end-of-life care – which he readily admits is far from the case – no one would ever want, or choose, to hasten one’s end. Lee appreciates the grace with which Brittany Maynard is facing her own very premature death; Byock says the active, well-educated 29-year-old is “being exploited” by Compassion and Choices.

A few caveats:

Barbara Coombs Lee is a good friend whom I admire and respect. I have worked with Compassion & Choices for well over a decade as a volunteer, Northern CA member and board chair, and now member of the Leadership Council. I strongly support physician aid-in-dying and individual autonomy.

“Hospice and palliative care,” Lee said on the NewsHour segment, “are the gold standard” for end-of-life care. But no amount of hospice care, or palliative care, can alter “the relentless, dehumanizing, unending” progression of a disease such as Maynard has and many of us will also face. For many of us, as for Maynard, there will be loss of every bodily function, one by one, quite likely accompanied by excruciating pain and possibly things like the seizures Maynard would like to minimize for her own sake as well as the sake of her loved ones who would be forced to watch.Stethoscope

Perhaps doctors will eventually all be adequately trained in pain management and palliative care. But even then – and “then” is a very long way off – must the doctor always know best? Why can’t I, the patient, the person facing my own dying, be the one in control?

Byock is dismissive of the pain involved with watching a loved one suffer agonies of prolonged dying. Maynard’s inevitably increasing seizures, for example, would be helped by palliative care, he suggested, so she wouldn’t suffer terribly. If I chose – as Maynard is choosing – to have my loved ones remember me as a woman at peace while holding their hands rather than a disintegrating person gripped with terrible spasms – why is that not an honorable choice?

Byock – who in this NewsHour fan’s humble opinion got the better time and treatment – slipped in words like “suicide” and “slippery slope” and “euthanasia,” and phrases like “euthanized in the Netherlands” too far along in the program for Lee to answer in the brief time given her. Byock ignores the fact that no one choosing to hasten death under the existing laws (four states now have the law, two others allow aid-in-dying) is committing suicide; they are being killed by their disease. No one has been, or will be, “euthanized.” The United States is not the Netherlands. He also ignores the fact that in the long years of Oregon’s successful law – it was first enacted in 1997 – there has been not one report of abuse. Not one.

There is no slippery slope. There is only compassion. Self-determination. Autonomy. Dignity. Grace. Peace. Why should they not be legal?

I respect the medical and literary achievements of Ira Byock. But I’m sorry: the doctor does not always know best.

Dementia: stories and sources

The post about dementia sufferers and their tendency to wander (May 6) evoked a host of stories about temporarily lost parents, grandparents, friends and relations. Almost everyone, it seems, has such a story — and unfortunately, those who haven’t may collect one or two in the future.  Reader Cathy Jensen sent a poignant tale of a friend who went wandering in his pajamas during the pre-dawn hours, but was found by the garbage collectors and brought home on the back of their truck. And reader Tom McAfee, en route to see his own mom and hopefully jog memories of children and grandchildren with photos, sent a link to a podcast aired on WNYC in March.

An offbeat idea, the WNYC piece explains, turned out to be a good solution for a nursing home in Germany from which residents were wandering off. Administrators created a bus stop in front of the home, complete with bench and a painted sign for a bus that never came. It provided a place where many wanderers could sit and wait until the urge to go back home, or elsewhere, melted away. Might not work everywhere, but it worked in Dusseldorf.

And reader JTMcKay4 sent, in case you missed them in the comments section, links to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Safe Return” program and to a source for a long list of related documents. State-specific advance directive forms can also be downloaded, free, from the “Caring Connections” site maintained by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association site, and this space remains committed to the support of the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, from which forms can also be downloaded.

There is no guarantee against winding up in a memory unit. But a little preparation can go a long way toward helping if the time comes.

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.

The cost of trying to live forever

Why is this not an encouraging word? In a front page article, part of a Months to Live series,  New York Times writer Reed Abelson leads with a glimpse into the Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, a top-rated academic hospital noted for extensive, aggressive end-of-life care (and very high costs):

‘If you come into this hospital, we’re not going to let you die,’ said Dr. David T. Feinberg, the hospital system’s chief executive.

Feinberg’s commitment to “success” might be admirable, but the statement is patently false; people die at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. This is what people do: we die. Until this culture gets its act together on that subject our health care system — whatever the reform bill eventually looks like — will continue to flounder.

Difficult as it is to talk dollars when you’re talking lives, the issue of cost has to be factored in. There are only so many dollars, and there are countless lives needing care those dollars can buy: infants, children, young adults, boomers, elderly. In each of those care-needing groups, some die.  Feinberg’s philosophy somewhere has to encounter reality.

…that ethos (keep testing, treating, keeping alive no matter what) has made the medical center a prime target for critics in the Obama administration and elsewhere who talk about how much money the nation wastes on needless tests and futile procedures. They like to note that U.C.L.A. is perennially near the top of widely cited data, compiled by researchers at Dartmouth, ranking medical centers that spend the most on end-of-life care but seem to have no better results than hospitals spending much less.

Listening to the critics, Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, the chief medical officer of the U.C.L.A. Health System, says his hospital has started re-examining its high-intensity approach to medicine. But the more U.C.L.A.’s doctors study the issue, the more they recognize a difficult truth: It can be hard, sometimes impossible, to know which critically ill patients will benefit and which will not.

That distinction tends to get lost in the Dartmouth end-of-life analysis, which considers only the costs of treating patients who have died. Remarkably, it pays no attention to the ones who survive.

No one, not the doctors, not the patients, not the best crystal ball reader around can guarantee that this patient will die or that patient will live. If there is a good chance a patient will survive — and it would be nice to add “with a reasonable quality of life” here — everything possible, and affordable, certainly should be done. Abelson’s carefully balanced article details the arguments for going to extraordinary lengths to save lives, as well as the arguments to draw the line on end-of-life expenses.

According to Dartmouth, Medicare pays about $50,000 during a patient’s last six months of care by U.C.L.A., where patients may be seen by dozens of different specialists and spend weeks in the hospital before they die.

By contrast, the figure is about $25,000 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors closely coordinate care, are slow to bring in specialists and aim to avoid expensive treatments that offer little or no benefit to a patient.

“One of them costs twice as much as the other, and I can tell you that we have no idea what we’re getting in exchange for the extra $25,000 a year at U.C.L.A. Medical,” Peter R. Orszag, the White House budget director and a disciple of the Dartmouth data, has noted. “We can no longer afford an overall health care system in which the thought is more is always better, because it’s not.”

By some estimates, the country could save $700 billion a year if hospitals like U.C.L.A. behaved more like Mayo. High medical bills for Medicare patients’ final year of life account for about a quarter of the program’s total spending.

So…. to spend that $25,000/$50,000 or not to spend? Unless we the people somehow face the reality that living forever is not a human option, the dilemma will continue.

The benefits of coming to terms with non-optional dying could be huge. We could focus on quality living. On palliative care and hospice care and end-of-life peace and comfort. Advances in palliative care now make it possible for most of us to spend final months at home (or in special hospital rooms), in comfort, surrounded by loved ones; given the choice, would you prefer a few weeks or months in a bright-lit sterile room with a lot of tubes and wires keeping you alive? U.C.L.A. now offers the choice of palliative care. Not everyone in charge, however, is convinced.

Dr. Bruce Ferrell, who helps lead the palliative care program, recalls a patient two years ago who got a liver transplant but developed serious complications afterward and remained in the hospital for a year. “He had never, ever been told that he would have to live with a ventilator and dialysis,” Dr. Ferrell said. “He was never told that this is as good as it’s going to get.”

Dr. Ferrell talked with the patient about whether he might want to leave the intensive-care unit to go home and receive hospice care. But when the surgeon overseeing the case found out, he was furious.

“We do not use the h-word” — hospice — “on my patients,” the surgeon told Dr. Ferrell. “Don’t ever come back.”

The patient chose to leave.

But lately, Dr. Ferrell says, more of the transplant surgeons appreciate the value of what he is trying to do.

“We’re not the bad guys,” he said. “We offer options.”

We the people would do well to quit being the bad guys. To quit behaving as if death were always preventable. We could learn about the options to spending all those thousands of dollars on exhaustive, often futile treatment. We could talk about what we would or would not want for ourselves, write things down, make choices.

If more of us would do that for ourselves, the House and Senate wouldn’t have such a time trying to do it for us.

Needless pain, senseless dying

His wife is dying. If she’s lucky, she will be dead before you read this. If he has his way, she will hang on — for what purpose I am not sure, since she is now barely conscious and in terrible pain — but, in his words, she is “not ready to close the curtain.” He cannot bring himself to say the D-word out loud.

Joe — not his real name — called me last night. I am not sure for what purpose the call was either, except he’s quite understandably angry and I was a handy person to be angry with for a while. His wife was a supporter of an organization I serve, as a board member and a one-on-one client volunteer. Compassion and Choices N.CA is a chapter of the national Compassion and Choices nonprofit organization. We advocate for everyone’s right to a humane and compassionate death, which Cathy — not her real name — is not having. We also advocate for changing the laws that ban physician aid in dying, and the right of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to hasten his or her own dying if living a few more days or weeks becomes unbearable. Cathy’s life is past unbearable by now.

After suffering for several months with back pain, trying chiropractic sessions and over-the-counter medications, Cathy wound up in an emergency room in mid-November, almost accidentally having an MRI that showed the tumors throughout her body. Lung cancer had metastasized to her brain, spine and almost everywhere else. THIS IS A GOOD TIME TO CALL HOSPICE. Joe encouraged Cathy to fight on. She is in terrible pain, and worse than the pain, Joe says, is the difficulty she has breathing, which keeps her from sleeping because she feels like she’s drowning — “but she doesn’t scream out, exactly…” he said. I wonder how heroic she must need to be for him. She is down to 89 pounds.

As gently as possible, I suggested he call one of several excellent local hospice organizations which I’d earlier mentioned to Cathy’s friend who connected us. As a matter of fact, Joe said, he had already called one of them, they’d been over, he was impressed with them. I was almost beginning to breathe myself when he added that he still wanted to talk with the other I had mentioned (Big mistake. Why did I do that?) and had made an appointment with them to come after the weekend. I suggested they would not mind coming on a weekend.

Denial is a perfectly legal way to deal with things, but it should have its limits. If your spouse, partner, child, friend or parent is terminally ill and in unremitting pain, hospice can be the kindest word you have ever spoken. Hospice care IS NOT about “giving up,” or about dying. It is about comfort, pain management, living, peace. It is entirely possible to sign up for hospice care, change your mind and start some newly-discovered intervention later if one should be found. Probably at some point, you will say the D-word out loud. It won’t kill you.

Joe and Cathy are highly educated, financially well off, widely known and admired. He spoke of moving her to their second home nearby where she could enjoy the ocean, and perhaps take time “to say goodbye to her friends when she feels a little better.”

Modeling how to die

My remarkable friend Mary died yesterday, after showing us how to do it. Not when, mind you, because she was far too young and energetic — just how. How to question and oppose, to look at options, and eventually to accept the fact that life is fine and finite and go with grace into whatever lies ahead.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer barely a year ago, Mary began what would be a studied exploration of traditional and experimental interventions to see if she might wrangle some extra quality time on the planet that she had carefully nurtured throughout her life. Almost as importantly – most importantly to her host of concerned friends – she and her husband Tom signed up on CaringBridge. Immediately, her host of friends also signed on, forming a sort of cybercircle around the family.

As the journey progressed, they would post pictures and notes about their travels and travails, filled with exuberant photos, irrepressible humor and a clear-eyed view of our shared mortality. Friends and relations would sign in with their own comments. Sometimes the latter would include off-beat ideas for something else to fling in the face of the disease; more often they would be notes about how Mary and Tom were brought spiritually into other circles when they couldn’t be physically present. Sometimes they would be long and rambling; more often they would be simple affirmations of how the couple and their family were being held close in so many hearts.

It was an extraordinary gathering. With their three grown children and a few others on site, there was relatively little taking-of-casseroles over these months, though Mary was always the first to show up with a giant jug of homemade chicken soup whenever some affliction struck at my house (and many others.) The cybercircle kept us regularly informed, assured us that we were part of the journey, and served, I believe, as a constant reminder to Mary and Tom that dozens and dozens of their friends were at their virtual side along the way. It helped that both of the central characters – and they were central characters in all the best senses – were thoughtful and eloquent writers.

While preparing for a new round of treatment not long ago, Mary and Tom learned that her tumors had returned with a vengeance. So instead of setting out for one adventure they settled in for another. Hospice was called in, their children gathered even closer. Postings in cyberspace documented the passage of those days, from occasional sunset walks into the nearby hills to readings of comments from friends, as Mary grew weaker, that might win what Tom described as the ultimate honor, “the coveted arched eyebrow.”

As she died, Mary’s family fluffed the pillows and administered “magic drops and potions, all of which helped only sort of.” Afterward, Tom opened the window as a friend had prompted, ” to free her spirit, not that she needed any help from me” and hung their Revolutionary War era ‘Liberty’ flag out front.  And sent a final note into cyberspace for the ever-expanding circle of friends: “All hail, Mary, so very, very full of grace.”