When Cure Is Not An Option

“Has anybody asked the patient?”

Jessica Nutik Zitter raised her hand to pose that question some years ago, at a “Morbidity and Mortality” conference wherein a room full of physicians were discussing treatment options for a dying patient. The doctors continued to talk about surgery A or drastic measure B. Zitter raised her hand again to say, “Has anybody asked the patient?”

Zitter is now a highly regarded critical care/palliative care physician who speaks and writes often on end-of-life issues. A solitary voice at that “M&M” conference, today she is one of the leading voices for medical care that asks the patient first. It is the care most of us would choose.

Zitter spoke recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, an event titled “Avoiding the End-of-Life Medical Conveyor Belt.” Her horror stories explain the conveyor belt metaphor, and confirm the immensity of the end-of-life care problem facing us all. The problem is not just with our cultural inclination to ignore death altogether, as has often been written about in this space, or with physicians’ inclination to continue treatment as if death were not an option. It’s both.

Fran & Jessica Zitter 6.9.15
Jessica Nutik Zitter with Fran Johns

Jessica Nutik Zitter’s stories (a book is forthcoming from Penguin Random House) starkly highlight the death-is-not-an-option attitude unfortunately still common in the medical profession – and the pain and anguish endured by patients who wind up on the conveyor belt as a result.

People will often say, “Take a chance! Maybe God will work a miracle…” Zitter comments, but “the odds are high for (that person’s) being committed to a great deal of suffering and a grisly death.”

Thus the conveyor belt: a patient who is dying and could use a little peace instead winds up undergoing a cruel series of events – resuscitations that mean broken ribs, restored breathing that means a tube thrust down the throat, futile interventions that add to – and prolong – pain and suffering.

Zitter tells of a patient who was essentially “a body,” shrunken and yellowed, being given emergency resuscitation that one nurse likened to torture; and of a man repeatedly taken from the nursing home to the ICU, because he had hand-written a note saying he wanted his life prolonged ‘at all costs.’ “We don’t give people graphic visuals of what those costs may be,” she says.

Asked why doctors don’t practice patient-centered care, Zitter cites two factors – in addition to the imbedded tradition of always providing treatment, and more treatment. One is the need for physicians to get paid for time spent on end-of-life discussion, something that seems perfectly rational but tends to get shouted down in the politicized healthcare arena. The second is equally simple: “If you don’t offer care, someone else will.”medical symbol

Asked by an audience member about what constitutes good care when cure is not an option, Zitter recommended that decision making in such cases should be made early on. “The possibility to cure gets me up in the morning,” she said, “but helping a dying person achieve a good death is equally satisfying.” While advance directives are useful, she points out, they are not enough. It’s important to talk extensively with friends and loved ones, and to create documents with the help of legal and/or healthcare professionals if possible. (A growing number of individuals and organizations are offering such services.) “But decisions have to start with the patient,” Zitter says. “The patient saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that.'”

Otherwise, it’s onto the conveyor belt.

 

Wise Words from Doctor Turned Patient

Bob-baldric

Not every doctor gets an extended view of what his or her patients experience. But one who did – and has shared both the experience and its message(s) is a recently recovered friend and end-of-life issues colleague of this writer, Robert Liner, MD. Liner spent 20 years as an Ob/Gyn with clinical and teaching positions, principally at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, followed by 20 years in private practice of prenatal diagnosis and gynecologic ultrasound. Among his exhausting list of interests and endeavors are piano lessons, playwriting, poetry, working to publish an illustrated lullaby — and serving on the Leadership Council of Compassion & Choices of N.CA. (And occasional adventures into designing menswear, such as a reincarnation of the ancient ‘Baldric‘, modeled above, which Liner feels makes a lot more sense than the necktie.)

Not long ago, though, all of these – plus a simultaneous major house move and recent new marriage to longtime lady friend – were severely complicated by a bout with life-threatening illness.

“A year ago, on my sixty-ninth birthday,” Liner wrote in an article that recently ran in San Francisco Medicine, “I checked into Kaiser Hospital for work-up of a chronic cough, back pain, severe anemia and a low-grade fever. Believing that patients often overreact to symptoms and seek medical attention prematurely, I had let things go a bit far. I’d been easily fatigued and a bit short of breath, but when a couple of days prior to my hospital admission my wife saw me leaving food on my plate at a favorite restaurant, she insisted on taking me to the ER. I told her this would be an abuse of ER resources but, once there… watching two units of blood being transfused into me, I brilliantly arrived at (the same) conclusion: I was seriously ill.”

Liner covers the days of his hospitalization with openness and humor: “Generally, when getting medical care, I avoid mentioning that I’m a physician. Even experienced providers sometimes have steadier hands when not aware they’re administering to a physician. Or, for that matter, to a malpractice attorney.” (You can read the entire, illuminating piece in the current issue of San Francisco Medicine. It is a significant message to physicians, and an informative and reassuring message to anyone facing hospitalization.)

Liner emerged from more than six months of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and “a lot of drugs” with his B-cell lymphoma in complete remission and a low percentage chance of recurrence. But in addition to the firsthand lessons for physicians and patients about illness, he offers a powerful lesson for all of us about dying – since all of us, patient and doctor alike, do eventually die. Liner and his wife faced that possibility throughout a 36-hour period in which it seemed likely that his disease would, in fact, be terminal; they faced it with “a profound sadness.” But he explains:

“There was nothing irrational about that sadness. Patients who are genuinely terminally ill and who seek physician aid in controlling the time and circumstances of their deaths should not be thought of as irrational or pathologically depressed. If, unexpectedly, my lymphoma recurs, the prognosis would be ‘dismal.’ If that happens, I believe it should be within the scope of ethical, legal medical practice for my doctor to provide me with a lethal prescription – a key to the exit.

“Physician aid in dying is something distinct from suicide. The disease would be killing me. No compelling state interest here. No slippery slope. Only a decision to be made by me as a patient, along with my family and my doctor. As a physician and as a patient, I see this as a fundamental liberty interest and as sound, compassionate practice of the art of medicine. Of, course, where my death is concerned, I’d rather skip the whole thing.”

Wouldn’t we all.