Cycles of Living and Dying . . .

Sebastian entered the world eight weeks ahead of schedule, weighing all of two pounds. His lineage is Korean/African American/German, which may offer an insight into how determined, individualistic and utterly beautiful he is. He had emerged from NICU (the neonatal unit at Kaiser) and gotten his fighting weight up to nearly six pounds when he first came to visit my husband Bud.

Bud w Sebastian 1.3.19
Sebastian (unimpressed) meets his honorary grandfather

That was about mid-January. In early February, about the 11th, Bud’s congestive heart failure of many decades took a sudden downward turn, and by Valentine’s Day he was in his last hours of life on this planet. Sebastian came to visit – well, he brought his parents too, but they are not central to this story.

His mom plunked Sebastian onto Bud’s chest, as he lay breathing heavily on his hospital bed, red balloons snagged from the downstairs dining room floating around. The last deliberate movement I can associate with my husband as he died was his left arm making a sort-of patting gesture toward the tiny pajama-clad bundle of new life on his chest.

We should all sign up for this: old life ending as new life begins. Seeing life as a natural continuum might not make much difference as we enter, but it could help us take more control of our exit – simply by confronting the fact that we will indeed exit. I like to think that my husband’s last moments were somehow heartened by the certainty that life does, and will, go on.

Bud was fortunate in other ways. Having reached his 90th year, he had been vocal about his readiness to die and had expressed his wishes clearly in writing. There are many good options now: hospice or palliative care, enforceable documents like DNRs and POLST forms (Do Not Resuscitate, Physicians Order for Life Sustaining Treatment,) etc. POLST formAnd in a growing number of states there is a right to confront mortality by hastening one’s dying. In California where I live there is the End of Life Option Act which gives terminally ill, mentally competent adults the right to ask their physician for life-ending medication. For many, that is a way to meet life’s end with extraordinary peace.

A relatively new organization, End of Life Choices CA, is part of this continuum, this big picture of Birth/Life/Death/Peace. EOLCCA provides information and personal support re  California’s End of Life Option Act and all other legal end of life options. It is among several nonprofits dealing with critical aspects of end-of-life care – and helping us all see more clearly that death, like birth, is a universal experience.

When training, recently, to be an EOLCCA volunteer I met a remarkable fellow volunteer named Lori Goldwyn, who may understand both ends of this continuum as well as anyone around. After earning an M.S. degree in Education and working in women’s health for several years, Lori had a homebirth 30 years ago that led her to become a childbirth educator and labor doula. “I came to believe in the value of supporting the natural process as much as possible,” she says, “for both the mother’s and her baby’s sake. A woman in labor contends not only with the pain of labor,” Lori adds, “but with the intensity of realizing that there’s no way out. She can’t escape, quit or divorce this one. The only way out – as is true with the rest of life – is through.”

Eventually the link between natural birth and natural death became clear. “While being with my mother in an inpatient hospice in 2010,” Lori says, “I was struck by the similarities between the birthing and dying experiences.” That epiphany led to her working in hospice and palliative care, as an End of Life Doula, and now also as a volunteer with EOLCCA. Her website, Comings and Goings, reasserts the validity of this continuum with this subtitle about Doulas: Caregivers to those on the threshold points of our Earthly existence.Moon & clouds

“When we get that terminal prognosis, or as we lie dying,” Lori says, “there’s no escaping this reality, this ultimate inevitability.” She quotes the Italian director Federico Fellini: “All we can do is try to become aware that we are part of this unfathomable mystery. We are a mystery among mysteries.”

As he grows, I think Sebastian will also understand this mystery, this continuum, as well as anyone. Sebastian started off in a softly-lit incubator watched over by his mother, a nurse. Weeks later, his honorary grandfather was leaving the planet. And they were able to trade greetings on their journeys.

 

 

Patients fight hospitals (& not just Catholic hospitals) for proper care

“Suppose I wind up being taken to a hospital,” said the lady with the penetrating blue eyes and a lovely, long braid over her shoulder. “How can I keep them from doing all those things I don’t want — ventilators, feeding tubes…?”

The lady with the lush braid was among a small group of retirement community residents with whom I spoke yesterday about end of life choices. None of them fear death. All of them fear aggressive, unwanted treatment. A colleague and I had been invited to talk with them about documents (advance directives, POLST forms, etc) and legal measures that can help insure a compassionate end. But the distressing reality is that there are no guarantees.

This is where we are with health care: patients having to fight against doctors, hospitals, systems — and directives from Bishops — for the right to die in peace.

A recent Kaiser Health News article (KHN is a publication of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and unrelated to Kaiser Permanente) cited problems arising from directives to Catholic hospitals about a variety of issues. The directives, issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, changed the policy on feeding tubes, for example, from “presumption in favor of”  to an “obligation.”

“This obligation,” the bishops said, “extends to patients in chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” such as persistent vegetative state, who might live for many years if given such care. A feeding tube is not required, however, if it wouldn’t prolong life, would be “excessively burdensome for the patient,” or would “cause significant physical discomfort.”The directive raises fresh questions about the ability of patients to have their end-of-life treatment wishes honored — and whether and how a health care provider should comply with lawful requests not consistent with the provider’s religious views. Hospitals and nursing homes do not have to comply with requests that are “contrary to Catholic moral teaching,” according to longstanding policy that, as in the case of the revised directive, applies to non-Catholic patients as well.

As the women in our group yesterday understand, you can wind up with unwanted treatment in all sorts of circumstances, not just when you’re dying.

Dr. Lachlan Forrow, a Harvard University medical ethicist and palliative care specialist, expressed strong concern about the new policy, stressing its potentially broad scope. “That gets to be a very, very large number of people,” said Forrow, who heads a panel developing recommendations for the state of Massachusetts on end-of-life care.

(A)ccording to Catholic officials and outside experts, the directive may well apply to a wider range of patients, those that it describes as having “chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” though the organization representing Catholic health facilities downplays the impact. Experts say this affected group could include those with massive strokes, advanced Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

If a patient or family didn’t want a feeding tube “and the reason they don’t want it is they basically want to die, then the Catholic institution would explain to them they can’t cooperate with that and they would have to go to another institution,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the bishops’ conference, who helped draft the policy.

Weinandy said “obviously the public should know what the directives say,” and patients and relatives “can easily download the directives or get a copy.”

Oh, sure. The EMT people are loading mom into the ambulance, and you ask them to wait until you download a few pages of papal edicts.

In the days before she died two weeks ago (in a non-Catholic hospital) my sister Jane occasionally showed signs that, though sleeping, she might be experiencing pain. My niece, who was keeping round-the-clock watch over her mother, more than once asked the attending physician for additional pain medication and was told, in a “There, there now, dear” voice that “We can’t hasten!!” My niece is a tenured law school professor.

Doctors make a lot of fuss about that “First, do no harm” business in the Hippocratic oath. Is withholding pain medication because it might cause death a few hours sooner than later doing no harm? Is inflicting painful, unwanted and unwarranted interventions for some obscure religious reason doing no harm?

Catholic Directive May Thwart End-Of-Life Wishes – Kaiser Health News.

The Public Option Death Panel

Here’s a death panel even Sarah Palin could love — but maybe we’d better not tell her. You, however, will probably understand its value and possibly want to put it to work for your own benefit. It centers around a form called POLST, for Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (in New York it’s MOLST, for Medical Orders) fast catching on across the country. The panel consists, essentially, of your doctor and yourself.

Initially developed in Oregon in 1991, POLST programs are underway in a handfull of states including Washington, California, New York and North Carolina, and are being developed in over a dozen others.

Erin Henke, POLST Program Manager for the California Coalition for Compassionate Care, outlined the program for a group of healthcare professionals this week in San Francisco, part of CCCC’s efforts to get it efficiently established across the state. The key, she emphasized, is the conversation between individual patient and medical professionals. You don’t get the form signed, in other words, unless and until patient and physician have discussed what the former wants: CPR if you’re not breathing? Feeding tube? Comfort care only, if you’re in bad shape, but you’ve got a pulse and are breathing? Or perhaps every intervention possible — tubes, wires, ventilators, the works, including transfer to a hospital intensive care unit. But the point is, you make your own decisions. Once the form is completed and signed, it follows you as part of your medical record. In California it’s printed on Pulsar Pink card stock, and not easy to overlook.

Rollout of the program, Henke explained, is an ongoing process; it will only work when it is widely known and understood not only by individual patients and physicians but also by the many other members of the profession — nurses, caregivers, ER personnel and others. CCCC’s focus right now is on skilled nursing facilities and hospitals, though Henke and the teams of POLST program advocates around the state are working toward a broad educational spectrum.

The basic POLST approach, as explained in a Journal of Palliative Medicine article by Diane E. Meier, M.D. and health care journalist Larry Beresford published earlier this year, is to provide “actionable information on how to honor the wishes of a patient with a life-threatening condition” on a variety of issues. It goes farther than an Advance Directive (though if there’s a discrepancy, the Advance Directive takes precedence) and it differs from an out-of-hospital DNR (Do Not Resusitate) form because it lets you choose treatment.

I asked Henke if the patient/doctor conversation which is necessary in order for this extraordinarily useful document to be completed is covered by most insurance companies. She says that to her knowledge there is no specific code for such a conversation, although she understands there are other codes under which physicians can bill. Let’s hope Betsy McCaughey and Sarah Palin don’t find out. Or Chuck Grassley.

Though I am only terminal just now in the same sense that all of us mortals are, I talked about the POLST form with my Kaiser primary care physician just to be sure we remain on the same page. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had that same opportunity.

What to do about Mom?

My friend Joan is distressed about her mother.   Joan – that’s an alias, we both value her privacy – lives quite near her parents, visits regularly, helps out with finances, health issues and everyday needs. They are in their late eighties. Other siblings live in other states. Until recently everything was fine; now the parents are in separate areas of their assisted living residence, Joan’s mother is in frequent despair and need. What’s a daughter to do?

This story is being repeated thousands of times every day across the country. Only this story has a peculiar twist: Joan’s parents did everything right. They lived frugally, planned ahead, raised their children to be successful and independent, moved early into a retirement community which offers care through illnesses minor and terminal. With Joan’s help they kept their affairs in order, including updated advance directives. (You don’t have your advance directives done? Horrors. Let me know and I will be at your door, cyberspacially speaking, to walk you through them immediately.) Joan’s parents were among early advocates for advance planning and end-of-life choice.

Joan comments: “Frankly, Mother is tired of being alive.  She’s not depressed, just ‘finished’, especially as she sees these slow declines in her quality of life as a steady and inevitable progression.  Her greatest desire would be to have a massive stroke and not survive.  But then her greatest nightmare would be to have a stroke and live . . . Even with the best advanced directives reflecting her choices, that’s a fine line to navigate.”

The moral of this story is that no amount of planning and preparation can guarantee the kinds of last months and years we might want. My own mother died peacefully at home, followed 20 years later by my father, same story. But that was in 1967 and 1987, in the small town of Ashland, Virginia where they had lived since 1939. The town looked after them; their out-of-state daughters merely visited and counted their blessings. Towns and neighborhoods like Ashland are in diminishing supply.

But all is not gloom and doom; this writer is constitutionally unable to write doom and gloom. Joan is at least clear about her parents’ wishes, and her parents have good care plus all allowable precautions: DNR orders, POLST forms, understandings with their medical professionals. Most of these are possible for today’s Boomers and their Beyonder parents; if you can’t find them I’ll happily tell you how. Joan’s parents are also in housing of their choice. And those choices are many: co-housing, retirement communities, assisted living facilities, many of them available to middle and low income Americans. Anyone over 50 who thinks he or she should postpone considering all of these issues, documents and choices until next year is delusional. Essays re housing choices have appeared in earlier Boomers and Beyond posts; others will follow. The secondary moral of this story is that without planning, late years can quickly turn into hell for elderly parents and adult children alike.

What we don’t have, of course, is health care such as Joan’s parents still enjoy for others who need it. The thing is, we can.

Affordable Health Reform

It was actually spoken out loud on NewsHour Friday night: we could have a workable, affordable healthcare system if we would address the excessive costs that go into the last six months of life, particularly the last few days. The remark was immediately followed by the standard caveat: of course, no one is going to suggest doing this.

Good grief, why not? Everybody knows it, a few others have even said it out loud. Sure, it’s political suicide, but if someone were ever brave enough to fall on that particular sword there would be a lot of people around to pull out the sword, cleanse the wound and stand him or her back upright.

It could be done. If individual choice were encouraged and enabled. If physicians had to be honest about the quality of life (if any, usually for a few days or weeks) being bought with aggressive treatment at life’s end. If futile treatment were avoided. If protections were put in place for physicians and hospitals complying with the above, since fear of lawsuit is behind most of the mess. If all of us began to look at — and make clear — what extreme measures we would or would not want.

Big ifs. But the reward would be a workable, affordable system.

A Novel Idea for Healthcare Reform

Not long ago I attended an event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, featuring a speech by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer. Dr. Romer’s talk, “The Great Credit Freeze and the U.S. Economy,” was all about improving healthcare while slowing down the growth of its cost. We know we can’t reduce costs, she said; what we hope to do is reduce the rate of increase. And one way to contain healthcare costs might be to find out what the patient wants. Imagine.

This observation was not in direct response to a question, but could well have been. Dr. Romer was asked, by more than one audience member, about how to address excessive expenditures at the beginning and end of life. A grossly disproportionate share of costs, she conceded, “are spent on the last six months of life. And one thing we’re not doing enough of is letting patients express what they want.”

If the issue were not so grim and sorrowful it would call for a “Well, duh.”

It would be hard to find many people saying they’d like their last few days on this planet to be spent semi-conscious or in pain and distress, hooked up to a tangle of wires and tubes in a blue-lit hospital room (see Scott Bowen’s post 7/14.) But this is in fact the system we have created: we focus on prolongation of life without regard to quality, we aid and abet doctors who equate death with failure, we never talk about our own mortality as if in silence we can become immortal. Most of us would choose to die at home, properly medicated for pain and surrounded by our loved ones; most of us will die in an institution

Audience members had a wide assortment of questions, and Dr. Romer had plenty more to say. But finding out what the patient wants, and acting accordingly, is surely one excellent path towards better care – and even contained cost growth — and everyone in America could begin that process today.

It is an easy solution, even if only a small, partial solution, to this piece of the muddled medi-puzzle of our healthcare system: talk. Tell your doctors, caregivers, loved ones what you do or don’t want. Write it down. Use the forms universally available (Advance Directives, POLST, others.) You might even wind up with what you actually want in your final days. Christina Romer is on your side.