“I made a mistake. Made the wrong decision,” the wife of the recently deceased man said.
Last Friday I was speaking at the Centra Hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the room were fifty or so clergy types along with physicians, nurses, social workers and just plain folks. I divided my presentation with the first half devoted to helping patients and families make end-of-life decisions. Later I turned to the emotional and spiritual issues at the end of life.
A lady raised her hand and told this story. She has a friend whose husband had been in a nursing home and on a feeding tube. He was not considered to have the capacity to make his own medical decisions so all the medical treatment decisions rested on his wife. On more than one occasion the patient pulled out the feeding tube.
This friend suggested to the wife that perhaps the patient was saying he did not want the feeding tube. The wife always responded, “He doesn’t know what he is doing.” The tube was always reinserted and the feedings were resumed.
About six months after the patient died the friend was visiting with the wife. The wife said, “I made a mistake. Made a wrong decision. I should have left the tube out and let him die sooner.”
At times I have heard other family caregivers express similar regrets about decisions that were made. “We shouldn’t have sent mom back to the I.C.U.” “I wish we had never started the feeding tube.” “We kept the chemo going way too long.”
When I hear remorse like this I always tell people, “You can never make the wrong decision. You make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time.” I have never, in my 28 years of being close to decision-makers, thought someone made a decision with the intention of harming a patient. People always want the best for the patient. It is only in looking back that they say a decision was a mistake.
I even say “you can’t make a wrong decision” to people who are in the throes of a decision-making process. I hope to ease the burden they are placing on themselves. These choices can be hard enough. I want to assure these burdened families they can’t make a wrong decision. You just do the best you can with the information you have at the time.