Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Archive for the ‘Comfort Care’ Category

“Do Nothing” and “Last Minute Care”…Oh my!

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There is a lot of misinformation out there about palliative care and hospice. I just read an interesting blog post. In it, Dr. Cynthia X. Pan describes how she entered “palliative care” in Google Translate and got Chinese characters back. She then translated those characters back into English, and it came back: “do nothing care.”

Wait… there’s more. She did the same thing with “hospice” and it came back as “last minute care.”

This not just a problem with Google Translate or the Chinese language. A lot of people think this about these very appropriate and helpful medical care approaches. I remember back in my nursing home chaplain days when I was just getting my start talking to patients and families about “No CPR” orders I learned an early lesson.

Families and patients hear, “No Care” when you say “No CPR.” They might say, “You mean when mom is dying you are going to just do NOTHING!”

We do lots for dying patients

So, I started leading the conversation with “We do lots for dying patients. We keep them clean and dry. If they are having a hard time breathing, we clear their airway and give them oxygen. We give them pain medications. You can be here to comfort your mom, even get up in bed with her. We just are not going to beat on her chest when her heart stops. That is what the ‘No CPR’ order is about.”

But like Google translator many people hear, “palliative care” and think “do nothing care.” Palliative care is very aggressive keeping a patient comfortable and meeting social and spiritual needs.

Likewise, so many people think hospice is for the last day or two of life, even though Medicare offers to cover a patient for six months (or more). Late referrals are a real problem in hospice. We do our best work if we have, at least, weeks if not months to care for a patient. More time means better pain control, getting the most appropriate equipment into the home, more time for social and spiritual support.

So help me get the word out there. Palliative care is LOTS of care and hospice care is MONTHS of care.

Update: Google Translate seems to have fixed both translations. Progress!

Slow Down, You Are Doing Too Much

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“Let her go in peace,” was my bottom-line message.

ER trips, IV antibiotics, bulb syringes … all had become extraordinary measures … in my view.

A woman called me out of the blue yesterday. A hospice worker had given her my Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Artificial Feeding, Comfort Care, and the Patient with a Life-Threatening Illness. I am not exactly sure what she wanted from me as she talked rapidly and pretty much constantly through our close to an hour on the phone.

This never-married woman was the primary caregiver for her 96-year-old mother. The old lady had suffered strokes and dementia was advancing. Because of the swallowing difficulty the daughter was forcing food into her mother’s mouth with a bulb syringe. This is a rubber device, shaped like a tear drop. You suck food into the bulb then stick the narrow end into the patient’s mouth and force the contents out.

Medical professionals encouraged the daughter to slow down

It sounds like the medical professionals in both hospice and the hospital have encouraged the daughter to slow down. But she has sent her mom to the ER three times over the last several weeks. “Maybe if they just give her some IV hydration she would start eating better,” her logic went.

Having listened for about a half hour I asked her, “What is the future for your mother?”

“She is dying.”

Bingo. She said what I was hoping for. In hundreds of such conversations over the years I have asked questions to help caregivers come to their own conclusion about the big picture.

Dying people stop eating and drinking at the end of life. Dying people probably will dehydrate leading to a more peaceful and compassionate death. Dying people talk less and sleep more. Dying people can get aspiration pneumonia once known as “the old man’s friend.”

“I feel so guilty all the time”

Then the lady moved into my chaplain’s area. “I feel so guilty all the time.” She wept.

“Guilty? For what?” Caregiver guilt is not uncommon.

Once, when she mentioned to a doctor she felt guilty for not doing enough, he said, “If you want to feel guilty about something, feel guilty for doing all this to your mother.” I wouldn’t have said it that way. But basically I suggested she start doing less.

I recommended that if she wanted her mother to have a peaceful death at home she not call the rescue squad, she not use antibiotics for aspiration pneumonia, and maybe stop using the bulb syringe. Oh…and she stop feeling guilty.

I actually have little hope she will stop feeling guilty as it has been her constant companion since childhood she told me. But I did tell her, “You can never make a wrong decision. You do the best you can with the information you have at the time. That is all we can ask of anyone. Maybe later will you look back and see how things could have been done differently. But in the moment you just do the best you can.”

 

Photo by Anwaar Ali on Unsplash

Review of Two “Hospice” Media Events

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Here is an article reviewing a This American Life radio program featuring a hospice nurse and an HBO special about a hospice in a prison. Well thought out observations about both identifying with dying patients and NOT identifying with them.

http://www.mcknights.com/this-american-life-and-death-superb-shows-about-hospice/article/344499/

 

A Tale of Two Docs

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There are the best of doctors for end-of-life care and the worst of doctors for end-of-life care.

In my last blog I told the story of two physicians. Dr. Rogers took care of my mother in the last months of her life. He is among the best of doctors for this phase of life. The other doc, I’ll call Dr. Smith, was among the not-so-good ones. I will repeat my short story:

The other doc was among the not-so-good ones

. . . I had a patient once at the nursing home whose dementia had advanced to the point where he did not know his wife, wandered the halls, and urinated in the corners. He had a long and proud career in the FBI and was now reduced to living most people’s worst nightmare. I suggested to his wife that she speak with the physician about a “No CPR” order. She reported back to me that when she requested the order, the doctor hesitated and referred to me as the “chaplain of death.”

I was shocked. Here I had done the hard work for him in addressing the emotional and spiritual issues and sent a caregiver to him requesting what, in my view, was a most appropriate order. If this patient could see himself and have a right mind, I was certain, and so was his wife, that he would welcome death. His heart stopping was the only way to be free from the dementia ravaging his mind. . . .

I am sure Dr. Smith is a fine doctor in many ways. He probably took good care of this nursing home patient. He just seemed uneasy making the shift to “comfort care only” as this patient moved toward the end of his life.

What makes the difference between the best docs and the ones who have room for improvement?

First, Dr. Rogers was more patient-centered. He tried to ascertain what my mother would have wanted and how she felt about her current condition. “How did your mother feel about her dementia?” he opened the conversation.

I wasn’t in the room with Dr. Smith and the wife of the advanced Alzheimer’s patient at the nursing home, but it appears he was more interested in treatment orders. If he had just stopped to inquire about what the patient might have wanted, he could have spared the wife from feeling like she was asking for a death sentence.

Secondly, Dr. Rogers offered his professional opinion based his experience and a “best practices” approach at the end of life. Once he had us establish what Mom’s feelings about advanced dementia were, he told us what was needed to reach the goals of mom’s care.

The wife of the Alzheimer’s patient needed the advice of a doctor who could tell her about the limited effectiveness of CPR and the appropriateness of a “No CPR” order. She got that information from me and the doc belittled my contribution.

Lastly, Dr. Rogers saw death as the inevitable end of the course of treatment following my mom’s fractured hip. He could not stop her death although he could have recommended a treatment plan that could have prolonged her dying. She could have been sent to the hospital for hip surgery, IVs, and perhaps a feeding tube. She could have been with us for a longer amount of time. But she was going to die sooner or later as a result of this fractured hip and the advanced dementia.

Dr. Smith seemed to think death could be stopped or at least postponed. If he read the medical literature he should have known that CPR offers no hope of saving the life of this patient. Good medical care has a lot to offer patients at the end of their lives. Dr. Smith could have sought to keep the patient comfortable rather than trying to stop death with resuscitation attempts.

The Dr. Smith’s of this world are not bad people . . . maybe not even bad doctors. They just need to see death as part of life and that the physician has a role in making a passing as comfortable as can be.

“How did your mom feel about her dementia?”

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I have just spent the last days at my mom’s bedside, in meetings with physicians, having discussions with hospice nurses, and in dialog with my brother and sister. Mom has been on a downhill slide for seven or eight years . . . probably Alzheimer’s.

“I don’t like what is happening to me.”

Her’s was a very normal course of the disease. At first she lost things. She asked the same question every five minutes. She made scores of contributions to bogus “charity” organizations—something she had never done before. She voluntarily, although reluctantly, gave up driving. As these incidents started to repeat themselves, more than once, mom said, “I don’t like what is happening to me.”

Then she had to stop volunteering at the Moffitt Cancer Center . . . a job she loved for 22 years. There were trips to the hospital. During recovery from one such trip she said, “I think it is time to move into the assisted living.” My siblings and I jumped all over that and made the move in a few days.

She got her strength back and took to walking again. Most of the time it was quite harmless. But she did end up at nearby shopping mall once. Worried for her safety we agreed mom needed an alarm device attached to her ankle to keep her from wondering out of the building. If she approached the door an alarm would sound. Very embarrassing for her. She told the assisted living staff after several of the attempted escapes, “I wish I had a gun. I would kill myself.”

Of course, psych evaluations followed each of these outbursts and upon examination mom could not even remember saying such a thing or the embarrassing alarm that led to her despair. She got more depressed. Drank more wine. Lost interest in activities.

After she fell and broke her pelvis in the spring she entered hospice care.

So we moved her to be closer to my sister in Boulder, Colorado. We found a great dementia care center where she has lived the last fifteen months. The wanderings ceased to be a problem partly because of the layout of the building and partly because her mobility became so limited. The ruthless disease led to a general decline in her health. After she fell and broke her pelvis in the spring she entered hospice care.

So typical, in my experience, she actually improved after hospice got involved. The dementia moved forward but there was some upturn in her general health. Then it happened as I had expected. She fell and broke her hip. We refused a trip to the emergency room. They brought in a portable x-ray and confirmed the diagnosis. What to do next?

Thousands of elderly folks fall, break a hip, have hip surgery, go through rehab, and walk again. My sister found a story on the internet about a 105-year-old woman who successfully went through this course of treatment and fully recovered. Mom was only 92.

But mom did not have the mental capacity to rehab even if she could survive surgery. Oh . . . and she wasn’t walking unassisted BEFORE the fall. Why the hospital, the surgery, possible infection? For what end? Half of advance dementia patients who receive such surgery are dead in six months or less. My years as a nursing home chaplain taught me anecdotally that a hip fracture was the beginning of the end for most nursing home residents. My suspicions have since been confirmed with the research.

“How did your mother feel about her dementia?”

So my sister and I sat with a very competent, no nonsense, physician, Dr. Rogers, to plan out the course of treatment four days after the fracture. He started the conversation with a question. “How did your mother feel about her dementia?” My sister told me later she did not get the point of the question. I was thinking, “This guy is good.” He wanted to know mom’s opinion of her condition before the fall. We told him about “I don’t like what is happening to me,” and “I wish I could kill myself.”

He said, “Okay. Here is what we are going to do.” He looked at the very long med list and said, “We are going to stop all these medications except the morphine and add a drug for anxiety. We will offer her fluids but not force anything on her. Comfort is our goal.” He took mom’s desire to be free from a life with a mind that had been lost as an advance directive for comfort care only. We had no wish to hasten death or cause it. We were just letting things be.

Why would we think the patient would want to be saved from death?

If a patient is not happy with their life before a crisis, why would we think they would want to be saved from death? Death will happen to all of us. And when we are burdened with years of disability, disease, and dementia, why oh why would we want to put off the death we welcome? I can’t tell you the number of patients, in the same situation as my mother, who are rushed to the hospital and their lives are saved for months or years of ever worsening conditions.

The doctor hesitated and referred to me as the “chaplain of death.”

I had a patient once at the nursing home whose dementia had advanced to the point where he did not know his wife, wandered the halls, and urinated in the corners. He had a long and proud career in the FBI and was now reduced to living most people’s worst nightmare. I suggested to his wife that she speak with the physician about a “No CPR” order. She reported back to me that when she requested the order, the doctor hesitated and referred to me as the “chaplain of death.”

I was shocked. Here I had done the hard work for him in addressing the emotional and spiritual issues and sent a caregiver to him requesting what, in my view, was a most appropriate order. If this patient could see himself and have a right mind, I am certain, and so was his wife, that he would welcome death. His heart stopping was the only way to be free from the dementia ravaging his mind.

God bless the Dr. Rogerses in this world who start with trying to establish how the patient feels about their condition. If the patient would see death as a welcome release then the treatment plan that allows a natural, timely death to occur would only make sense.

Mom died peacefully eleven days after the hip fracture.

When Are We Dying?

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Boulder, Colorado

I am here visiting my mother who is closer to the end of life with Alzheimer’s. We moved her here from Tampa a year ago so my sister could be an “in-town” caregiver. My brother and I travel to Colorado every few months to see mom and support my sister, he from Florida and me from Virginia.

Thinking that we all are “dying” is not so helpful

I say “closer” which is not such a helpful term as we all are closer to our dying than we were. So we are all “dying.” Every one of us will die sooner or later. But thinking of us all as “dying” may not be helpful in making treatment decisions.

We make different medical choices for the young and healthy than we do for the old and infirm. When we are young and otherwise healthy, aggressive medical treatment to cure a cancer caught in its early stages seems quite appropriate. Wait a minute! I thought I said we are all dying so why would we treat a dying person to cure cancer. See . . . thinking that we all are “dying” is not so helpful in making treatment decisions.

So, mom, age 92, has been going through the stages of dementia for at least seven years. We have taken over her finances, her medical treatment decisions, even the move to Boulder was all ours. We didn’t even pretend that she had a say in the matter.

When do we say she is dying? I have observed in my years as a healthcare chaplain that we reserve the word “dying” for the last hours or days of a person’s life. Sometimes we even say a patient is “actively dying” which is a strange oxymoron. Often this type patient is nonresponsive, not eating nor drinking . . . doing nothing . . . and we say actively dying. What’s that about?

“The last phase of life,” can last from hours to years.

I now characterize my mother’s condition and those like her as being in “the last phase of life.” This phase can last from hours to years. Like my father before her, my mom indeed has been in this phase for years. Being in the “last phase” informs our decisions about her care. Our goal for her at this stage of life, following her instructions, is to prepare for a comfortable and dignified death.

My friend Dr. Joanne Lynn instructs her physician colleagues to ask themselves, “If I heard that this patient had died in the next six months, would I say to myself ‘I am not surprised’?” If someone’s death would not be surprising then they are in the “last phase.” In addition, they probably would qualify for hospice.

Decisions are easier in the last phase when we are looking to prepare for a comfortable and dignified death. Hospitalization, CPR, surgery, a feeding tube . . . all highly unlikely to be compatible with a comfort goal.

Medical decisions may be easier but the emotional and spiritual work continues. It has been hard to watch our once vital and fun-loving mother wither into a shell of her former self. We have been grieving. But we are very much at ease with the goal of comfort care in this last phase of life.

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