End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

hospice

“Doctor, Please Help me Die”

by Barbara Coombs Lee
May 15, 2013

Dr. Tom Preston, a Compassion & Choices leader in Seattle, chose these poignant words for the title of his new book. They are powerful words, gripping even on paper. Imagine them emerging from the lips of a patient, perhaps one whom the doctor has treated over decades, who is now dying of cancer. They strike right at the core of a physician’s identity, training and moral compass.

Preston knows well that each person, each healer and each caregiver responds to such a request from patient or loved one from the deepest parts of their own authentic being. He begins his book quoting Dumbledore, who in the last Harry Potter book pleaded with Snape to cut his dying short. “You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” the wizard tells his reluctant friend. So it is with every doctor In America. More

Physicians debate whether patients need to know they’re dying

By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
April 25, 2013

In the days when American physicians dispensed oracular commands and their judgments were rarely questioned, a doctor could take it upon himself with few ethical qualms to keep from a patient the bad news of a terminal diagnosis.

For better or worse, those days may be well behind us. But physicians have not ceased debating one of the stickiest and most universal ethical quandaries of medical practice: How, when and why does one inform a patient that he or she is dying? The latest evidence of that ongoing discussion was published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal.

The latest question in the journal’s “Head to Head” feature, “Do patients need to know they are terminally ill?,” essentially pits one side’s reasonable arguments that “we’re all dying” and “you never really know when and of what a patient will die” against another side’s equally compelling assertions that “knowledge allows better decisions” and “a patient can still have hope — to live to see a daughter married or achieve a cherished goal or to die a peaceful death at home.” More

Dedicated to a Cause

by Barbara Coombs Lee
March 26, 2013

Last Wednesday, March 20, the Connecticut Assembly’s Public Health Committee began its consideration of a bill modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. What a day! In my 22 years of legislative work, this hearing was the most grueling — and the most inspiring — I have ever witnessed.  Compassion & Choices volunteers and supporters showed themselves to be as passionate, judicious, intelligent and dedicated as citizens can ever be. They are committed to a world of justice and mercy. And they trust in democracy to make it so.

They came because they want choice and control in their own mortal endings. But mostly, they came for others who could not — their neighbors and loved ones and people unknown to them. They came that others need not suffer against their will, and that all may have the opportunity to face death in comfort and peace of mind. My heart swelled as I sat with them and heard the witness of these decent, altruistic, dedicated people.

The day began early, as aid-in-dying supporters travelled hours to Hartford by bus, car and train to be in line by 7:00 am.  Sign-up began at 9, but being in line by 7 helped ensure an opportunity to speak. The hearing began at 10 and our bill, Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients (HB 6645), came up about noon. Representative Betsy Ritter, the bill’s chief sponsor, spoke with eloquence and authority. Other legislators followed, and then the committee shifted gears and heard unrelated bills.

For many hours our supporters kept each other’s spirits up as they sat patiently through testimony about nursing technicians, dental hygienists, something called advance practice collaboration agreements, and tattoo artist licensure.

Some of our valiant and dedicated supporters just had to leave when their bus departed or their backs gave out. But others stayed until 1 am for their chance to speak. Yes, you read that right — they endured this process from 7 am until 1 am without complaint!!

Here are a just few of the heroes:

Shannon Sanford, a Yale-educated nurse who did her masters thesis on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.  ”Compassion & Choices were great to me when I was working on my thesis.  I can stay to the bitter end,” she told us. She had to, attending the entire 15-hour hearing as the last person to testify at approximately 1:30 am.

It fell to Shannon to present the committee with letters from all over the state. The stack was nearly a foot high, making a thump on the table.

Placing her hand on this tower of paper, Shannon said:  ”I brought my friends who are all in support of House Bill 6645″.  A legislator asked, ”I have to know, how many people signed letters?”  Shannon had a snappy response despite sitting 15 hours in a hearing room:  ”I stopped counting after 1500.”

Hunt Williams traveled over an hour to the state Capitol and waited twelve more to tell his story.

Hunt told the committee the story of his manslaughter arrest for merely cleaning a weapon his terminally ill friend, John Welles, used when he was dying of cancer. Only due to the overwhelming support and advocacy in his community of Cornwall, Connecticut, was Hunt sentenced to accelerated rehabilitation, a process that took over a year. The committee and the entire room sat in complete silence as they listened to Hunt’s riveting experience.

“Thank you sir, thank you for giving testimony.  I think I was taken aback by what you had to say,” a stunned co-chair of the committee, Senator Terry Gerratana, said.

Gloria Blick, aged 91, is a passionate advocate for end-of-life choice, as is her son Dr. Gary Blick.

When called to testify, Gloria and Dr. Blick held hands and both walked confidently to the microphone and sat together supporting each other.  Luckily, Gloria has not had a significant illness, but with her active volunteerism in the senior community, she has witnessed first-hand the pain and suffering of those at end of life, and it disturbs her greatly.

She made it clear to the committee she had been too active and too well to see her life end in a slow, relentless spiral of deterioration. Nor would she want her family, including Dr. Blick, to suffer unnecessarily with her.  ”I would never want to do that to my son,” she said.

Lillian Kaplan sat for hours waiting for her opportunity to speak out in favor of HB 6645, offering moving testimony regarding the difficult and painful death of her son-in-law Steven Kahn, who wanted to die on his own terms.  Lillian read into testimony a letter Steven wrote prior to his death.

“I am writing to you so you will not have to wonder…I’m not asking for your approval, only that you honor my judgment,” he wrote.

At the conclusion of her testimony, the Senate Chair of the Committee respectfully asked her age:  ”Well, in a year and a half I will be 100.”

Lillian, Gloria, Gary and Shannon and so many others showed themselves to be amazing and inspiring advocates. It is an honor to be able to work beside them for choice and control at life’s end.

Aging in America Conference Features Panel on Rise of Unwanted Patient Care

What:  

Aging in America Conference panel sponsored by the Compassion and Choices: “What is Patient- and Family-Centered Care and What Happens When We Fail to Prevent It?” Patient-centered care should not include unwanted medical treatment and unnecessary suffering. Yet millions of Americans with advanced illnesses or who are terminally ill:

  • Suffer needlessly from undertreated pain and other agonizing symptoms;
  • Undergo pointless and costly invasive tests and treatments, often in their last days and hours; and
  • Have their treatment preferences or advance directives ignored or overridden by healthcare professionals and others.

Why:   

A new study published in Feb. in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining Medicare claims data found that between the years 2000 and 2009 treatment in acute care hospitals decreased while the usage of intensive care units (ICU) and healthcare transitions the last month of life increased. An accompanying Journal of American Medical Association editorial, “Changes in End-of-Life Care Over the Past Decade More Not Better,” concluded: “The focus appears to be on providing curative care in the acute hospital regardless of likelihood of benefit or preferences of patients. If programs aimed at reducing unnecessary care are to be successful, patients’ goals of care must be elicited and treatment options such as palliative and hospice care offered earlier in the process than is the current norm.”

Who:  

Mickey MacIntyre, Chief Program Officer, Compassion & Choices (read his testimony about how unwanted medical treatment at life’s end causes needless costly suffering before the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Transforming End-of-Life Cares);
Lynn Feinberg, MSW, Sr. Strategic Policy Advisor, AARP Public Policy Institute;
Brian Lindberg, MMHS, Exec. Dir., Consumer Coalition for Quality Health Care;
Andrew MacPherson, Director of Government Affairs at Jennings Policy Strategies Inc.

Where:

Crystal C (West Tower/Green Level), Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Wacker Dr.

When:  

Friday, March 15, 1pm-2pm CT. If you cannot attend panel but want an interview Tuesday (March 12) Wednesday (March 13), Thursday (March 14) or Friday (March 15) with Compassion & Choices Chief Program Officer Mickey MacIntyre, please contact Sean Crowley: 202-550-6524, seancrowley57@gmail.com.

How:   

If you want to attend panel, but have not registered yet for the Aging in America Conference, please contact Jutka Mándoki: jutkam@asaging.org, 312-239-4834.

Intense Treatment in the Last Month of Life Is Rising

by Barbara Coombs Lee
March 4, 2013

One Question Can Stop End-of-Life Torture

Several weeks ago Brown University’s Dr. Joan Teno and her Dartmouth colleagues published a study on end-of-life care in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They looked at the records of almost 850,000 Medicare beneficiaries who died between 2000 – 2009, and first found good news on hospice utilization. A closer look revealed the bad news. I believe healthcare consumers could escape the intractable problem they discovered with one timely question.

First the good news: The percentage of our nation’s elders dying under hospice care doubled in ten years, from 21.6% to 42.3%. If patients close to death received more of the comfort-directed care of hospice and less of the highly invasive, painful and burdensome treatment of intensive care units (ICUs), that would be very good news indeed. Needless suffering would have diminished.

But when the investigators looked at the period immediately preceding referral to hospice, they found a picture of torture and chaos. More people than ever received intense interventions, and the median number of disruptive moves from one institution to another grew from 2.1 to 3.1. ICU stays in the last month of life increased from 24% to 29% and ventilator use also increased, from 8% to 9%. Very sick elders, just weeks from death, are still subjected to intensive and aggressive treatments. Doctors are apparently using more machines and tubes than ever, redoubling efforts to turn around a final medical crisis or forestall death.

The data indicates that when doctors finally accept the inevitable, the end is imminent. 28% of patients received the comfort and care of hospice less than four days. This is a travesty. I would categorize such a last-minute, desperate transfer of a patient to hospice services as “dumping.”  These unfortunate patients didn’t receive comfort care instead of medical tortures. They received the maximum allotment of technological interventions and then got shunted to hospice to die.

Such transfers come too late for a family to realize the enormous relief and peace of mind that comes with knowing a loved one’s comfort comes first.  It’s too late for hospice social workers to do a thorough assessment of a patient and family’s social, emotional and spiritual needs. It’s barely enough time to administer and titrate medications for maximum relief of pain, anxiety, breathlessness and other distressing symptoms.

I would venture a guess that most of the patients in this study who suffered stays in an intensive care unit immediately before transfer to hospice had advance directives. (61% of such patients do.)  I would further guess that most of those advance directives said the patient wanted to limit life-sustaining therapies like CPR, ventilators and other rescue treatments if they were terminally ill. (Most people who fill out advance directives decline interventions if they are dying)

What is going on here? Why were these dying patients treated in violation of their stated preferences and the instructions on their advance directive?

Here’s one reason: The advance directive says, essentially, “no life-sustaining treatment if I am dying.”  But left to their own habits and sensibilities, doctors define “dying” very, very narrowly. So long as some technology, futile or not, remains in Medicine’s bag of tricks, the patient is not “dying.” In this sense, doctors are like a procrastinator putting a task off until tomorrow and believing that, technically speaking, “tomorrow” never comes.

Educators and health policy gurus have spent decades and hundreds of millions trying to turn physician behavior around. This latest study reveals not only abject failure, but lost ground as well. It’s up to the people — those approaching the end of life and those who love them — to prevent medical habit from stealing a peaceful death.

We can change medical habit by applying a reasonable definition of “dying” for ourselves.  We can save ourselves from torture by getting doctors to admit when we are likely to die within 6 months with or without treatment, or are unlikely to survive a hospitalization. That admission should give force to patients’ preferences for the end of life, or to the advance directive if they cannot speak.  But it’s up to us to call the question.

I believe we must muster the courage to ask directly, “Doctor, am I dying?” “Is my mother, father, sister, spouse, or other loved one — dying?”  “Has the time of our careful planning arrived?  Shall we avoid the trap of acting as though the inevitable will never come? Because if scientific calculations say I am likely to die during this hospitalization, I would rather die at home. If the odds are intensive care offers nothing but prolonged suffering, please refer me to hospice now.”

Facing pointed questions like this, doctors will almost always tell the truth.  They are very bad at starting a serious conversation about the end of life, but they can usually participate if they know a patient or family takes end-of-life planning seriously.

Sadly, we must take it upon ourselves to avoid being one of Dr. Teno’s dismal statistics. If the end of a battle with cancer, chronic lung disease or dementia seems to be approaching, prepare yourself to ask the crucial question BEFORE a hospital admission.  Ask it in the medical office. Ask it in the emergency room. Practice asking it before you actually have to utter the words.  “Doctor, am I dying?”