by Paula Span
The New York Times
October 24, 2012
Your relative has spent five days in a hospital intensive care unit, unable to breathe without a ventilator and incapable of making her own medical decisions. Because she appointed you her health care proxy, or simply because you’re her closest relative, the choices about treatments — trying them or stopping them — fall to you.
It’s not a hypothetical situation: One-fourth of elderly people die in an I.C.U. A patient in intensive care on a ventilator probably requires a feeding tube, a catheter, various IV lines. Perhaps her doctors are suggesting dialysis or recommending surgery. There are many choices to be made.
To act as her surrogate is a daunting proposition. “It’s incredibly intense to not only be confronted with loved ones at death’s door, but to have to make treatment decisions you hope are in their best interests — and sometimes you’re not sure,” said Douglas White, a bioethicist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who has studied end-of-life decision-making for years.
Discussions about the end of life, when they happen at all, often focus on what would happen if someone becomes irreversibly comatose or faces a terminal disease. But the victim of a severe stroke, for instance, may remain extremely impaired, physically and mentally, and institutionalized for the rest of her life — yet still be semiconscious.
“Is this a state in which a person would want to be kept alive?” Dr. White said. “It’s a tough question to answer.” More