Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"It'll break her ribs": Checking boxes on the Code Blue Sushi Menu

For more reasons than I wish to enumerate here, the discussions of death and dying that physicians are having with patients at the end of life are so simplistic, myopic, confused, and lacking in nuance that they resemble a theater of the absurd.
The implications for individual patient care and health care in general are weighty indeed, but I will defer their statement to other commentators or other posts.  Herein, I review some of the absurd elements of the approaches I often see used to broach the topic of decision making at the end of life, and offer some (admittedly vague) suggestions about how this sorry state of affairs can be improved upon.
Let us begin with what has been called the "Chinese Menu" for "Code Status".  I prefer to call it a Sushi Menu.  I should pause to explain terminology.  When a patient dies in the hospital (we have various euphemisms for death in the hospital - "passing", "coding", "full arrest" [curiously, there is no "partial arrest"], etc. - but the key point which we must confront directly - not tangentially - is that people do eventually die) a "Code Blue" is called overhead.  Code blue called overhead on the hospital PA system activates a team of various hospital employees of sundry disciplines, who respond and attempt to resuscitate him.  A patient's "Code Status" is medical jargon that signals to that team what the patient wants them to do in the event that they die in the hospital. In the simplest of its various forms Code Status is dichotomized to either "Full Code" meaning the patient has directed the team to "do everything" that is reasonable to resuscitate him; or to "DNR/DNI" which means Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate - that is, do not intervene and allow the patient to die naturally in the event that they stop breathing or their heart stops.  Why would a patient choose to die naturally rather than be resuscitated?  Because often being resuscitated forestalls death only for a short time during which the patient cannot communicate or get his affairs in order - time that has little value and may increase the net burden of suffering, all of it in the hospital in a state of questionable consciousness, connected to machines and being poked and prodded and "run through the ringer" until death inevitably intervenes.  As a sage friend once said "Death is not the enemy."  Indeed it is not.  Suffering is.