Monday, October 28, 2013

Your Last Words for a Few More Breaths: Unspoken Trade-offs in End-of-Life Care

A man with widely metastatic cancer is admitted to the hospital for shortness of breath, deteriorates in spite of broad spectrum care, and is transferred to the ICU.  The patient is documented to be "full code" and, while the prospect of "coding" him is unsettling for his providers, they struggle to articulate exactly why.  (Correct intuitions are often difficult to dissect and describe.)  Often the discussion (amongst themselves or with the family) centers on the direct, observable, physical aspects of suffering that must be borne by the patient during the resuscitation process and/or the transition to life support.  "Breaking of ribs" and the like.

But years of quiet and thoughtful reflection identifies some second order and often unspoken nuances of the transition to life support that are perhaps more important than the first order physical aspects.  When the man dying of cancer deteriorates to the point that his oxygen saturation cannot be supported without life support or his respiratory distress is too severe, and I position myself behind that bed, propofol and an 8.0 (endotracheal tube) in hands, I know the oft unspoken truth - that this is the last time that this man will be indubitably conscious and coherent or will speak to anyone, most notably his family.  Insomuch as life consists of an interaction with one's environment, with a central focus on social interactions, the patient dies the moment I induce with propofol and insert that tube between the vocal cords.  He has traded his last words for a few more breaths.  (He has also traded away his ability to enjoy food or drink.)