During a recent shift, I was witness to a family's struggle and courage in facing their mother's illness.
Their mother, age 96, had broken her hip a week prior. Because of significant health and social issues, the family and patient concurred with the orthopedic team that it wouldn't be wise to operate.
The patient was sent to a local rehabilitation facility. Prior to the transfer, the patient and her family had discussed at length a living will and to what degree heroics were to be performed in the event of a medical emergency. They opted for no intervention whatsoever--no CPR, no medical testing, no antibiotics, no intubation, no resuscitation efforts. Basically, they wanted only comfort measures for pain and anxiety relief.
A very difficult decision, of course.
Within a week of being transferred to the rehabilitation facility, unfortunately, the patient started to have a cough. Soon after, she began to have a harder time breathing.
The facility, despite their best efforts, eventually sent the patient to our ER when it was discovered that she had very low oxygenation levels. They were not equipped for this.
I walked into this patient's room and after introducing myself to her and meeting her family, consisting of two sons, a daughter, and a daughter-in-law, I began to sort out what I could do to help this patient and her family.
On exam, this patient was obviously struggling and appeared to have pneumonia. She had a fever and very low oxygen levels. When I listened to her lungs with my stethoscope, she had classic findings for infection. She was starting to get very fatigued and was not as mentally alert as her family knew her to be.
Normally, with a patient in this situation, we are very aggressive. She would have been intubated and received three, sometimes four, antibiotics intravenously. She would have gotten a very thorough workup that would have included x-rays, blood work, and possibly a CT scan of her chest to make sure she didn't have a blood clot in her lungs, a possible consequence of her hip fracture.
However, upon review of the patient's paperwork sent from the rehab facility and the family's personal request at her bedside, we did none of this. We respected their wishes and this patient's living will.
I did order this patient some low doses of morphine and valium which made her more comfortable. The family was quite appreciative. Although the patient was critically ill, she was not yet near her end. After another discussion with the family, we came to a mutual decision to admit their mother to the hospital and continue her comfort care. The family was uncomfortable taking the patient home with her hip fracture. I called their family doctor and he graciously came in and handled the admission.
During the admission, I was stopped by the daughter in the hallway. She was very tearful, as any of us would be, and second-guessing their family decision of no heroics.
"Mom lead an amazing life. I know it's time...but this is so hard to watch. I feel like we should be doing something more."
I put my arm around her. "God Bless your family," I said.
"Well," she sighed, "this is how Mom wanted it, so I guess we have to respect her decision."
I nodded at her words. I have several times witnessed these decisions reversed, but it seemed that this family was not going to follow that route.
The daughter, though, still needed to reconcile the decision with her anguish.
"What would you do?" she asked me suddenly.
Her question caught me off-guard. It was a question that I couldn't possibly answer for her. Her family's decision was made after weighing many specific circumstances, circumstances that I knew nothing about. So no, I couldn't give her a direct answer.
I explained this to her. "But," I continued, "does the rest of your family still support this decision?"
"Yes," she said, "and I think I do, too."
I decided to open up to her. I shared with her how several years ago, my beautiful mother, after courageously fighting and beating back leukemia for several years, decided that it was time to stop. It had been an extremely difficult decision, fully supported by my father, my six siblings, and myself. Because Mom knew. And despite all the setbacks, her faith had never wavered and her spirit had remained unconquerable. She had fought the fight and had benefited from that fight. But, unfortunately, her disease had come back with a vengeance. After several failed attempts to reenter remission, she chose to stop all further treatments and go home to spend her remaining days enveloped in our love.
"So, yes," I said, "it was very hard to watch. But it was the right thing for Mom and our family."
Now, the daughter nodded at my words. After a moment or two, she spoke. "Mom did have an amazing life, but yes, it is time."
I squeezed her hand in support and she leaned in and gave me a hug.
"Thank you," she said as we parted.
No, I thought to myself as I walked away remembering my mother's beautiful spirit, thank you.