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31
Jul 10
Sat

The art of dying

I encourage you to read this New Yorker article by Atul Gawande. It’s very long and covers a depressing topic, but it explores some interesting and important issues regarding end-of-life decisions. It challenges the notion that hoping and fighting for survival, at whatever physical, emotional and financial cost, may not actually be the best way forward – something which is counterintuitive to patients, their families and their health care providers.

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer. When Cox was transferred to hospice care, her doctors thought that she wouldn’t live much longer than a few weeks. With the supportive hospice therapy she received, she had already lived for a year.

Also:

Ten years ago, her seventy-four-year-old father, Jack Block, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, was admitted to a San Francisco hospital with symptoms from what proved to be a mass growing in the spinal cord of his neck. She flew out to see him. The neurosurgeon said that the procedure to remove the mass carried a twenty-per-cent chance of leaving him quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. But without it he had a hundred-per-cent chance of becoming quadriplegic.

The evening before surgery, father and daughter chatted about friends and family, trying to keep their minds off what was to come, and then she left for the night. Halfway across the Bay Bridge, she recalled, “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what he really wants.’ ” He’d made her his health-care proxy, but they had talked about such situations only superficially. So she turned the car around.
Going back in “was really uncomfortable,” she said. It made no difference that she was an expert in end-of-life discussions. “I just felt awful having the conversation with my dad.” But she went through her list. She told him, “ ‘I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.’ We had this quite agonizing conversation where he said—and this totally shocked me—‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’

“I would never have expected him to say that,” Block went on. “I mean, he’s a professor emeritus. He’s never watched a football game in my conscious memory. The whole picture—it wasn’t the guy I thought I knew.” But the conversation proved critical, because after surgery he developed bleeding in the spinal cord. The surgeons told her that, in order to save his life, they would need to go back in. But he had already become nearly quadriplegic and would remain severely disabled for many months and possibly forever. What did she want to do?

“I had three minutes to make this decision, and, I realized, he had already made the decision.” She asked the surgeons whether, if her father survived, he would still be able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV. Yes, they said. She gave the O.K. to take him back to the operating room.
“If I had not had that conversation with him,” she told me, “my instinct would have been to let him go at that moment, because it just seemed so awful. And I would have beaten myself up. Did I let him go too soon?” Or she might have gone ahead and sent him to surgery, only to find—as occurred—that he survived only to go through what proved to be a year of “very horrible rehab” and disability. “I would have felt so guilty that I condemned him to that,” she said. “But there was no decision for me to make.” He had decided.

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