Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (22 page)

The explanation would seem to strain credibility, but evidence for it has grown in recent years. Two-thirds of the terminal cancer patients in the Coping with Cancer study reported having had no discussion with their doctors about their goals for end-of-life care, despite being, on average, just four months from death. But the third who did have discussions were far less likely to undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation or be put on a ventilator or end up in an intensive care unit. Most of them enrolled in hospice. They suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. In addition, six months after these patients died, their family members were markedly less likely to experience persistent major depression. In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.

A landmark 2010 study from the Massachusetts General Hospital had even more startling findings. The researchers randomly assigned 151 patients with stage IV lung cancer, like Sara’s, to one of two possible approaches to treatment. Half received usual oncology care. The other half received usual oncology care plus parallel visits with a palliative care specialist. These are specialists in preventing and relieving the suffering of patients, and to see one, no determination of whether they are dying or not is required. If a person has serious, complex illness, palliative specialists are happy to help. The ones in the study discussed with the patients their goals and priorities for if and when their condition worsened. The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—
and they lived 25 percent longer
. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality. If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.

Patients entering hospice have had no less surprising results. Like many other people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But multiple studies find otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or end-stage congestive heart failure. For the patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, or colon cancer, the researchers found no difference in survival time between those who went into hospice and those who didn’t. And curiously, for some conditions, hospice care seemed to extend survival. 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.

*   *   *

CAN MERE DISCUSSIONS
achieve such effects? Consider the case of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Its elderly residents have unusually low end-of-life hospital costs. During their last six months, according to Medicare data, they spend half as many days in the hospital as the national average, and there’s no sign that doctors or patients are halting care prematurely. Despite average rates of obesity and smoking, their life expectancy outpaces the national mean by a year.

I spoke to Gregory Thompson, a critical care specialist at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, while he was on ICU duty one evening, and he ran through his list of patients with me. In most respects, the patients were like those found in any ICU—terribly sick and living through the most perilous days of their lives. There was a young woman with multiple organ failure from a devastating case of pneumonia, a man in his midsixties with a ruptured colon that had caused a rampaging infection and a heart attack. Yet these patients were completely different from those in the ICUs I’d worked in: none had a terminal disease; none battled the final stages of metastatic cancer or untreatable heart failure or dementia.

To understand La Crosse, Thompson said, you had to go back to 1991, when local medical leaders headed a systematic campaign to get medical people and patients to discuss end-of-life wishes. Within a few years, it became routine for all patients admitted to a hospital, nursing home, or assisted living facility to sit down with someone experienced in these conversations and complete a multiple-choice form that boiled down to four crucial questions. At this moment in your life, the form asked:

1. Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops?

2. Do you want aggressive treatments such as intubation and mechanical ventilation?

3. Do you want antibiotics?

4. Do you want tube or intravenous feeding if you can’t eat on your own?

By 1996, 85 percent of La Crosse residents who died had a written advanced directive like this, up from 15 percent, and doctors virtually always knew of the instructions and followed them. Having this system in place, Thompson said, has made his job vastly easier. But it’s not because the specifics are spelled out for him every time a sick patient arrives in his unit.

“These things are not laid out in stone,” he told me. Whatever the yes/no answers people may put on a piece of paper, one will find nuances and complexities in what they mean. “But instead of having the discussion when they get to the ICU, we find many times it has already taken place.”

Answers to the list of questions change as patients go from entering the hospital for the delivery of a child to entering for complications of Alzheimer’s disease. But in La Crosse, the system means that people are far more likely to have talked about what they want and what they don’t want before they and their relatives find themselves in the throes of crisis and fear. When wishes aren’t clear, Thompson said, “families have also become much more receptive to having the discussion.” The discussion, not the list, was what mattered most. Discussion had brought La Crosse’s end-of-life costs down to half the national average. It was that simple—and that complicated.

*   *   *

ONE WINTER SATURDAY
morning, I met with a woman I had operated on the night before. She had been undergoing a procedure for the removal of an ovarian cyst when the gynecologist who was operating on her discovered that she had metastatic colon cancer. I was summoned, as a general surgeon, to see what could be done. I removed a section of her colon that had a large cancerous mass, but the cancer had already spread widely. I had not been able to get it all. Now I introduced myself. She said a resident had told her that a tumor was found and part of her colon had been excised.

Yes, I said. I’d been able to take out “the main area of involvement.” I explained how much bowel was removed, what the recovery would be like—everything except how much cancer there was. But then I remembered how timid I’d been with Sara Monopoli, and all those studies about how much doctors beat around the bush. So when she asked me to tell her more about the cancer, I explained that it had spread not only to her ovaries but also to her lymph nodes. I said that it had not been possible to remove all the disease. But I found myself almost immediately minimizing what I’d said. “We’ll bring in an oncologist,” I hastened to add. “Chemotherapy can be very effective in these situations.”

She absorbed the news in silence, looking down at the blankets drawn over her mutinous body. Then she looked up at me. “Am I going to die?”

I flinched. “No, no,” I said. “Of course not.”

A few days later, I tried again. “We don’t have a cure,” I explained. “But treatment can hold the disease down for a long time.” The goal, I said, was to “prolong your life” as much as possible.

I have followed her in the months and years since, as she embarked on chemotherapy. She has done well. So far, the cancer is in check. Once, I asked her and her husband about our initial conversations. They didn’t remember them very fondly. “That one phrase that you used—‘prolong your life’—it just…” She didn’t want to sound critical.

“It was kind of blunt,” her husband said.

“It sounded harsh,” she echoed. She felt as if I’d dropped her off a cliff.

I spoke to Susan Block, a palliative care specialist at my hospital who has had thousands of these difficult conversations and is a nationally recognized pioneer in training doctors and others in managing end-of-life issues with patients and their families. “You have to understand,” Block told me. “A family meeting is a procedure, and it requires no less skill than performing an operation.”

One basic mistake is conceptual. To most doctors, the primary purpose of a discussion about terminal illness is to determine what people want—whether they want chemo or not, whether they want to be resuscitated or not, whether they want hospice or not. We focus on laying out the facts and the options. But that’s a mistake, Block said.

“A large part of the task is helping people negotiate the overwhelming anxiety—anxiety about death, anxiety about suffering, anxiety about loved ones, anxiety about finances,” she explained. “There are many worries and real terrors.” No one conversation can address them all. Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and the possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany.

There is no single way to take people with terminal illness through the process, but there are some rules, according to Block. You sit down. You make time. You’re not determining whether they want treatment X versus Y. You’re trying to learn what’s most important to them under the circumstances—so that you can provide information and advice on the approach that gives them their best chance of achieving it. This process requires as much listening as talking. If you are talking more than half of the time, Block says, you’re talking too much.

The words you use matter. According to palliative specialists, you shouldn’t say, “I’m sorry things turned out this way,” for example. It can sound like you’re distancing yourself. You should say, “I wish things were different.” You don’t ask, “What do you want when you are dying?” You ask, “If time becomes short, what is most important to you?”

Block has a list of questions that she aims to cover with sick patients in the time before decisions have to be made: What do they understand their prognosis to be, what are their concerns about what lies ahead, what kinds of trade-offs are they willing to make, how do they want to spend their time if their health worsens, who do they want to make decisions if they can’t?

A decade earlier, 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 20 percent chance of leaving him quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. But without it he had a 100 percent 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 said. “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 the bleeding had already made him nearly quadriplegic, and he would remain severely disabled for many months and likely 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 okay 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 was faced with 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.

During the next two years, he regained the ability to walk short distances. He required caregivers to bathe and dress him. He had difficulty swallowing and eating. But his mind was intact and he had partial use of his hands—enough to write two books and more than a dozen scientific articles. He lived for ten years after the operation. Eventually, however, his difficulties with swallowing advanced to the point where he could not eat without aspirating food particles, and he cycled between hospital and rehabilitation facilities with the pneumonias that resulted. He didn’t want a feeding tube. And it became evident that the battle for the dwindling chance of a miraculous recovery was going to leave him unable ever to go home again. So, just a few months before I’d spoken with Block, her father decided to stop the battle and go home.

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