After another week Mrs. Hardy did wake up. The sedatives in her blood finally cleared, or the toxins from her sepsis metabolized, or else her brain tissues cleansed themselves somehow and she returned to normal consciousness. She awoke to find that her guts had been scooped out. Her body was now maintained with Total Parenteral (IV) Nutrition or TPN – 2 bags of IV fluids; a large clear yellow one and a smaller opaque white one that are changed every day. TPN increases the risk of blood infections and harms the liver and kidneys over the long term. The closest thing to stool her body now produced was a greenish brown fluid that drained from a tube that had been inserted through her ribcage just below her right breast. She could wiggle her toes, but otherwise had no use of her legs. She could lift her arms off the bed by herself and so these were tied down to prevent her from disturbing her artificial airway. She was trached and vent dependent (the ventilator hooked up to a tube in her throat) and so she could mouth words, but could not speak. She had received a minimum of pain medicine for weeks because her fentanyl drip had been blamed for her altered consciousness. Therefore it is not at all surprising that as soon as she regained the capacity to communicate she straightaway began to ask for death. She was not my patient anymore, but I heard it from the other nurses. As soon as she woke up she asked to be allowed to die.
I seriously doubt anyone told her that her intestines were gone, or what her prognosis was, but I imagine you can sense these things. I expect it was as clear to her as it was to her nurses that she was not going to get better. Who would want to live in that condition? Why force her?
But it is not so easy. It is not easy for a family that has only been waiting for good news to hear that their loved one wants to leave them. It is harder still for them to give the instructions to let her go. It is hard for the doctors to admit to the family that her case is hopeless and easier for them to talk about what they can still do – “We can treat this infection with antibiotics. We will take her to the OR to clean out her wound. She has responded well to the treatment.”
It has been a month now since she woke up and not much progress has been made towards granting her request. A palliative care physician saw her and proclaimed that her poor nutrition status was the underlying cause of her discomfort. She was septic at the time, on blood pressure drips called pressors with systolic blood pressures in the 70’s. I joked with her nurse, “I think she needs some more nutrition Mark.” And we laughed. More seriously then I vented my frustration. This guy should be advocating for her. Adjusting treatments with a view towards maximizing comfort is all well and good, but Mrs. Hardy is in a hellish condition and wants to go now. I heard afterwards that, perhaps under the nurse’s questioning gaze, the palliative care doctor came to the conclusion that Mrs. Hardy was just dieing slowly. Shocking. He did not feel the need to speak with the doctors or the family about these conclusions.
When a patient wants to die, certain questions have to be asked. Is she in her right mind? If not we do not listen. Is she saying this because she is in pain? If so we have to get her pain under control first? Is she depressed? A person who is depressed is not in a good state of mind to make decisions about ending her life. Time for a psych evaluation.
Psychiatrists tend to stand out on the ICU. They tend to be disheveled and quirky and oddly dressed. Once I saw one come to work in her pajama bottoms. The one that came for Mrs. Hardy had untamed white hair and wore an old suit. Other nurses told me he made them nervous. After seeing Mrs. Hardy, he called for her nurse –it was Lynn today. He began to speak with Lynn at some length about Mrs. Hardy’s emotional state. Lynn cut him off. What was the use of talking about her emotional state? What difference did it make? Lynn was done thinking about her emotional state. Mrs. Hardy wants to die and everyone is ignoring her. What will that do to her emotional state huh? During their conversation I was making bets with the other nurses that all that would come of the psych evaluation would be that Mrs. Hardy would be placed on suicide precautions. We had just seen this with another patient. Suicide precautions means a sitter at bedside 24/7 to make sure the patient does not harm themselves. I think the psychiatrists think they are doing a good deed by providing the patient with some company in this way, but sitters are usually no company at all. They just turn on the TV and endure the boredom. You cannot even untie the restraints.
Susan, the palliative care nurse came by in the afternoon. I mentioned the psych visit and she looked in the chart for his note. He had recommended antidepressants, but Mrs. Hardy has no gut to absorb them with anymore and they do not come in IV form. “These Psychiatrists are all useless.” I say to Susan. “Do you know that everyone in this hospital says that?” she replies with some surprise in her voice. Lynn tells her that she spoke with the family on the phone and told them Mrs. Hardy was asking to die. “Is she back to talking like that again?” was the reply. “What do I say?” “Tell them it is more and more often.” Susan says. She complains that the doctors are not telling the family the hard truths. “I really feel like we are just torturing her now.” She says.
TO BE CONTINUED