This week Mrs. Hardy’s condition remained more or less stable. She remained on the amiodarone and levophed drips, but did not require increasing doses to maintain her blood pressure. My patients this week were her neighbors, so there was ample opportunity for me to observe.
On rounds the doctors discussed new developments: her liver function is down and her kidneys are failing. She will need dialysis soon. The resident mentions her plan to call for another family meeting to talk about whether or not to do dialysis (a very significant decision), but the attending (Dr. Pock, a different one than last week) stops her. “Didn’t you just have a family meeting a few days ago? The family said they wanted everything done, so go ahead and get a renal consult.” The residents and fellows shoot uncomfortable looks at each other. “I…I just did not know how aggressive you wanted to be…” says the resident. “Me? What do mean by that? This is not about what I want.”
I go around the unit telling some other nurses about the incident. “Oh! Dr. Pock is the worst, I hate him!” says Lori, one of the most senior nurses on the unit. “He doesn’t care about the patients. He just comes for rounds and then he goes away for the rest of the day.” Lori and another nurse talk about how they have heard that the son who is against limiting Mrs. Hardy’s care is living in her house. “Oh, now it all makes sense, now I understand everything.” The implication being that the son is benefiting financially by keeping Mrs. Hardy alive.
I ask Susan from palliative care about this, but she does not agree. She has been working closely with the family. Mrs. Hardy has been living with her youngest son, and since he has been closest to her, the other siblings are deferring to him. Susan says that he is just not very intelligent and cannot comprehend the reality of the situation. He also has another family member that is very ill and Susan thinks he is just not able to face it all yet. It is an interesting way to plan a patient’s care. The son cannot even bring himself to visit, but he cannot let her go either.
The sense of discomfort on the unit continues to heighten. Normally callous nursing assistants talk about how sad it is to do this to Mrs. Hardy. The wound care nurse, an old hand who does not usually stop to talk, asks me about whether Mrs. Hardy is still a full code and what the plans are for a family meeting.
Laura, Mrs. Hardy’s nurse today, asks me for help with a turn. Mrs. Hardy’s eyes are closed. Her complexion is now dark brown, as if she has been in the sun all summer. I touch Mrs. Hardy’s eyebrows lightly and ask Laura “Is she still there?” “Just a little,” she replies. As we turn her, Mrs. Hardy opens her eyes. She seems to be in less distress now, as if her soul’s connection with her body is loose and slackening. It would be easy to ignore her and assume she is not able to understand us. She does not even move her lips anymore. As I look into her eyes, her hand rises slightly and I take hold of it. The look I see feels like recognition and gratitude. As she stares out from the grave, I feel glad that I can still reach her, but then I start to have doubts. Her eyes hardly move. How can I know her internal state? Perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps she did not lift her hand at all. Maybe it was just an accident of the turn. I put her hand down, but after a minute she lifts it again, reaching out for me. I take her hand again and look into her eyes. She gazes back with sad affection. I have words to say to Mrs. Hardy, but I feel awkward saying them in front of Laura. I do not know her well, and I am not sure if I will make her uncomfortable. But there will not be another opportunity. This moment will not return. I say the only comforting words I have, “It will not be much longer now Betty.” She continues to look into my eyes. After a few moments I excuse myself and go. If I had a better heart perhaps I would stay with her longer. Perhaps I would also push my kids on their swings as long as they wanted. There are so many Mrs. Hardys. I do not have enough for any of them.
Outside of the room, Laura asks me what I think of all this. Laura is a young nurse, well seasoned on the SICU, but still bright eyed and enthusiastic. I have avoided her a little because I have not wanted to trouble her with my jaded mentality. (In nursing school some of the professors talked pointedly with me about “contagious bad attitudes,” but what did they offer us that would have prepared us for these situations? Nothing. They could not even acknowledge the existence of such cases.) I tell Laura that I think it is wrong and it makes me angry. She agrees, “I cannot Do this.” She would prefer to take care of patients she can actually help.
The renal doctors evaluated Mrs. Hardy and decided that she did not need dialysis yet. The next day on rounds the resident begins her presentation, “…status post botched hernia repair…” Dr. Pock stops her again, “I want you to try very hard not to use words like that,” he says sternly. Dr. Pock goes into the details of the case and pushes her to properly understand the disease process. This is a teaching hospital and she is here to learn. He probably does not want to waste time on things he cannot change.
I assist with another turn. Mrs. Hardy is more distant today. She stares out blankly into the room, her consciousness absorbed in the work of breathing. The flesh exposed by several large skin tears has turned the color of turmeric with a green tinge on the surface. Fluid oozes out through the many holes created for various drains as well as the huge open cavern of her abdomen. The room is filled with a foul, musty odor. Labs show her blood is becoming acidic. The end is near.
Cells produce energy by passing ions back and forth across the membranes of mitochondria. The process requires the environment inside of the mitochondria to be more acidic than the outside. When this balance is upset, the cells cannot produce energy and they die. When they die, they rupture, spilling the acid contents of their mitochondria into the blood stream, further increasing the acidity of the blood. This manifests as sepsis or septic shock. In Mrs. Hardy’s case, it will not be reversible. Her infections are too extensive and are no longer responding to antibiotics or antifungals. As the cascade gathers pace, we can turn up the pressors to buy a few more days or hours. That is all.
The fellows come by towards the end of the shift. The day fellow is handing off to the night fellow. They are have just started working together, but clearly like each other. They pause to discuss the situation. They know that she will die soon and are concerned that Mrs. Hardy is still awake. They want her to get more ativan. “You know what I’m saying? She needs a forty ounce bottle and a two-by-four.” When they are gone, I ask her nurse, Bea about it. “They want you to knock her out?” Bea is an orthodox Christian from Kenya. “Yes, but I do not understand why. She is not agitated.” I agree. The orders for ativan are PRN (as needed) and are left to the nurse’s discretion. Bea decides not to give the ativan.. The night nurse may have a different opinion.