She was 94 years old with advanced Alzheimer’s. She thought it was 1954 and asked if I wanted tea. Not a bad memory for someone in a hospital bed with a broken left hip.
She’d fallen at her assisted living facility. It was the second time in as many months. She’d broken her collarbone on the previous occasion.
Over the past year, she’d lost thirty pounds. This is natural in the progression of Alzheimer’s. But it’s upsetting to families all the same.
My patient was lucky. She’d lived to 94, and had supportive children who were involved in her care. Her son had long ago been designated as power-of-attorney for her health care. This meant officially that his decisions regarding her care were binding. She was not capable of making sound decisions, medical or otherwise.
The patient had been under the care of a geriatrician. His office chart told me that the option of hospice and palliative care had been discussed with the family. They were interested in learning more; the son had agreed that “Do Not Resuscitate” status was appropriate for his mother. Doing chest compressions on a frail 94 year-old is something none of us want to do.
The morning after her hospital admission for the broken hip, the medical intern called me with an ethical dilemma: “She’s DNR,” the intern explained. “She’s having intermittent VTach on the monitor, and I fear she won’t be stable enough to have the hip repaired. The family is open to the idea of hospice, but I don’t know whether to treat the arrhythmia or not.”
Elaine (not her real name) is one of our brightest interns. She’s thinking about going into geriatrics. Situations like this are in many ways the most meaningful for doctors. Too often we stress about minutiae at the expense of the big picture; helping guide a family and patient through a period of critical illness is of true service.
“Bearing witness is our most important role,” a mentor once taught me.
I came in to round with Elaine. We went immediately to the patient’s room. The son and one of his sisters were there supporting their mother.
In the bed I saw a pale, thin, older woman who appeared to be lying comfortably. I asked her if she was in pain. “Would you like some tea?” she asked.
I told her she didn’t look ninety-four. She smiled. I told her she had a beautiful smile, and she smiled again.
We proceeded to discuss the medical issues with the patient’s son and daughter:
- Advanced dementia
- Weight loss
- Multiple falls
- Hip fracture
- Irregular, potentially unstable heart rhythm
“What would your mother want?” I asked them. “If she could decide for herself, what would her goals be?” Given her frailty, even with repairing the hip she’d never walk again.
Understandably, the concerns were about her suffering and feeling pain. At the moment, we were all in agreement that she looked comfortable. I broached the subject of not doing anything to treat the arrhythmia or the broken hip. Of not putting the patient through surgery.
The son was clear. “She wouldn’t want surgery,” he told us. His sister agreed. Consensus! We would refer her to hospice. She’d live out her days in comfort, forgoing the indignities of further medicalization.
At that moment, the orthopedic nurse practitioner walked into the room, carrying a consent form. She approached the opposite side of the bed. Before she could launch into her speech, I cut her off. “The family has decided on hospice,” I informed her. I asked to speak with her outside.
“We’ve only not operated on two occasions that I can remember,” the nurse practitioner told me. Her comment unnerved me. Clearly we were deviating from standard operating procedure here. “If a hip’s broken, we fix it,” is what she was telling me.
She documented our conversation and the fact that the family had declined surgery in the chart.
I went back in the room. I asked the family if they had any more questions. Satisfied that we’d answered everything to the best of our abilities, I excused myself and Elaine. We thanked the son and daughter for their courage, and affirmed that I thought they were making the right decision to forgo surgery.
Outside the room, we debriefed about the encounter. I was very proud of Elaine’s poise in a difficult patient/family situation, and how well she reasoned through the multiple options. I told her that I admired her instinct to mitigate harm to the patient by not over-medicalizing the situation, as many would have done since it’s almost always the path of least resistance in the hospital.
Alas, we congratulated ourselves too soon.
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