Scary Things: Ghouls, Goblins…& Life Support

Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls! We’re surrounded by all things spooky and macabre right now, so it seems like a good time to ask: what scares you?

Truth be told, I found these creepy creatures shown here pretty scary when I saw them at the otherwise great Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Something about their fierceness and intent. But I’ll tell you what scares me more. It’s the idea of living-but-not-living; that is, having to rely on a ventilator, and artificial feeding, to keep me among the “living” if I’m otherwise close to dying. Like being in suspended animation.

It’s one thing to consider life-prolonging treatments in the abstract; even checking the boxes on an advance care directive or a POLST form can seem like an abstract exercise too. But  an outstanding article by Sara Manning Peskin, MD, recently brought home to me once again the grim specifics of these treatments and tore away anything abstract in considering them.

 Why is it so important to understand this on a gut level, rather than as a cerebral exercise? Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of groups about advance care planning.  What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for many people, it’s hard to think about what they might want, or not want, because they don’t understand the realities of what’s involved with various life-prolonging treatments. So I try to explain some of the highlights, with the important caveat that I’m not a doctor or an advanced practice nurse. Even so, I’m sure for many these are still abstract ideas.

That’s where Dr. Peskin’s article comes in. She writes about meeting a 56-year-old woman she calls Geraldine, and her family, in the hospital three  weeks after Geraldine had suffered a heart attack. Geraldine was on a breathing tube.

“We can place a long-term breathing tube in her neck and a feeding tube in her stomach,” she told the family, “but there are no cases in the medical literature of someone like her living independently again. The best we could hope for is a life of near-complete dependence.”

Her family decided that, because Geraldine was stubborn and exceptional in life – a fighter, they called her — they believed she would be exceptional in beating her prognosis too.

“For Geraldine’s family, the immediate fear of watching her die outweighed the unfamiliar pain of sustaining her on machines and watching her disappear in a long-term care facility,” Dr. Peskin writes. And so the breathing tube was placed in her neck, and the feeding tube in her stomach.

But, as Dr. Peskin explains, “immobility leads to complications: infection, blood clots and bedsores. Where tubes are inserted, bacteria can enter. Being immobile also put Geraldine at risk for pneumonia and urinary tract infections. “Like mosquitoes in standing water, infections proliferate when the body is still,” Dr. Peskin points out.

Blood clots resulted not only from immobility but also from Geraldine’s body having been inflamed and torn from the heart attack. Circulation slowed. “Pools of static blood dried into a thick paste in her blood vessels,” the doctor says.

A bedsore developed. As Dr. Peskin explains, if a bedsore progresses, first the skin becomes red, then its outer layer breaks down, then the inner layer does. Then, bone, muscles and tendons are exposed. This can happen in a matter of days.

But two months after the heart attack, Geraldine was stable enough to leave the hospital’s ICU and was transferred to a long-term care facility. She was in a persistent vegetative state, which means she did not respond to external stimuli.

The family still hoped that there would be a miraculous turnaround. But there wasn’t any miracle. Geraldine died of sepsis,  a life-threatening complication of an infection, after four months of care.

You can read the full article here:

A coda to the story: While Geraldine was still in the ICU, Dr. Peskin reports, another doctor asked if the family of another patient in that ICU could visit Geraldine to see what prolonged dying looked like. The family agreed; the visiting family subsequently chose hospice care for their loved one.

When you think about advance care planning, then, think about Geraldine. I think it’s also helpful to think not only about what you don’t want, but what you do want. It’s still an exercise, to be sure, because so often we truly do not control our end-of-life circumstances. But it’s good to have an ideal in mind.

(In case you’re wondering, those spooky creatures pictured here are Tupilak figures exhibited at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. These were credited to an Inuit artist, circa 1960. In Greenlandic Inuit culture, these figures were made by shamans to be avenging monsters. They’d be placed into the sea to seek and destroy a specific enemy.)

Happy Halloween!

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