Category Archives: death and dying

Death and dying is the one subject no one wants to talk about, but we must. We need to think about how we want to live at the end of our lives; what’s important to us; what we value. And then we have to tell our loved ones and our medical team so they will know how to care for us if we cannot speak for ourselves.

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!

Magical Thinking in End-of-Life Issues

Recently I had a chance to see how the human heart and spirit can overrule the rational mind, even in hypothetical circumstances. At a local educational event  on palliative and hospice care, a woman in her 80s in the audience was attentive and engaged during the presentation. During the discussion that followed the presentation, she talked about how she wanted to look into becoming an organ donor.

But then, she asked the experts if her heart stopped and if she had decided to opt for CPR but it didn’t work, “Can’t there be a miracle?” In other words, before being pronounced dead, couldn’t there be some other way to revive her and enable her to live on? And would she be pronounced dead before her miracle kicked in?

We all want miracles, do we not? We want to have hope when all evidence points to the contrary. That’s why I found her question so poignant, so human. This woman, who had at first seemed to be a realist regarding the question of mortality – accepting it on an intellectual level – was at the same time wandering in the realm of magical thinking.

We’re all susceptible, truth be told. But there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid wandering into this realm ourselves.

I blogged about it for the website sixtyandme.com, and you can read it here:

Wishing you all a wonderful start to summer, this coming weekend!

Hard to Start That Conversation? Try Playing a Game of 32 Questions

You may be asking yourself, “Well, National Healthcare Decisions Day is coming up April 16, so what should I do to celebrate it?”

Okay, maybe you’re not asking yourself that question. Then again, maybe you don’t have to wait another couple of weeks to start having conversations with those closest to you about some serious subjects. Subjects like, what kind of care would be best for me if Ihad a serious illness? How do I feel about treatments and interventions like mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes and CPR?

It’s tough to start these conversations, of course, which is one reason why the majority of adults don’t do it. Or prepare advance care directives. But a Philadelphia-based company called Common Practice has come up with a way to help you with this, that’s clever, effective and fun. It’s a game you can play with two to five  players, called “Hello,” and it’s available on the company’s website for $24.95. And, no, I don’t have any connection or interest in this company.

I  had a chance to speak with Nick Jehlen, a founding partner of the company and lead designer of the game. What piqued my interest was this: underpinning what could be seen on first blush as a lighthearted approach to a weighty subject was in fact the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process of research, design and feedback.

Here’s how the game works. Each player gets a question booklet  with 32 questions (which you keep after you finish playing), and a number of “thank you” chips to give to other players if they say something you find particularly touching, helpful or insightful. You decide how to play: whether to limit the number of questions, or put a time limit on play. There are no wrong answers and really, no winners or losers. As the game designers point out, the most important rule is to listen.

Some sample questions:

In order to provide you with the best care possible, what three nonmedical facts should your doctor know about you?

Who haven’t you talked to in more than six months that you would want to before you died?

            If you needed help going to the bathroom today, who is the first person you’d ask to help you? Who would you never be able to ask?

            What music do you want to be listening to on your last day alive?

            What activities make you lose track of time?

            Write your own epitaph in five words or less.

One of the keys to the game’s effectiveness is that everyone has to answer the questions, so there’s a sense of sharing and no one (such as a person confronting a serious and/or life-limiting illness) is being “singled out” in the conversation.

“We wanted to create a sense of safety,” Jehlen said, noting that he has played the game “hundreds of times and my answers change. [The game] doesn’t force you into a corner. You can play it every year and see how you evolve.” He’s played it with his own parents, too, and said that they found it to be maybe a bit strange at first, but challenging and fun.

How the Game Evolved

Prior to developing the game, Common Practice’s business had revolved around designing tools to help people to communicate better in order to achieve greater workplace productivity and purpose.  When the founders started thinking about what ultimately became “Hello,” they spoke at length with hospice nurses, to learn more about what helps people to be resilient. One insight: families who had actually talked about death and dying were able to care for loved ones better than those who hadn’t.

They entered their game, then known as “My Gift of Grace,” in a design challenge run by the California Healthcare Coalition and were one of the winners. When they realized what an important project it was, and that it was the most meaningful work they had done, they decided to make it the focus of their business, Jehlen told me.

They did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and 440 people contributed. In devising the questions that would be part of the game, they queried their contributors for suggestions and reactions to sample questions. They were most interested in questions that generated more than a paragraph to answer. In the end, half of the questions in the game were devised by Common Practice; the other half came from backers.

About a year ago, they changed the name to “Hello,” because some of the feedback was that the name had religious overtones which made some feel left out.

Common Practice also makes “event kits” of the game available to groups of 25 to 50 people in health care settings, including hospitals and hospice agencies. It runs training and workshops for health care staff, aiming to encourage participants to feel more comfortable asking questions of their patients that are more, well, patient-centered.

How effective is this game? One measure: Research conducted at Penn State’s College of Medicine has shown that roughly three-quarters of the number of people who play the game subsequently go on to take some kind of advance care planning action, including creating an advance care directive.

Or, consider the response by health care professionals. After Nick Jehlen made a presentation about the game at the Mayo Clinic’s Transform conference in 2015, he invited attendees to play the game later on that afternoon. 150 people took him up on that offer.

 

 

What the Health Care Debate Didn’t Debate

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If you were hoping that a 90-minute debate about the health care system would shed some light on what the Federal government could/should/shouldn’t address, going forward, you were in for serious disappointment.

On Feb. 7, CNN aired that debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz. It really wasn’t about health care, as much as it was about health insurance. More specifically, it rehashed many of the tired and largely superficial arguments — on both sides — that we’d heard about Obamacare during the 2016 campaign. The one issue Sens. Sanders and Cruz seemed to agree about was that drug costs are too high.

If you don’t want to watch the debate for yourself on demand, or read the full transcript (although I’d recommend it), I will sum it up for you: Sen. Sanders believes that health care is a right; that we pay more for health care in the U.S. than other countries and get far less; that drug company executives earn obscenely high salaries; and that there should be Medicare for all. Sen. Cruz believes that government should not be in control of our health care, that it should not get between us and our doctors; that we shouldn’t have rationing the way they do in Europe and Canada; that people should be able to buy health insurance across state lines; and that competition will solve our problems.

What they didn’t talk about were some of the fundamental reasons why our health care system is so stressed. Just a few in the realm of elder care: the cost of treatment and caring for people with multiple chronic conditions; the high cost (and reasons behind) hospital readmissions; the challenge of improving care for people in rural areas; the coming wave of aging baby boomers in need of care; the challenge of providing care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias; the high cost of surgeries and other treatments for the ill in their last two years of life; the cascade of issues for those in intensive care units (ICUs) through the end of life.

Nor did they discuss the possible consequences of doing away with some of the more promising demonstration projects by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)’ Innovation Center  – authorized by the Affordable Care Act – designed to improve the quality of health care (and containing costs). The two I’d keep an eye on: Independence at Home; and Care Choices.

The CNN  debate featured a number of real people from various parts of the country and  various walks of life, with pressing health care dilemmas and questions for the Senators. You may not be surprised to learn that neither Senator answered those questions directly, but rather treated them as jumping-off points to return to their main messages.

One particular exchange that was disheartening to me (and it was not the focus of a broader discussion, by any means), happened about one-third of the way into the debate. In his advocating against rationing and in favor of people “exercising free choice,” Sen. Cruz had this to say:

“We could cut costs here if we do like Europe and cut the number of MRIs, the number of mammograms. If we cut — you know, you look at the elderly in much of Europe. The elderly here, when the elderly face life-threatening diseases, they’re often treated in the intensive care unit. In Europe, they’re often put in palliative care, essentially doped up with some drugs, and said, ‘Well, now is your time to go.’”

(To which Sen. Sanders’ response, in total, was “Oh.”)

Let’s take Sen. Cruz’ colossal misunderstanding, or mischaracterizing, of what palliative care is all about. First, it is all about patient-centered care. That is, it’s about figuring out what’s important to a patient facing serious illness – in simple terms, what does a good day look like to that person? — and helping him or her achieve it. Second, it does that through symptom management, which means alleviating pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Third, it does not interfere with curative treatment the patient might be receiving from other physicians. Fourth, it is appropriate for anyone, of any age, struggling with a serious illness, not necessarily one that is life-limiting.

But what about his statement about the intensive care unit? He seemed to be saying that this is a beneficial thing for the elderly facing life-threatening diseases. The reality is that for a frail elder at the close of life, an ICU stay can seem more like an assault than a medical miracle. (If our lawmakers doubt that, I’d advise that they watch the short documentary film Extremis.

We may not see much clarity about health care emanating from Washington any time soon. Now that we have a new head of Health and Human Services, will that hasten Obamacare being replaced? Will it be replaced or repaired this year or next year? In what form? Who knows? If this debate was any indication, it doesn’t seem likely that the quality of the discussion about it is going to be terribly enlightening.

 

6 Steps To Take for Better End-of-Life Care

I was honored recently to be asked by the Berkeley, California-based Greater Good Science Center to do an essay, based on my experiences as a hospice volunteer and reporting/researching my book. Here are the highlights:

* Educate yourself about the different key treatments for end-of-life care, so that you can make informed decisions.
* Start conversations with loved ones so that they are clear about your wishes for care.
* Understand the benefits of palliative care and hospice care and know when to ask for them.
* Learn how to communicate effectively with doctors and medical staff.
* Research nursing and assisted living facilities in your community, in case you need them.
* Advocate for better end-of-life care for everyone.

You can read the full essay here

A Necessary Look at the End of Life in an ICU

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But that phrase was probably invented before the advent of film and video. Recently I watched a remarkable 24-minute short film, “Extremis” (available now on Netflix) and I can tell you unequivocally that it is worth many, many thousands of words.

Set in the intensive care unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, it is an unflinching view of dying. More precisely, it shows how the technology that can prolong our lives when we are desperately ill raises important questions about the difficulties in making decisions at the end of life, not only for the ill but also for those who love them and face the agony of impending loss.

It’s a relatively short film, but very powerful. I would liken its brevity to the short stories of Alice Munro, who can tell you more about the human condition in 25 pages than most novelists can. The film is the result of a fortuitous collaboration between Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, an ICU physician and palliative care specialist who’d thought about the potential impact of a film project ever since she had watched the 2012 documentary “The Waiting Room,” filmed at Highland Hospital; the film director Dan Krauss, who was not initially drawn to the subject of end-of-life issues but ultimately found the ICU to be a “truly fascinating world where science and faith intersect,” as he told Modern Healthcare;” and Highland Hospital. Filming took months. It won Best Short Documentary awards this year from the Tribeca and San Francisco International Film Festivals.

“Extremis” mainly follows the wrenching struggles of two families. We meet Donna, in the end stages of a form of muscular dystrophy and on a ventilator, her husband and daughter with her; and Selena, unresponsive after she had stopped breathing in the car on the way to the ER, now on a ventilator too after spending up to 26 minutes without oxygen. We meet her daughter and her brothers, too, each of whom has different beliefs about how to proceed. That these families allowed filmmakers to record them throughout their ordeals is truly remarkable – and a public service.

“We’re all gonna die…and it’s good to have a little bit of a say in how,” Dr. Zitter remarks at one point in the film. (Her upcoming book—Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life— is due out in February.)

How do we express our own wishes? In the past several years, much has been written about the importance of signing an advance care directive; with it, if you face a medical crisis and cannot speak for yourself, the person you’ve chosen to speak for you would be guided by your wishes and values. And yet, only a small percentage of adults in the U.S. have actually done this.
That shouldn’t be surprising; how many of us really want to think long and hard about our own mortality? And how many of us can really envision what it might be like to live on thanks to the many mechanical inventions available to us?

Watch this film. You’ll have the clearest view I’ve seen of their reality. Moreover, you’ll see that in the absence of a directive, those closest to you will have the enormous and sometimes guilt-laden burden of making decisions for you, adding to the emotional turmoil that attends the end of life even in the best of circumstances. You’ll also see that decision-making can present moral and ethical dilemmas for the physicians treating you.

You can find advance directive forms for each state at Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, here.

Finding Quality Care for Serious Illness — Before a Medical Crisis Hits

IMG_1100 I’m excited and honored to tell you that this fall, I’m teaching a new two-session course called “Let’s Manage Late Life Well” at the Lois E. Marshall Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ. The course will be offered on October 31 and November 7, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. You can register for this and other courses at the ILR starting on Monday, August 29.

Too often, caregivers and people struggling with serious illness face medical crises that leave them feeling confused, frightened and overwhelmed. The best way to prevent that feeling of being lost and powerless in the health care system is by becoming better educated before a medical crisis hits.

The course is designed to help people become better educated about what good quality care looks like; as well as how to communicate better with health care professionals; how to make better-informed decisions for themselves or their loved ones; and how to find the information we all need about the conditions that we are likely to face in late life.

“Let’s Manage Late-Life Well” is a “bonus” course, offered at no extra charge with ILR membership for the Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. ILR membership entitles you to four courses each semester, plus two additional “bonus” courses. Full membership fee for Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 is $215. Registration begins on August 29th for the Fall 2016 semester.

This course will cover:
• An overview of innovations in late-life care (including those in NJ).
• How to communicate better with our health care specialists.
• How to learn about the quality of care in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
• Better alternatives to conventional skilled nursing homes.
• Strategies and tips for those caring for loved ones with dementia.
• What you need to know about advance care directives vs. POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) forms.
• Dispelling the many myths about palliative and hospice care.
• Plus: Where to find help: useful resources and links for caregivers and for people contending with serious illness.

Saluting an Unlikely Hero

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Sometimes you find a hero in the unlikeliest of places. This week I came upon an obituary for Dave Schwartz, 63, a long-time Weather Channel meteorologist. He had twice overcome pancreatic cancer 10 years ago, but began his struggle anew with a stomach cancer diagnosis in 2015.

Mr. Schwartz had joined the Weather Channel in 1985, initially as a newsroom assistant at the same time that he was working for the Fulton County Health Department in Georgia. He became an on-camera meteorologist in 1991.

Cancer, like so many serious illnesses, is often enshrouded in silence and secrecy. It would have been understandable had Schwartz decided to simply take the time off that he needed to undergo treatment and then return to work without talking about his absence. Instead, he chose Feb. 4, of this year, World Cancer Day, to address his viewers.

This is some of what he said: “I want to let you know the reason why I have lost 35 pounds in the last five months is that I am being treated for cancer,” he said on camera. “Stomach cancer, of all things, for a foodie.”

The following month, he went public again, via an interview with Bailey Rogers, a communications specialist at the Weather Channel, for the website Medium. Rogers asked about the side effects of cancer and its treatment, most likely expecting to hear about fatigue, pain, discomfort, etc. Instead, Schwartz responded that “In a sense, having cancer and the impact it has on my life has really enriched my life tremendously through strengthening my relationships with people.”

He also talked about how he and his wife had become philosophical about his condition. He went on to say that “None of us is guaranteed tomorrow — we all know that. As far as I’m concerned, whether you have cancer or not we are all in the same boat. None of us really know that we have more time than what we have right now. So I’m no different than anyone else. I have my struggle, I have my cross to bear — other people have their crosses to bear — and let’s hope that we wake up alive tomorrow.”

I found Schwartz’s comments – not to mention the bravery in sharing his struggle publicly – deeply moving. And it made me think about how powerful storytelling is.

We can learn so much from others not only about the nature of some of the more pernicious illnesses that afflict people, but also about how we can confront illness – mortality itself – with something approximating appreciation for the gift of life in the moment and maybe even a hint of grace.

And it also made me think: Wouldn’t it be helpful if more public figures could follow Dave Schwartz’s lead and talk about the struggles they might be experiencing and, along the way, educate us about what treatment and living with illness is all about?

And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be helpful if these folks could make some news by talking about and signing advance care directives? Maybe talk about how they thought about the prospect of measures like CPR, feeding tubes and intubation and decided, “Nope. Not for me.” And then maybe figure out a way to have it go viral, much as the “ice bucket challenge” did for ALS. That would be pretty heroic, too.

What’s Your Big Idea About End-of-Life Care?

The Aspen Institute Health Strategy Group wants to hear from us, by June 1explosion-1246507_640. Specifically, in advance of its Spotlight Health session in June, it wants to know: what is our big idea about end-of-life care?

Of course I couldn’t resist submitting my own two cents’ worth. Here it is:

From my vantage point as a hospice volunteer, seasoned journalist and author of a just-published book about end-of-life issues, my big idea is that at age 40+, hospice in the U.S. is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and needs a radical transformation. Not in its philosophy or system of care, but in how it is paid for. It’s time to start from scratch and design end-of-life benefits based on people’s needs, not on their prognosis.

Although hospice benefits are continuously being tweaked, their broad outlines have not fundamentally changed since its inception. But the very nature of the end-of-life experience now is far different than it had been in the 1970s, when hospice cared mostly for people with cancer. Hospice was not envisioned to address the needs of the frail elderly living with multiple chronic conditions, or the ravages of dementia, whose disease trajectories are certainly far less predictable – and often more complex — than cancer.

Two of the essential elements of the Medicare hospice benefit have come to haunt us. First, it is based on prognosis, that is, it is available for a limited time – six months if the illness runs its normal course. Second, it requires that a person give up any treatment or care that might be deemed “curative.” The choice is stark: cure or care. Either/or, but not both. Hardly surprising, then, that so many people do not even choose hospice care until it is very late in the course of their illness. Too late, in my view, to benefit fully from what this holistic, interdisciplinary and profoundly compassionate care can offer.

I believe we have come to a “tear down this wall” moment in end-of-life care. Tear down the wall that separates palliative care and hospice care; end the tyranny of the six-month cutoff for eligibility. Tear down the wall that separates people who still want to continue treating their illness from those who can accept a natural death. It’s time to develop a health care policy and payment system that embraces concurrent care without costing taxpayers more than the current system that is fragmented, costly, often dysfunctional and unsustainable.

End-of-life care involves so many intertwined issues that must be addressed. Just a few: better education and training for physicians and nurses; better training and better pay for the home health and personal care aides who are on the front lines of caring for the very ill; coordinated care aimed at helping people live as well as possible and in their homes as long as possible, without hospital readmissions; focusing more on culture change and person-centered care in long-term care settings; and more effective ways of providing dementia care.

But public policy changes would have a huge impact on all these issues. How do we get to a better future? In a June 2015 Health Affairs article about what is ahead for Medicare’s next 50 years, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle defined his prescription for success as: good public policy, superior technology and enlightened leadership. It seems to me that this prescription misses one element, which is public engagement. Transforming hospice care will likely not happen without vocal and insistent advocacy from all of us. So it’s time for my fellow aging baby boomers to tap back into our activist genes and start insisting on the kind of care we are all going to need in the not-so-distant future.

The Aspen Institute Health Strategy Group is part of the Health, Medicine and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. Co-chaired by former US Health and Human Services Secretaries and Governors, Kathleen Sebelius and Tommy Thompson, its 24 members are senior leaders across influential sectors: health, business, media, technology and more.