From the New Yorker by Atul Gawande August 2, 2010

Can mere discussions really do so much? Consider the case of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Its elderly residents have unusually low end-of-life hospital costs. During their last six months, according to Medicare data, they spend half as many days in the hospital as the national average, and there’s no sign that doctors or patients are halting care prematurely. Despite average rates of obesity and smoking, their life expectancy outpaces the national mean by a year.

I spoke to Dr. Gregory Thompson, a critical-care specialist at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, while he was on I.C.U. duty one recent evening, and he ran through his list of patients with me. In most respects, the patients were like those found in any I.C.U.—terribly sick and living through the most perilous days of their lives. There was a young woman with multiple organ failure from a devastating case of pneumonia, a man in his mid-sixties with a ruptured colon that had caused a rampaging infection and a heart attack. Yet these patients were completely different from those in other I.C.U.s I’d seen: none had a terminal disease; none battled the final stages of metastatic cancer or untreatable heart failure or dementia.

To understand La Crosse, Thompson said, you had to go back to 1991, when local medical leaders headed a systematic campaign to get physicians and patients to discuss end-of-life wishes. Within a few years, it became routine for all patients admitted to a hospital, nursing home, or assisted-living facility to complete a multiple-choice form that boiled down to four crucial questions. At this moment in your life, the form asked:

  1. Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops?
  2. Do you want aggressive treatments such as intubation and mechanical ventilation?
  3. Do you want antibiotics?
  4. Do you want tube or intravenous feeding if you can’t eat on your own?

By 1996, eighty-five per cent of La Crosse residents who died had written advanced directives, up from fifteen per cent, and doctors almost always knew of and followed the instructions. Having this system in place, Thompson said, has made his job vastly easier. But it’s not because the specifics are spelled out for him every time a sick patient arrives in his unit.

“These things are not laid out in stone,” he told me. Whatever the yes/no answers people may put on a piece of paper, one will find nuances and complexities in what they mean. “But, instead of having the discussion when they get to the I.C.U., we find many times it has already taken place.”

Answers to the list of questions change as patients go from entering the hospital for the delivery of a child to entering for complications of Alzheimer’s disease. But, in La Crosse, the system means that people are far more likely to have talked about what they want and what they don’t want before they and their relatives find themselves in the throes of crisis and fear. When wishes aren’t clear, Thompson said, “families have also become much more receptive to having the discussion.” The discussion, not the list, was what mattered most. Discussion had brought La Crosse’s end-of-life costs down to just over half the national average. It was that simple—and that complicated.

One Saturday morning last winter, I met with a woman I had operated on the night before. She had been undergoing a procedure for the removal of an ovarian cyst when the gynecologist who was operating on her discovered that she had metastatic colon cancer. I was summoned, as a general surgeon, to see what could be done. I removed a section of her colon that had a large cancerous mass, but the cancer had already spread widely. I had not been able to get it all. Now I introduced myself. She said a resident had told her that a tumor was found and part of her colon had been excised.

Yes, I said. I’d been able to take out “the main area of involvement.” I explained how much bowel was removed, what the recovery would be like—everything except how much cancer there was. But then I remembered how timid I’d been with [a previous patient], and all those studies about how much doctors beat around the bush. So when she asked me to tell her more about the cancer, I explained that it had spread not only to her ovaries but also to her lymph nodes. I said that it had not been possible to remove all the disease. But I found myself almost immediately minimizing what I’d said. “We’ll bring in an oncologist,” I hastened to add. “Chemotherapy can be very effective in these situations.”

She absorbed the news in silence, looking down at the blankets drawn over her mutinous body. Then she looked up at me. “Am I going to die?”
I flinched. “No, no,” I said. “Of course not.”
A few days later, I tried again. “We don’t have a cure,” I explained. “But treatment can hold the disease down for a long time.” The goal, I said, was to “prolong your life” as much as possible.

I’ve seen her regularly in the months since, as she embarked on chemotherapy. She has done well. So far, the cancer is in check. Once, I asked her and her husband about our initial conversations. They don’t remember them very fondly. “That one phrase that you used—‘prolong your life’—it just . . .” She didn’t want to sound critical.

“It was kind of blunt,” her husband said.

“It sounded harsh,” she echoed. She felt as if I’d dropped her off a cliff.

I spoke to Dr. Susan Block, a palliative-care specialist at my hospital who has had thousands of these difficult conversations and is a nationally recognized pioneer in training doctors and others in managing end-of-life issues with patients and their families. “You have to understand,” Block told me. “A family meeting is a procedure, and it requires no less skill than performing an operation.”

One basic mistake is conceptual. For doctors, the primary purpose of a discussion about terminal illness is to determine what people want—whether they want chemo or not, whether they want to be resuscitated or not, whether they want hospice or not. They focus on laying out the facts and the options. But that’s a mistake, Block said.

“A large part of the task is helping people negotiate the overwhelming anxiety—anxiety about death, anxiety about suffering, anxiety about loved ones, anxiety about finances,” she explained. “There are many worries and real terrors.” No one conversation can address them all. Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and the possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany.

Read next article – Letting Go Part 5: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?

Read previous article – Letting Go Part 3: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?

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