The right choice? Too little too soon?



The case being presented at Surgical Morbidity and Mortality Conference was all too familiar to many of the surgeons in the auditorium. After extensive discussions with the surgeon, an elderly man had undergone a risky operation. Although the operation had gone well, the patient had several setbacks in the first 48 hours requiring a second trip to the operating room. The patient was back in the surgical ICU fully ventilated on minimal pressors less than 24 hours after leaving the operating room the second time when the patient’s two sons and a daughter approached the surgeon to talk about the plan moving forward.

This was not a surprising turn of events since the patient’s wife had died several years earlier and he was in close contact with his children. They all lived in the area and had been present in the waiting room during both of his trips to the operating room. In accordance with the accepted standards for surrogate decision making, since the patient was not able to make decisions for himself, the appropriate surrogates were the two sons and a daughter. What was surprising to the surgeon was that now, less than 24 hours after leaving the operating room, the children were unanimous in their request that the patient’s life-supporting measures be stopped. Although there was no written advance directive, all the children felt strongly that their father would not have been wanted to be kept alive through “artificial means.”

This request created a series of quandaries for the attending surgeon. First, the surgeon felt that the patient had fully understood the small risks of complications and he had wanted to proceed with the operation despite understanding these risks. Second, the surgeon fully believed that the patient had a good chance for a complete recovery after surgery despite the complication. Based on the belief that the current requirement for intubation and ventilation was a temporary one, the surgeon felt that to withdraw support of the patient for a reversible problem so soon after surgery would be evidence of her not respecting the patient’s specifically stated wishes that he wanted to have surgery and recover from it.

The ensuing M&M discussion focused on a series of important questions. Had the patient fully understood the risks of the operation? His surgeon felt that he had, and she believed that the patient would not have wanted her to “give up” so soon after the operation. Someone asked whether the surgeon should have been willing to perform a high-risk operation on an elderly patient without having had the sons and daughter present to participate in the preoperative discussions. Such a scenario might have avoided the circumstance of the surgeon having a different understanding of the patient’s wishes than was currently being expressed by the sons and daughter. However, the logistics of requiring a competent adult patient who is living independently to bring his sons and daughter to the consultation before the surgeon was willing to operate seemed problematic.

It became clear that from the surgeon’s point of view (as well as from the majority of us at the M&M conference) that when the patient agreed to have the operation, he was not only agreeing to the surgery but also to the necessary perioperative care to allow him to recover. On the other hand, the family (who were now the appropriate surrogate decision makers) believed that the operation was over and all further treatments were open to discussion and should be evaluated based on what they believed their father’s wishes would have been.

What should be done when the surgeon’s responsibility to respect what she believes the patient’s wishes were are in conflict with the surrogate decision makers? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. The closer in time one is to the operation, the more the patient’s initial decision to proceed with surgery seemingly should hold sway. The further away from the operation, the more the family members’ interpretation of the patient’s wishes should guide decisions about treatments.

The surgeon in this case seemed to have reached an excellent compromise with the family. Based on the belief that the need for intubation and ventilation was short term, the surgeon convinced the family to allow aggressive treatment for 48 hours. She had expressed to the family that she felt she had a responsibility to their father to try to get him safely through this early part of the recovery. After the 48-hour time-limited trial, the surgeon and the family would meet again to discuss his status. If there had been improvements, then the same aggressive treatments would be continued in the hopes that the patient would soon be able to make his own decisions. Alternatively, if there was not improvement over the next 2 days, the surgeon agreed that further interventions would all be reassessed in accordance with what the family believed would have been their father’s wishes.

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