Palliative Care

Lessons from our dying patients



Dying patients teach us to think more carefully about whether or not our surgical interventions will be beneficial.

I work in palliative care, and my surgical colleagues, especially the residents, are often surprised when I call them and ask them to consult on my patients who are very ill and have a “Do Not Resuscitate” order in their charts. I’m also an anesthesiologist working in interventional pain management, and I regularly do procedures on patients who have prognoses that are extremely limited. For other patients, I recommend against any interventions at all.

Dr. Rickerson

How do we know when to intervene on patients who are dying? Perhaps more importantly, how do we know when NOT to intervene? Two recent
cases of almost identical fractures illustrated for me the need to think beyond the anatomic problem when evaluating options for care.

Last year, I admitted a woman, “Donna,” with widely metastatic breast cancer to our inpatient palliative care service. She had fallen at home and hurt her arm about 2 months prior to admission. She had been confined to her bed for about 6 weeks. She was brought to the hospital because she was becoming delirious. She had many sources of pain that were relatively well controlled when she was lying down, but her worst pain was in her left arm. We found a fracture of her humerus. When her family learned that the fracture would not heal on its own because of the large metastasis there, they demanded surgery to fix it. Shortly thereafter, I re-admitted a patient, “Cindy,” with a very similar story. She also had widely metastatic breast cancer, and her pain had been very difficult to control. We had found a pain regimen that worked well for her on her previous admission, but she had fallen over her walker and broke her humerus after we had discharged her to a rehab facility. When I saw her back in the hospital, I told her that I thought she would need surgery to fix her arm. She was depressed by this setback, she was in pain again, and she told me that she would prefer not to have any intervention because she feared the additional pain that it would cause.

With Donna, we sat down with her and her family to hear what their hopes were for her care. They understood that she did not have further chemotherapy or radiation options for her cancer, but they thought if she got the surgery that at least she would be able to get out of bed and walk again. My colleague carefully explained that yes, he could fix the fracture and that this could mean that the pain in her left arm would improve. He went on to say, however, that he did not think that the surgery would allow her to walk again as she had not been able to walk for a few weeks after the injury. When the family heard that the surgery probably wouldn’t restore her mobility, they decided against the procedure. With Cindy, we had a very different conversation. She was not inclined to have the procedure, but I expressed my concern that she wouldn’t be able to walk again unless she had the procedure because she needed her arms to use her walker. Although she did not have any further chemotherapy or radiation options, her oncologist had told us that her prognosis could be several months. In this case, my surgical colleague explained that he could perform surgery for the fracture and that he thought that it would both help her pain and allow her to use her walker again. We recommended that she have the surgery given her hope to continue to live independently, as she had been, for as long as possible. She ultimately agreed to do so and was able to return home.

These two patients reminded me again of how important it is for us to understand what our patients’ hopes and expectations are for a procedure. It is very distressing for clinicians when desperate families want treatments that likely have little benefit. When patients have limited prognoses, aligning patient goals and procedure goals is especially important as the outcome of the procedure can define the patient’s remaining days.

Donna’s family demanded a surgery expecting a result that was very unlikely, and Cindy initially declined the same surgery that ultimately benefitted her greatly. Our job is to make and execute the medical recommendations that best fit with our patients’ goals and understanding. Sometimes this will mean performing procedures on patients who are extremely ill and have “Do Not Resuscitate” orders, and at other times, it will mean not doing procedures, even if a patient and family want them to be done.

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