The 90 year old father of a friend of mine has succumbed to an aggressive skin cancer of the melanoma type. The cancer has spread to his brain and lungs, causing one lung to collapse and the other to be filled with fluid. As of yesterday he was lying in bed in his hospital’s resuscitation unit , unconscious and near to death. Only his pacemaker was keeping him alive. His three children had been called to his bedside, and each one was praying for a happy release for him, as they had been told there was no brain activity. The doctors had told them they would be turning off the pacemaker the next day.
This morning they were told there had been signs of brain activity after all, and that the doctors were not going to turn off his pacemaker, as this was too invasive. Instead they would be starting him on a course of steroids to hopefully keep him stable for a few weeks. My friend then sent me this message:
‘Honestly, what is the point of keeping him alive? His lungs have gone, his hearing is gone, and since Mum died two years ago he has wanted to die too. All he wants to do is to be with Mum again. He’s refusing all medication. If he had been my dog I would have hugged him to sleep.’
What a heartbreaking message, and I can only agree with my friend. However, doctors are bound by the Hippocratic Oath to treat the ill to the best of their ability. If there is a sign of life then I suppose they must act on it, even though in this case it isn’t in the patient’s best interests. The patient doesn’t want it, the patient’s children do not want it, and yet the doctors carry on trying to keep somebody alive who has wanted to die for some time.
As my friend says, whatever is the point?
On another tack, I only found out recently from the ambulance driver who took my mother home from her hospital stay that doctors had put ‘Not for resuss’ in her notes. She improved after a course of antibiotics and is now quite perky, sitting up in her chair doing the Daily Mail crossword and talking away at anybody who visits. She wasn’t making any sense when she had been an in-patient, and nobody had ever asked me, her next of kin, about not resuscitating her.
From one extreme to the other…