End-of-Life Options: Medical Technique Portrayed as a Right pt. 1

Ketring Lake at Dusk

For the next few posts I promise to vary my topics a bit, so I won’t be writing solely on the new Colorado law and its implications.  But for this post, I wanted to spend a bit of time on the “big picture.”  I had the privilege today of spending the morning listening to Jennifer Ballentine’s thoughtful and informative presentation on the new law and what it means in practice and policy for healthcare providers and facilities.  Many of the folks there were from the hospice and palliative care community, several different residences (skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and continuing care retirement communities) were represented and of note were the attendance of several first responders (EMS or firefighters). Perhaps in a subsequent post I will delve into the dilemmas of EMS providers who may be unaware of a person’s use of life-ending medication under the new law (as they are sometimes unaware of do not resuscitate orders).   Many different people in attendance with lots of challenging questions.   But only some of those questions could be answered by reference to the new Colorado law.

The situation with the new law was an abrupt sea change.  The day before this new law was certified by the governor all of these folks from their diverse communities were continuing to discourage very ill people from thinking and possibly acting upon suicidal thoughts and wanting to end it all.  Once the law was certified, then BAM – all that changed.  No easing into any transitional period as California and Vermont enjoyed (with their “end of life option act” and “patient choice at end of life” statutes respectively) . . .

I will try to steer clear of the pseudonymous quicksand of what these types of medical services provided are called: physician assisted suicide, physician assisted death, (medical) aid in dying, (voluntary active) euthanasia, death with dignity, but it is challenging when there is no clear marker of when living is perhaps coming to a close and dying is well-nigh.    I liked one blogger’s beef with all these euphemisms and her suggestions that we perhaps call it “assisted self-administered lethal ingestion.”  I think this descriptor is best because it is so technical sounding and our new law champions a medical technique, with precious few indicia or garb of a “right” to die.

To wind up, I will turn to a quote from the late poet, novelist and social critic James Baldwin:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

     James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

How to identify the boundaries of death versus suicide – where are the distinctions here among all the different labels? Our new law does explain that the actions in accordance with the procedure set forth in the End of Life Options Act do not constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing, homicide or elder abuse.  Does this move our conversation forward?  Can a law do this?

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Difficult Conversations About End of Life – DNR vs. Health Care Power of Attorney

What many people don’t want to consider – is the prospect of when a person’s DNR/DNI (do not resuscitate/do not intubate) directions may come into conflict with what an agent under a health care power of attorney decides. When a surrogate overrides the patient’s stated wishes (for example, where the children’s interests in “saying goodbye” override a mother’s DNR wishes) Check out this very powerful video of two daughters recounting the difficult decisions they made regarding their mother’s health care.

This video highlights the slippery slope of medical intervention and not knowing when the intervention will end and a daughter’s grief about going against her mother’s wishes.  She poignantly describes her mother’s searching eyes which seemed to ask “why are you doing this to me?”  This is an excellent reminder for all of us, especially those who work with older people who are facing health challenges: have the conversation with your kids or other surrogate decision makers and make your wishes explicit!  It is also useful to note the ongoing need for what the medical document known as a DNR means –it doesn’t mean “no medical care” – it means do not resuscitate.

Between the short periods of time a doctor may spend (if any time is spent at all) explaining to an older person or one who has a medical condition or disease which would make a DNR, and the reluctance that most people have to talk to their loved ones about these difficult situation, these conversations are hard, but worth the effort according to all the people I’ve spoken to about it.  I always encourage my clients, and sometimes also participate in family meetings around this issue of facilitating a specific conversation about identifying a older adult’s wishes, talking about particular scenarios and using specifics where appropriate to illustrate how wishes might be carried out.

Daughter who decided, when asked by the doctor whether she would give permission to put her mother on ventilator decided that she would have done things differently and would have declined intubation.  Daughters could see the pain their mother went through and finally asked mother to respond by blinking to their question “do you want to be taken off the ventilator?”  Very powerful video I strongly recommend.  This is why I think it is important to take time with clients, who are willing and interested in getting real about the difficult end-of-life choice, to discuss with them and often with their adult children the difficult but inevitable prospect of “letting go.”

Along similar lines is an article by Sally Mauk in The Missoulian entitled “Doctor Says Advances Prolong Life, Make Dying Harder,”   The article pinpoints several of the difficult facts that we baby boomers must face in light of the experience of many of our parents’ deaths as well as medical and economic realities that have dramatically changed in recent years.  Mauk’s article is primarily about Dr. Ira Byock, a past president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.  Byock’s website is www.dyingwell.org and his book Dying Well, published by Riverhead in 1997, is on my office bookshelf, and his newest book “The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life,”  is a book I’ll be reading soon.  It is best to take the time to start thinking about these issues so that a conversation with loved ones will be more likely and probably less stressful – start with your doctor and don’t forget to consider how the medical and legal documents can work together to support your goals.