Tuesday, October 25, 2016

End of Life

Image result for barbarian invasions movie
The final scene from the movie "The Barbarian Invasions"

A year or so ago courts in Canada ruled that people have a legal right to what was then called assisted suicide and is now called physician assisted death but what is what used to be called euthanasia.  They gave the government a year to come up with a law.  Our former Tea Party government diddled around with this and it fell on our new government to come up  with a law.  The law they have come up with is predictably unpopular with both sides of the argument which some people would interpret as that it must be a pretty good law.

I generally disapprove of whatever you call it but as soon as you make arbitrary statements, all the what ifs come into play and these issues are rarely black and white but are rather shades of grey. I could expound further on the ethical issues but all kinds of other people who are able to use terms like beneficence and non-malfeasance and actually understand what they mean are already expounding in the medical and lay press. 

I work in a Catholic hospital.  While the Catholic church has historically had no qualms about killing heretics, Muslims, Jews, or Protestants; the idea of ending the suffering of somebody with a terminal condition seems to stick in their craw.  This is problematic because our sister hospital has 95% of the palliative care beds in the region.  We are assured by our medical director not to worry because most of the PAD will be delivered in the patients' homes because apparently  in the universe he lives in, patients still die at home.

This does give me an opportunity to muse about my experience with end of care.

The concept of euthanasia is not by the way a new one.  I remember having a discussion of it in Grade 10 English class of all places

Anyway as an intern I was towards the end of 8 unhappy weeks on Internal Medicine when we had an unfortunate patient admitted to our service in the evening.  This poor man had been otherwise well until a few days ago when he developed back pain and as we like to say, his bone scan lit up like a Christmas tree.  He had some type of untreatable cancer in his bones and he was deteriorating rapidly.   Now no death is really a good death but we could say that he had had an active life almost up to the end, unaware of what was going on in his bone marrow and that by presenting late in his disease, he was spared weeks of chemotherapy hell.  I doubt he or his family saw it that way.

The medical resident (actually a second year family practice resident) told the patient and his family that there was nothing that could be done and that we would keep him comfortable with morphine until the cancer took it's course.

That was when one of his daughters yelled, "what you are talking about is euthanasia!" and ran out of the room.

Nowadays that would generate an ethics consult, a palliative care consult, a week of chemo and possibly an ICU stay but in 1983 we didn't do that so he got IV morphine which was a relatively new concept then.  Instead of just running an infusion or having the nurse give the med IV (the patient might die?) the intern had to inject 10 mg of morphine every 4 hours.  That meant every 3rd night that was me.  On a q4h schedule, that meant a midnight and 0400 injection.  Generally you were up and around at midnight but at 0400 you were generally trying to catch a few minutes of sleep.  After almost 2 months on 1 in 3 call you would sell your mother for a few extra minutes of sleep.  As it happened I was on call on the above patient's last night on earth and after the midnight injection, I asked the nurse if she might consider a sc injection.  (From a pharmacokinetic point of view, sc injections would give a more steady state morphine level, which I should have thought of).  She of course laughed in my face and at 0400 the page came, I went to the bedside, she handed me a syringe which I injected slowly and went back to bed.  At 0500, I got the page to pronounce death.  "Aren't you glad you got up to give him that injection IV instead of sc", the nurse said.  "What the hell was in that syringe you gave me,"  I replied.

The second episode was early or late in my career as a rural GP.  It was my first weekend in a small BC interior town and I was on call.  Friday night I got a call about a patient with ALS who was at home.  I made a house call and listened to his chest and he had pneumonia.  The one thing I remember was that he was watching the playoff hockey game and I remember thinking, "too bad he's not going to find out who wins the Stanley Cup this year."  Funny the things you think.  I prescribed some oral antibiotic and went home to watch the rest of the game.  Sunday evening I got another call and made another house call and he was really in a bad way.  I called the ambulance which took him to the hospital ER and I could see that he was not going to survive the next few hours.  At the same time his wife seemed quite adamant that everything be done which left me in a dilemma because everything that I had been taught told me that you don't ventilate ALS patients ever.  I called his family doctor who worked in the same clinic at home because I figured he knew the family well and could come in an talk with them.  "Oh" he said, "Do you need help intubating him?".  I muttered something like I didn't really think intubation was appropriate and besides we didn't have a ventilator at our hospital.  Anyway it looked like his wife wanted everything done so we called in a nurse, loaded him up in the ambulance and sent him to the referral hospital an hour away by road.

I talked to the nurse, who went with him, later and she said that they almost intubated him at the referral hospital before they realized that he had ALS and he died shortly after.

I think about how better the whole case could have played out, how he could have died at home surrounded by his family or at worst in the local hospital surrounded by his family instead of spending the last hour of his life in an ambulance.   He might have even been able to watch a little

His wife came in the next week to see me and I told her how sad I was that her husband died and she shot me a look that said, "Fzck you" and asked for prescription for Valium which I gave her.

Shortly after that I decided rural (or for that matter any) general practice wasn't for me so I went in the anaesthesia where we don't have to deal with end of life issues except of course for the six months of IM I had to do which had some really interesting end of life issues, one of which I blogged on years ago.

Somewhere along the line the whole euthanasia debate got hijacked by the concept of "passive euthanasia" which was if you didn't try every single futile treatment, that was the same as giving someone a massive overdose of barbiturates or whatever.  So over the past 25 years we now have end of life patients in ICU, or getting futile surgical procedures.  One third of the beds in our ICU are dedicated to ALS patients now.

Anaesthesia is in fact quite often involved in end of life care as I will outline below.  This scenario or something similar is not uncommon.

Granny is dying of colon cancer at home.  She has been seen by the palliative care team and is doing great until she develops a bowel obstruction.  Instead of taking her to the hospital with the palliative care unit, where they know her, she gets taken to another hospital.  There the ER doc or the internist calls the surgeon who without seeing the patient agrees to do a laparotomy/enterostomy.  The patient is told she is having a quick general anesthetic where she will have the obstruction relieved by a small incision.  She is seen in the receiving area by the surgeon and you for the first time.  In the OR, of course the tumour is stuck to the abdominal wall and bleeds, or the surgical resident perforates the bowel and all of a sudden cachectic Granny has an incision from her pubis to her xyphoid and the you know she is not going to breath post-op.  You could call ICU but you can already hear the peals of laughter from them when you ask for a bed.  So you take her out to recovery on a ventilator and the recovery room nurses are really pissed off at you. (The surgeon is meanwhile telling the family that she is being ventilated because of the anaesthetic.)

The bottom line here is that other people on your behalf made promises they didn't have to keep, she was just having a quick case, she wasn't going to die today.  Had you seen her, you may have said otherwise but you weren't invited to the discussion.

The other issue is that Granny is a DNR or whatever you want to call it (we have a very complicated Goals of Care document in our region).  Technically you can just turn off the ventilator and watch her struggle for minutes to hours until the hypoxia/hypercarbia trigger the final lethal arrhythmia.  You could even sedate her a bit.  Nobody really wants to see that though. I've turned off the ventilator on organ donors enough but somebody that you talked to an hour so ago?  Not sure about that one.

The other scenario is the pathologic fracture and the ensuing tumour embolus.

This is not to say that either patient shouldn't get surgery.  A bowel obstruction or a pathological fracture can be pretty incapacitating.  The issue is that in that population there is a high risk of death or requiring ventilation post-op and this is something that needs to be discussed with the patient and their family and never is.  Granny for example might elect for an NG tube and a lot of morphine or a radiologist might be able to do something percutaneously.

When I was on the admin dark side, some people came to our Medical Advisory Committee to discuss the above Goals of Care document.  I took the opportunity to express my concern about these scenarios and the fact that we are never invited to these discussions.  "Yes, that is a problem," said the nice lady and went on to the next question.

The final issue is that having decided it is okay for doctors to kill people under circumstances how do we actually go about it.  Because as I blogged in respect to Capital Punishment it is really hard killing somebody when you really want to.   I mean those of us who do "monitored sedation" know how easy it is to make somebody apneic and occasionally cause a cardiac arrest but when you really want to kill somebody it may not be as easy as you might want.

As I understand currently the practice would be to administer large doses of oral barbiturates.  20-30 years ago getting barbiturates was easy.  About half the population were on them as sleeping pills.  We even gave them to pregnant women.  If you gave somebody a months supply of Seconal you usually gave them enough to kill themselves.  Now if I order a lethal dose of a barbiturate, the pharmacist is probably going to ask some questions.  He may even refuse to fill your prescription. (A significant number of pharmacists refuse to dispense the morning after pill, presumably these people may have some opinion on euthanasia)     That plus in some provinces barbiturates are on the triplicate prescription program.  Assuming that you have gone thru the proper procedures for physician assisted death, you won't necessarily get in trouble but you may get hassled.

Of course getting somebody who has a swallowing problem or who is drifting in and out of consciousness to swallow all those pills is going to be a little difficult.  That is why probably a lot of euthanasia is going to be intravenous which has its own issues because IV access is not that easy as I find out once a week or so. 
The other issue is that a lot of the euthanasia candidates are going to be narcotic tolerant which means you are looking at bigger doses.  Dose is a problem because you can give a huge dose and still not kill somebody.  (I remember a story in medical school which I hope is an urban legend about somebody who took a huge dose of horse tranquillizers and woke up days later on the stretcher on the way to have his kidneys harvested.)   I have a friend who is now a retired anesthesiologist in Holland who tells me of GPs coming to the OR to "borrow" some pancuronium and everybody knows what they intend to do with it.

Looking forward into our brave new world of legalized euthanasia or physician assisted death (because why use one word when you can use three) who is going to be doing the killing?

I think a lot of doctors are already thinking, I'm just going to call anaesthesia, they have all kinds of cool drugs and besides we already blame them when somebody dies.  I think most of the leaders in anaesthesia are trying to keep a low profile lest more people think that way which is too bad because we as a specialty should be part of this debate.

There are the evangelical physician advocates of PAD who are already active and will probably do a good job of it  although there are not very many of them.  Knowing doctors as I do too well, I predict the following scenario.

We have socialized medicine in Canada which means that doctors who euthanize patients will expect to be paid.  This means that a generous fee will be negotiated, because this has been mandated by a court decision provincial governments will pay whatever is demanded.  This means a certain class of doctors, who we all know, are going to realize that they can make a killing out of killing people and it is they who are going to be doing most of the PAD.  

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