Her last conversation should not have been with me.
I’d just arrived for the night shift in the I.C.U. when her breathing quickened. I didn’t know much about the patient, and the little I did know wasn’t good: She had cancer. Her lungs were filled with fluid. As her breathing deteriorated and her oxygen levels plunged, I searched the chart for her wishes in an emergency. Nothing.
I explained to her how rapidly her condition had worsened and asked if she’d discussed intubation and mechanical ventilation. She shook her head; she didn’t think it would get so bad so fast. Together we called her husband, who had just left for the evening, but there was no answer.
“If we do it, when will I…” she paused. “When will I wake up?”
I hesitated. It was as likely as not that she wouldn’t. I explained that we never leave patients intubated longer than necessary, but when people were as sick as she was it was impossible to know when — or even if — they would be extubated.
There are, no doubt, differing opinions on what constitutes a good death. But this, inarguably, was not one.
For years the medical profession has largely fumbled the question of what we should do when there’s nothing more we can do. A new wave of research sheds light on what patients want at the end of life, and who is — or isn’t — getting it.
Despite growing recognition that more care isn’t necessarily better care, particularly at the end of life, many Americans still receive an enormous dose of medicine in their final days. On average, patients make 29 visits to the doctor’s office in their last six months.