Because of accidents and comas.
How do you feel about comas? Would you want to be fed and kept alive by a machine if there were an accident? Let’s make it an accident where you are the heroine or hero: a bank robber is escaping with money and a child hostage and your best bud trips her (the robber is female) and you grab the little boy and run with him to safety. The ceremony where the mayor pins medals on both of you is really fun but even though the robber was caught, the getaway driver wasn’t. You are leaving the ceremony and a car driven by the getaway wench hits you and you are in a coma…..
The fourth and last question on the Washington State POLST form is the key one for this: do you want long term feeding or not? Would you want short term if you were going to get better? Does long term fill you with horror? Ok, the odds of ending up in a coma are really really really small, but not zero. Most of my patients choose the middle road but some say “No tube feeding or iv feeding EVER!” They may have had family or a friend that were kept alive for longer than they think was right. I do have the rare person who wants feeding and everything forever….and that is ok too. It helps to know that.
Back to question one: for a healthy fifty or sixty or seventy old, I advise them to ask to be resuscitated. That is the default anyhow, to do everything. You don’t have to do a POLST if you want everything done. But if you DON’T, then it is worth filling out and it’s helpful to talk to your family as well as your doctor. And I am often surprised by what people want. It helps me to know a bit more about them as their doctor.
One woman in her upper 80s said, “I don’t want to think about this.”
I replied, “If you don’t want to you don’t have to. But, if you don’t say what you want, your daughter and I will have to guess when something happens.”
She then said what she wanted. In her age group I talk about stroke: some strokes are lethal. Some are not and the person looks horrible. However, they improve after the first 48 hours, as brain swelling goes down. The key that makes a stroke survivable is whether the person can swallow or not. If they can’t protect their airway, they aspirate and get pneumonia.
Think if all our elders knew that, that after the stroke they will improve in 48 hours. Wouldn’t it be less terrifying? And we aren’t going to “unplug” them in the first day, because the amount that they improve is not totally predictable. Nothing in medicine is, really….
I am careful to say to a healthy sixty year old that this form is to be filled out as if something were to happen NOW, this week. Not to think of the form as for being when they are much older and very sick. The form has update slots on the back: we are supposed to revisit it at intervals when a person’s health changes. And people change what they want.
I had a lady in her upper 80s who was on coumadin for atrial fibrillation, to prevent stroke. The family was going through a rough patch with the death of a small child. She said, “I don’t want to take this.” She denied depression but she didn’t want to do the regular blood tests. We switched her to aspirin. Coumadin lowers the stroke risk by 1/2 and aspirin by 1/4.
A year later she said, “I think I want that coumadin again. Things are better.”
Sometimes things are better.