Non compos mentis

This is for the Ronovan Writes weekly haiku #51, prompt words future and give. I have been reading Walt Kelley’s Pogo again. One strip yesterday worked it’s way from ptarmagin and ptruly and pteam all the way to a pun involving “non compass Memphis” in just four panels. Talk about away with words! I am studying latin again in my spare time, so I about fell off my chair laughing. Hooray for Mr. Kelly!

future feature give
teacher stretcher lecher live
liver fetcher fugue

I took the photograph last summer camping on Marrowstone Island.

Ha, the joke is on me. That’s the June 2015 challenge. I’m leaving it up……

Burning

Rumi’s chickpea poem: http://www.superluminal.com/cookbook/essay_chickpea.html

I took the stealthie on the first ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge yesterday morning. A quiet ferry with very few sleepy people…..

 

The dust stirs
This is not Konya
I am safe

Water falls from the sky on the dust
This is not Turkey
I am safe

The sun warms the dust
I am not of Islaam
I am safe

A seed stirs in the dust
I am not of Christian either: raised atheist
I am safe

A plant grows
I am not a man: a woman
I am safe

Peas ripen
I do not read the Koran
I am safe

Peas are harvested
I have no mystic tradition nor teachers
I am safe

Peas are dried
He does not ask a question
I am safe

Peas are soaked
He is not religious
I am safe

Peas are placed on slow heat
He chooses sex not love
I am safe

Peas come to a slow boil
He refuses love and leaves
I am safe

The ladle of the Beloved smashes down
None of it matters
I am not safe

 

 

Four myths about death

Currently I see myths about death and dying in the United States. These myths are very strong and lead to a disconnect between medical personnel and non-medical. The medical personnel talk about end of life and want the answers to certain questions. But we often fail to address the persons deep fears and concerns because medicine sees them as myths, and so there is a disconnect between what the patient and the medical person see as important about the discussion of death.

Here are the four questions and fears:

1. How can I avoid being kept alive on a machine?
2. How can I avoid dying in pain?
3. How can I avoid having too much done, too many resources used, and dying in a hospital?
4. How can I avoid dying of starvation or thirst?

1. How can I avoid being kept alive on a machine?

The myth here is that we can keep someone alive on a machine. We almost never can. Comas are extremely rare. There are a very few people who survive a high spinal cord injury, like Christopher Reeves, and can be kept alive for a period on a ventilator. Or people with a disease that leads to the failure of the breathing muscles: Steven Hawkings with ALS has outlived all predictions.

But for the most part we can’t. I have tried: I have had two patients in 25 years with brain death who had signed organ donor cards. When brain death is established, an organ donor team will fly in to a rural area. Meanwhile, I was to attempt to keep the patient’s body alive. One lived long enough and the other did not. I could not stop the death with machines or drugs and that person was already on a ventilator.

Part of this myth is fear relating to hospital settings. ICUs, intensive care units, frighten people. There are alarms going off and machines with blinking lights and it is brightly lit and quiet and alien. Why? If a person is on a ventilator, they are sedated. Otherwise they will automatically pull the breathing tube out or the urinary catheter or the iv or all of them. It is instinctive. They are sick, may be delirious or injured, they are not in their right minds, they are not logical. So they are sedated. Most of the alarms are rightly ignored by the nurses: most alarms are going off because the patient has moved and the machine is not picking up. The nurses learn to filter automatically which alarms are trivial and which alarms do need attention and are an emergency.

I wanted to see an elderly aunt. When I arrived, my cousin said I couldn’t because she was in the emergency room. I said that I am pretty comfortable in emergency rooms and thought I could talk my way back to see her, since I am a physician. We had to wait in the lobby for a couple of hours, but then they let me back.

Part of the drama and horror that shows up in ICUs is the family’s feelings. Family members may feel guilty or angry or afraid and they often lash out at each other. Families are both at their best and their absolute worst when someone is critically ill. I have a friend who still doesn’t speak to a sibling after their father died in hospice three years ago, because they disagreed so strongly on how he should be cared for. The hospital staff and nurses and doctors and maintenance people and laundry people and dietitians are used to families crying or arguing or even yelling at each other. We try to support the patient and the family. But we cannot make them agree and don’t try.

We will return to the “in hospital” death later.

2. How can I avoid dying in pain?

Wear your seatbelt, wear helmets, don’t drive in blizzards, change the batteries in your smoke alarm, don’t text while driving….

That seems like a joke, but not really. Accidents are in the top ten causes of death in the United States currently. People do die in pain if shot, in car accidents, in falls. If we can’t get to them and get pain medicine on board in time.

When death is coming, the fear is that we will die in pain from, for example, cancer. However, most people that I have seen dying of cancer DECREASE the pain medicine rather than increase. There are at least two reasons. One is that they want to be awake. As the kidneys fail, the pain medicine lasts longer. They may not need as much. If they are in hospice and have family present, my experience has been that they say “Turn it down. I don’t want it. I don’t need it.” They want to be awake with their family.

The second reason is that it really may hurt much less. When people stop eating and go into ketosis, some pain receptors are turned off. This is very interesting. I have been using it in clinic: my patients with osteoarthritis who try a ketotic diet say that the joint stops hurting when they become ketotic. One patient said that when her right hip stopped hurting entirely, she realized that the muscles from the left hip were very sore from limping. “After two weeks, I tried one piece of bread,” she said, “And the right hip joint pain came right back.” So a person with end stage cancer or end stage dementia, who does not want to eat, may have little pain or different pain.

Lastly, the most important pain when there is not a sudden violent death, is emotional pain. We may not want people to feel it, but it is better if we can stay present and let them. Stay present, stay kind, listen, do not shut them off. If we shut them off, it is because of our OWN fears.

3. How can I avoid having too much done, too many resources used, and dying in a hospital?

First, fill out a POLST form: Physician orders for life sustaining treatment. The first question is the one medical people want you to answer: if your heart and lungs STOP, and you are dead, do you want us to try to revive you? If someone is over 80, I don’t want to do CPR. I will break their ribs and if we DO get them back, they WILL have damage. People often say, “Bring me back if I will be ok.” I joke that we don’t have the little turkey pop up that says “Too late. Done.” But it is minutes until brain death. If you want to be revived, your best bet is to die in the emergency room in front of the emergency room staff. They can move very fast. The security guards in Las Vegas are also very very good at putting AEDs on people who drop dead from a big win or a big loss.

Living wills are better than nothing, but they often say “If two doctors agree that I am terminal within six months, no extraordinary measures.” This is entirely too vague. What do YOU mean by an extraordinary measure? A ventilator? Aspirin? An iv? No one has ever defined what an extraordinary measure is.

The other questions on a POLST form ask specifically about resources. Hopefully the medical person will explain a little: what is a ventilator, when would we use it, would oxygen be ok, are antibiotics ok, have you talked to your family about this? The POLST form can’t cover everything but it does give us an idea of what someone wants when they can’t talk to us. And it takes some of the burden off the family: father DID say what he wanted and it is in writing and he talked to his doctor about it. If you are the family, how are you going to decide what an extraordinary measure is?

Now: dying in a hospital. Our culture currently pays lip service to dying at home. Sort of. A survey of Veterans revealed THREE DIFFERENT IDEAL DEATHS. One: the Hallmark death, in hospice, at home, surrounded with friends and family making peace with the world. Two: Sudden death, no warning, no attention. Three: fight to the death. This person won’t go, will fight, a miracle is possible and they are NOT at acceptance. Do EVERYTHING.

And dying in a hospital. In residency in Portland I had two patients dying on my medicine rotation. One was a young man in his 20s, surrounded by family and friends, of HIV. He was in the hospital because that is where he felt comfortable and safe and could get immediate help. The friends asked if our team was tired of wading through a crowd to check on him each day. I replied, “No. I am so glad you are here. I have another person dying, and he has no one, an elderly man. He is alone except for me and the staff.” So we, the hospital staff, are the ones who try to comfort the elderly alcoholic dying, the cancer patient estranged from her family, the lost and depressed and solitary and addicted. And we don’t care what they did to get there, the sins committed, the regrets, the mistakes. We try to help as much as we can. I do addiction medicine in part because I felt so sad watching people with addiction die alone. So dying in the hospital is NOT a failure. Sometimes it is where the person feels safest or they don’t have anyone. And not having anyone is a failure of our culture, not of medicine.

4. How can I avoid dying of starvation or thirst?

When someone is dying of cancer or dementia or another slow disorder, they want to stop eating at some point. Sometimes the family gets them to continue eating and the patient will do so out of love for their family. They have no hunger or thirst. Renal failure sets in and the rising creatinine takes them into a gentle coma and then into the great mystery. This looks like a kind death to me: the brain is quietly sedated and put to sleep by the body, by the rising creatinine. Let them go. We will offer food and drink to anyone, but sometimes they are letting go….let them.

And here is a book I want and haven’t read yet: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/AD-OUT-NET.html

Admitting diagnosis: Old guy, don’t know

During my three months temp job in 2010 at a nearby Army Hospital, I was asked to help the Family Medicine Inpatient Team (FMIT) whenever a faculty member was sick or out, which turned out to be fairly often. I enjoyed this because I wanted to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. It was very interesting to be at a training program, watch the other faculty and work at a 400 bed hospital instead of my usual 25 bed one.

Two patients needed to be admitted at the same time on our call day, so the second year resident took one and I took the other. The report on mine was an 82 year old male veteran, coughing for three weeks, emergency room diagnosis was pneumonia.

The resident soon caught up with me because her person was too sick and got diverted to the ICU. Mr. T, our gentleman, was a vague historian. He said that he always coughed since he quit smoking 15 years ago and he couldn’t really describe the problem. He’d gotten up at 4:30 to walk around the assisted living; that was normal for him because he used to do the maintenence. He had either felt bad then or after going back to sleep in a chair and waking at 10. “I didn’t feel good. I knew I shouldn’t drive.”

He’d had a heart attack in the past and heart bypass surgery. Records were vague. The radiologist read the chest xrays essentially as, “Looks just like the one 3 months ago but we can’t guarentee that there isn’t a pneumonia or something in there.” He had a slightly elevated white blood cell count, no fever, and by then I did a Mini-mental status exam. He scored 22 out of 30. That could mean right on the edge of moderate dementia, or it could be delerium. I got his permission to call his wife.

“Oh, his memory has been bad since he spent a year in a chair telling them not to amputate his toes. And he was on antibiotics the whole time. He wasn’t the same after that. He just said he didn’t feel right and that he shouldn’t drive.” So his wife called an ambulance.

The third year chief resident came by and wanted to know the admitting diagnosis. “Old guy, don’t know.” was my reply. “Either pneumonia or a urinary tract infection or a heart attack maybe with delerium or dementia or both.”

The second year was helping me put in the computer orders, because I was terrible at it still. She could put them in upside down and asleep. “Why are we admitting him, anyhow? We can’t really find anything wrong, why not just send him home?”

“We can’t send him home because he can’t tell us what’s wrong. He might have an infection but he might not, and he has a really bad heart. If we send him home and he has a heart attack tonight, we would feel really bad. And he might die.”

I was getting a cold. I had planned to ask to work a half day but half the team was out sick so I just worked. But by morning I had no voice and felt awful. I called in sick.

At noon the phone rang. It was the second year. “You know Mr. T, who we admitted last night?”

“Yes,” I said.

“He had that heart attack during the night. Got taken to the cath lab. You made me look really good.” We had worked on the assumption that it could be early in a heart attack though the first labs and the ECG were negative. I had insisted on cardiac monitoring and repeating the enzymes. The resident had finished the note after I left and the night team had gotten the second and abnormal set of enzymes.

82 year olds are tricky. With some memory loss he couldn’t tell us much except that “I don’t feel right.” He was right not to drive and we were right to keep him in the hospital. And if it had all been normal in the morning, I still would not have felt bad about it. The residents are looking for a definitive diagnosis, but sometimes it’s “Old guy, don’t know,” until you do know.

 

Previously posted on everything2.com in April 2010. I am not sure if this branch was dead or not, but the moss grows on it here in the wet winter anyhow.

I took the photograph in the woods last weekend.

nurturance 3

Another tree picture from a recent walk in the woods. It’s the water that the moss is holding that fascinates me. I feel nurtured, too, by the complexity of just this one tree trunk, picture of bark and moss and the complexity of the color and pattern. People are just as complicated. I remind myself that we underestimate complexity all the time and that nature is far far more complex than our understanding.

nurturance 2

This is for photrablogger’s Mundane Monday Challenge #42. In contrast to the beautiful pattern repeat in his photograph, with a person made structure, I choose this photo, from yesterday. In the Pacific Northwest, we are in the cold wet season: but the moss loves it. And the tree is alive and seems to welcome this water loving, water holding friend….