Monday, June 2, 2008

Never Extubate a Dying Patient?

Being familiar with other medical blogs is a great way to keep up on how other doctors and nurses approach care for the dying. In fact, many of the most popular posts always seem to involve frustrations of medical futility, or the emotional impact of caring for dying patients. The range in tone for these posts is quite wide, from derogatory and demeaning of patients and families to eloquent and demonstrative of the great compassion in medicine.

A recent post by the anonymous blogger, the Buckeye Surgeon, highlighted his surgeon's view of palliative care. I came across the post from Kevin MD, a popular medical blog aggregator. Here is how he highlighted the post:

"Unrushed on his journey toward death"

Well put. That should be the goal of palliative care.
Seeing a palliative care post got me pretty excited. As I read the post I was glad to see a surgeon espousing viewpoints on palliative care areas. The Buckeye Surgeon highlights how many elderly patients with very devastating injuries may be able to get to surgery but have many co-morbidities that prevent recovery. With much wisdom, it is pointed out that seeing the few who do really well should not blind one to the many who do not recover.

In reading the post, it appears the surgeon may not have access to an involved palliative care team. I am very glad to see the mindfulness of palliative care, but there are some misconceptions to be addressed.

The post highlights that terminal extubation is something this surgeon actually forbids from happening in the orders:
-DNR-CC
-Do not extubate
-Morphine 4 mg IV q 15 minutes
-Propofol drip titrated to complete sedation/unconsciousness
-Turn down the sound on all monitors.
(DNR = Do Not Resuscitate CC = Comfort Care.)

There are times when extubating a patient can cause more distress - an obstructed airway, a high risk for hemorrhagic bleed, inability to control tachypnea with medications, feel free to add others. But in my palliative care reading and experience, leaving a patient intubated is the exception, and not the rule. So I was very surprised to hear this approach of keeping patients intubated.

Have any Pallimed readers run into this with consulting physicians? My guess is probably not a lot, because these physicians may not consult palliative care as they would not want a palliative care team to extubate their patient.

Good point of using morphine every 15 minutes as that fits with the knowledge of the T-Max of the concentration after an IV dose, but it is not specified as a PRN, so is it scheduled? Many palliative care providers advocate for a combination of opioid drip and rescue bolus to anticipate dyspnea.

Instead of turning down the sound of the monitors, most have the ability to be turned off in the room and continue monitoring at the staff station. This also avoids the constant monitor watching in addition to having unnecessary alarms.

So why does the surgeon advocate leaving a patient extubated? Basically because it is more comfortable. It is explained in the post with the following passage:
...it isn't ethical to merely "turn everything off". They've decompensated beyond the stage of self-sustaining life. Unplugging everything and stopping all the drips is about as cruel a thing as I can imagine. I never terminally extubate a patient. There's nothing more gruesome than watching a patient suffocate after terminal extubation. A wise old nurse made me experience it when I was a resident. No reason to pull that tube out. The dead bowel or the fecal peritonitis is going to stop the heart soon enough. No reason to expedite the death with unnecessary agony.
I agree with the blogger that it is unethical to be cruel, but I disagree that terminal extubation has to be gruesome, cruel, or cause suffocation or agony. There are reasons to pull that tube out. Not prolonging suffering is probably the most common reason given for extubation. Not continuing aggressive measures when you can no longer reach the goals set by the patient, family and medical staff is another reason.

Euphemisms and broad generalizations about withdrawal of life-support technologies are common with families, patients and medical staff, especially for the ability to make difficult situations more tolerable. 'Pull the plug', 'turn everything off', 'take him off the hook', 'stop treating her', 'withdraw care.' One role for a palliative care team is to highlight all the things that are being done for comfort, for emotional support to patient, family and staff, to prepare for death, to conduct religious and family traditions, to reminisce.

Many palliative care providers have worked in ICU's with dying patients and are therefore very familiar with the very involved process of terminal extubation of a ventilated patient. In palliative care, extubation is elevated to a procedure not just an order written for the respiratory therapist. Terminal extubation can be done well with a team approach, managing expectations, and aggressive symptom control for dyspnea and anxiety. Check out some of our 31+ posts on palliative care and the ICU to see some studies that talk about common ICU dilemmas.

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