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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Dizzying Experience of Healthcare in the Time of a Pandemic

By Lyle Fettig @fettiglyle

Check out the Pallimed COVID-19 Resource page here. - Ed.

I love the letter co-published by Pallimed and Geripal about COVID,and you should read that too. As an erstwhile (for now) Pallimed contributor, I thought I'd toss in my two cents with some additional thoughts/reflections based on week 1 of preparing for the COVID pandemic as a palliative care physician.
Over the last week, I've operated mentally in most of these lanes:

1. Primary prevention and public health: Through extensive advocacy for social distancing and widespread testing. I have talked about it with my patients and my own family and friends. This also included persistently calling governmental officials, pulling my sons out of school, writing letters, and re-entering social media after an over two year hiatus

2. Assessment of patients with suspected COVID-19, like a person I've been following for 4-5 years who had pneumonia last year and called with complaint of a cough. The usual clinical reasoning of the scenario was complicated as I tried to balance the desire to get him evaluated with the public health considerations.

3. Management of mildly ill confirmed cases and mitigating the public health risk. Haven't dealt with this yet. Just waiting for the first call on one of my high risk clinic patients to have this. I know that even if they have mild symptoms, they might progress to lane 4. It feels unfair to think that an emerging infectious disease would take any of their lives.

4. Management of seriously or critically ill patients who might die. We've spent a lot of time with our critical care colleagues over the last week, swiftly trying to figure out what we would do with a "surge" and how it would change our usual collaboration, which is robust and well established. Enter the age of inpatient teleconsults, including a first: A surrogate asking me if he could email me a photo of himself so I could see what he looks like.

5. Worst case scenario of resource allocation issues: We hate talking about this, but it might happen, and we have to face it and be prepared.
It's dizzying to think about all of these lanes, on top of the usual issues our patients and teams face. Lane 4 and 5 are scary enough to serve as motivation to put a lot of attention into lane 1. Even though our ICU is a place with plenty of windows and sunlight, for some reason, I imagine lane 4 and 5 as a dark windowless place without walls, just a massive ward full of despair. It's enough to move any of us to tears and action.
I've found it helpful, in conversation about the pandemic, to identify which lane we are talking about at that moment, especially with respect to lane 4 vs. 5. In lane 5, there will be factors out of our control that determine whether patients get what they need. Routine palliative care practice (fueled by extra coffee and fewer administrative meetings) will serve our patients and their families well. Under any circumstance, we will do what we can to support shared decision-making, even if there are factors out of our control (as there always are).

Here are a few thoughts as we enter the new week:

Let's keep advocating in lane 1 while we prepare
It's surreal to see cars on the road and just feel, well, disturbed. After I finished pumping gas today, I wiped the handle off with Chlorox and went onto the next pump to wipe that one down too. (What have I become?) We are still woefully under testing for SARS-CoV2. Still some people think this is a nothingburger. Continue to educate patiently and figure out what's hardest for them about social distancing, and empathize. I'm struggling with it. I've been avoiding touching my family, changing clothes in the garage before entering, etc. It's for the birds.

Remember the concept of mortality salience and terror management theory
I'm scared. For myself, for my own health. It's tempered by probabilities, but you know, anecdotes. I'm scared for my family's health, and my parents are hunkered down, not even allowed to touch their mail. For the health and comfort of my current patients and their families. For the suffering that our new patients in this time period of isolation. Loneliness is already an epidemic, and the pandemic will amplify this. "Comfort and company" is essential to the end of life experience, as one of my mentors Greg Sachs likes to say. The thought of having a large number of people dying in uber-isolation, swimming in PPE, without their families.

I know I'm not alone. I've talked to colleagues about the three levels of fear: for our patients, personal, and professional. Everyone is walking around with extra fear.

What does evidence for Terror Management Theory suggest about what this will do to us? When people are confronted with their mortality, there's evidence to suggest they act in heightened ways consistent with their own values. (There was the famous study where judges handed out worse punishments for criminals after being reminded of their own mortality) It may make us more protective of those values as well. In stressful times, there's more likely to be tension about little things. Pause and make sure you're not actually on the same page about the values. In times like this, there may be uncertainty about the best means to accomplish certain goals. It helps to solidify agreement about the goal or value itself. "What we both value is..." This is the VitalTalk "align" statement from REMAP. It works for us as well as our patients and families.

Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good

Remember the secret sauce of palliative care

What's the secret sauce? There is more than one ingredient, but in addition to all the skilled professionals from various disciplines who bring compassion and persistence to care of individuals, I think the sauce is Relational Coordination. Timely, accurate, frequent, and problem solving communication that is oriented around shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. Lean on these in the days and weeks ahead: With teammates, colleagues, hospital leaders, and most of all, patients and families.

Relational coordination defines the collaboration between palliative care and critical care at many places, and I can't imagine my career without this collaboration. I have a deep admiration for the critical care physicians I work with, many who have become friends over the years, sharing in the care of some of our sickest and most vulnerable patients and their families. Much has been written about avoiding war metaphors (with cancer and such), but I'm setting aside my pacifist ways for this virus. We're going to war now, locked arm and arm against this tiny alien and the cascading effect on individuals and society. The relationships built between colleagues will help us find our way through.
Let's save as many lives as we can and palliate this broken world along the way.

Flatten the curve, but when it hits, charge up the hill.

Source for image 1: Meredith MacMartin
Source for image 2:

Dr. Lyle Fettig is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Department of Medicine/Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics. Dr. Fettig directs the IUSM Palliative Medicine Fellowship and works clinically with the Eskenazi Health Palliative Care Program.

For more posts on COVID-19, click here.
For more posts on Emergency Preparedness, click here.
For more posts by Lyle Fettig, click here.

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