Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

End-Of-Life Planning Makes It Easier To Say Goodbye

This is a guest post by Dr. Barbara Okun and Dr. Joseph Nowinski.

***********

End-Of-Life Planning Makes It Easier To Say Goodbye

Saying goodbye as the end of life approaches can be difficult, even for those with a gift for words. In a moving account in a recent issue of The New Yorker, writer Joyce Carol Oates describes the last week of her 49-year marriage, as her husband was dying from complications of pneumonia. Like A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s poignant memoir of her husband’s sudden death and its aftermath, Oates’ essay highlights the need for each of us to think about death and dying — and discuss them with loved ones — long before they become a likelihood.

In our work with individuals and families facing death, we have seen too many people miss the opportunity to say goodbye because they avoid what feels like a scary or taboo topic: What do I want to happen when I die? Beginning this discussion early, preferably while you are in good health, can help pave the way for a “good death.” In our new book, Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss, we offer a guide to help individuals facing a terminal illness and their families navigate the realities of death and dying. Planning ahead is essential. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Choose your team. Identify support people and specialists (legal, medical, financial, religious) you can count on to advocate for you and help you make decisions. Designate these people to act for you by signing advance medical directives.

Make your wishes known. Think about, and then begin to share with your closest loved ones, your wishes about:

  • End-of-life treatments if you are incapable of making that decision for yourself
  • Ending treatment, for example chemotherapy, if your prognosis for improvement was nil.
  • Where you want to spend your final weeks if it becomes clear that you have only that long to live.
  • Who you want to be with you in your final weeks, and what you would like them to do for you.
  • What you would want in terms of a funeral ceremony and burial.

Make plans for the living. Provide clear instructions for the guardianship of your children, if needed, or financial support for your survivors.

It isn’t easy to initiate a discussion about what you want to happen, or hope will happen, when your life ends. The purpose of this discussion is to ensure that your wishes are carried out and to save your loved ones the panic of not knowing what you would want and having to make these decisions without previous discussion or planning. One way to open the conversation is by saying something like, “I’ve been thinking what I would want if I were to become ill or die suddenly, and I want to share my thinking with you.” A colleague of ours, Samuel Bojar, M.D., has another approach. He has written a “Just in Case” booklet that includes his ideal end-of-life plan. He updates it periodically and makes it available on his computer to all his family members.

Things left unsaid is one of the themes that run though Oates’ essay. Don’t wait for a crisis or the specter of death to say “I love you” or “This is what I want to happen when my time has come.”

***********

Barbara Okun, Ph.D., is a professor of counseling psychology at Northeastern University, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a clinical psychologist and family therapist. Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with more than 20 years experience working with individuals and families. Their new book, Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss, has just been published.

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

Read more »

See all book reviews »