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Welcome to my blog!

I hope you will find it worthwhile and enlightening. These are my own personal observations and I encourage you to share yours.

Links to sources are underlined. Just click to see the referenced citation.

I also have an archive of older articles, etc. from Voices magazine at my other blog “Nancy Valko, RN ALNC”.

I am glad you came!

Nancy Valko, RN ALNC

“Rational” Suicide and the “Elderly”

An article in the May, 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society titled “Rational Suicide in Elderly Adults: A Clinician’s Perspective”  by Meera Balasubramaniam, MD, MPH  recently appeared in both medical and nursing news sources.

Dr. Balasubramaniam begins with a case study of  “Mr. A” who at age 72 is considered a “baby boomer”, along with a whole section on the “baby boomer” generation-those born between 1946 and 1964 (ages 54-72).

Mr. A was a retired widower who had recently undergone successful cancer surgery and used a walker. He had no terminal illness but  he told a nurse that he always entertained the idea of ending his life “while I’m still doing well” and that if his health showed signs of failing or became too arduous, he would consider suicide. He stated “I’ve lived a good life. I’ll see how it goes, but it’s better to die well in my early 70s than have a life in which I have to be anxious before every doctor’s visit or have repeated surgery or end up in a nursing home.” (Emphasis added) A psychiatric consult showed no mental health problem.

Dr. Balasubramaniam says she wrote this article to “explore whether ethical arguments in favor of physician–assisted suicide apply to elderly adults who are tired of living but are not terminally ill”. (Emphasis added)

While claiming to not take a view on “whether suicide in non–terminally ill elderly adults can be rational”,  Dr. Balasubramaniam states that “It is important to consider the possibility that the combination of negative perceptions toward aging and dependency, greater social isolation, increasing access to drugs, greater need for autonomy, and an overall generational familiarity with suicide may be accounting for a higher proportion of older adults like Mr. A expressing the wish to end their lives on their own terms”. (Emphasis added)

DEATH AND THE BABY BOOMERS

It may seem incredible to even consider “tired of life” and older age as a “rational” reason for medically assisted suicide. However, Holland and Switzerland already allow it and the article itself cites the UK group “My Death My Decision” (formerly SOARS, The Society for Old Age Rational Suicide) that supports the idea that mentally competent older adults should have the right to assisted suicide rather than face an uncertain life that may be “fraught with frailty and dependence”.

As a Baby Boomer myself, we baby boomers were among the first teenagers exposed to a growing societal acceptance of new concepts like divorce , “free love” with the help of the birth control pill and legalized abortion, the “population bomb” predicting global cataclysm if people didn’t stop reproducing, the use of illegal drugs like marijuana and LSD for recreation, the rejection of religious principles and the slogan “don’t trust anyone over 30”.

So perhaps it should not be puzzling that people over 55 comprised the majority of people dying by physician-assisted suicide in the latest Oregon report since we saw so many of the traditional civil and moral moorings in society pulling loose when we were at an especially vulnerable age.

CONCLUSION

As one sage said, “Old age ain’t for sissies!” But, of course, this is not a “rational” excuse for legalizing assisted suicide for anyone-of any age.

Still, our older citizens are an especially high risk group for elder abuse, household accidents, money scams, social isolation, age-related medical bias and poor or even dangerous nursing home care.

Having friends, family and a meaningful purpose in life becomes harder when older people see their loved ones die or move far away and physical or mental limitations develop in themselves. Many older people fear losing their independence as well as being a “burden” on others.

Medically assisted suicide is not the answer but what else can we do to help?

We can start with our own family members, friends and neighbors. Like all of us, older people need to feel loved and appreciated. Look for ways to assist an older person that he or she might not have considered or be too embarrassed to ask about.

When I was a young wife and mother, our church parish started a Good Samaritan program to identify and help people with special needs of any age. It was a great success and our parish became more inclusive and accessible to everyone, especially the elderly. That was a benefit to all of us.

Other programs such as visiting one person for one hour each week in a local nursing home have helped some parishes to combat the sad reality I have seen that few people in nursing get  visitors, especially people with dementia.

Many of us naturally feel uncomfortable about going to nursing homes, but such places are usually thrilled to have volunteers and most have training programs.

Personally, my first volunteer activity was as a young teenager in a nursing home and it changed my perception of “old people” and life itself. I was amazed by the wisdom and stories the residents told as well as how much they appreciated anything I did. It was a great experience for a shy, gawky teen like myself.

Many years later, I took my young children to visit their grandmother in a nursing home after telling them what to expect in terms of sights, smells and sounds. Afterwards, my youngest daughter asked why everyone wanted to touch her leg while I held her. When I explained that the residents rarely saw a 2 year old and were so glad to see her, she grinned and said “OK!”.  She understood even at that young age.

In a society that seems to constantly celebrate youth and health, we need to make sure that our elderly also feel valued and supported.

And we might just save a life!

 

 

 

 

A Legacy for Jahi McMath

As a mother who has lost two beloved daughters, my heart goes out to Jahi McMath’s  mother Nailah Winkfield after the recent loss of her daughter after an almost 5 year battle to save her and have California rescind her death certificate after doctors concluded that Jahi was “brain dead”.

Jahi McMath was only 13 years old when she suffered complications after what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy and was declared “brain dead”. But instead of just accepting the diagnosis, her mother insisted that Jahi continue to be treated with a ventilator and have a feeding tube in the hope that she could improve.

The California hospital refused and a death certificate was issued for Jahi. The case made national news with influential ethicists like Arthur Caplan, PhD stating about Jahi that “You can’t really feed a corpse” and “She is going to start to decompose.” Other experts like Dr. Alan Shewmon disagreed.

Jahi’s mother went to court but a judge declared that Jahi met California’s criteria for brain death and that the hospital could remove Jahi’s  ventilator. However, the judge stayed the order for awhile so Jahi’s mother could appeal.

Instead and with the help of lawyers and The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network ,  Jahi’s mother was able to get her daughter transferred to New Jersey, a state that allows a religious exemption for determining death solely on the basis of the stopping of breathing and heartbeat instead of “brain death”.

After the transfer, Jahi’s  family released videos showing that not only did Jahi’s  body not deteriorate but also that Jahi seemed to be improving and moving her toes.

Sadly, Jahi unexpectedly died June 22, 2018 from excessive bleeding and liver failure after an operation for an intestinal problem. Jahi’s mother says she does not regret the years-long efforts to save her daughter and maintains that Jahi was able to communicate with me with her hands,” “Sometimes her feet, sometimes her head, but we spoke with her hands.”

A SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT

On April 11, 2018 and before Jahi died, the Harvard Medical School held a conference on “Brain Death and the Controversial Case of Jahi McMath”.

The results of this conference were released just days after Jahi’s  death and, according to The Mercury News, said that:

” Jahi McMath’s  brain showed subtle signs of improvement over the five-year span following the original declaration that she was brain-dead — suggesting a legal ‘resurrection’ from death to life and challenging our widely held understanding of what it means to be officially dead.” (Emphasis added)

And also that Jahi:

continued to grow, developed breasts, had menstrual cycles, digested food, excreted waste, fought off infections, healed wounds and seemed to respond to basic commands, according to medical testimony provided at a conference about the case.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Robert Truog, the director of the Harvard Center for Bioethics who organized the conference, has long maintained that the legal definition of brain death as the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” was a  “legal fiction”.

But in a July 2, 2018 Mercury News article “Jahi McMath improved after she was declared brain-dead, doctors say”, Dr. Truog also said that “brain death” does not necessarily signify biological death but merely the extreme end of the spectrum of brain injury and that:

Even if (“brain dead”) patients are not biologically dead, their profound neurological impairment means that, for legal purposes, they can be treated as if they are dead.” (Emphasis added)

In the meantime, Jahi McMath now has two death certificates- one in California and one in New Jersey-and her family has a malpractice lawsuit against the original hospital.

CONCLUSION

Jahi McMath leaves behind many who mourn her but also the achievement of bringing public attention to the problems with the “brain death” diagnosis.

Unfortunately, as one new bioethicist wrote in a blog “Redefining Death in the Law” after attending the Harvard conference, with the legal concept of “brain death” undermined, death itself may be reduced to merely a personal choice:

“In the absence of a true biological or moral basis for the current conception of brain death, the law ought to reflect that death is largely a values judgement. Individuals should be allowed to state a preference during advanced care planning as to which definition of death most closely aligns with their personal beliefs. Religious accommodations are a step in this direction, but a more respectful and coherent law would give everyone a choice in defining their own death.” (Emphasis added)

Instead, I would submit that what we really should be doing is giving every brain-injured patient time, treatment and a chance to recover as fully as possible.

Now that would be a great legacy for Jahi McMath!

 

 

Alfie Evans and the Shocking UK Gosport Independent Panel Report

The Baby Alfie Evans’s case this year shocked the world but now we learn his forced death against his parents’ wishes follows a legal and healthcare nightmare in the UK.

Some of us expressed concerns years ago about the UK’s “Liverpool Care Pathway” developed in the 1990s to improve care of the dying by applying “the high standard of palliative care prevalent in hospices to other clinical settings”.  But the “Liverpool Care Pathway” went horribly wrong and in 2009, the UK Daily Mail published an article “Euthanasia by the back door: Hospitals ‘death pathway’ is open to error” with cases of non-dying patients considered “not worth saving” who died from the “combination of dehydration and powerful painkillers”, explaining that:

“Under the Liverpool Care Pathway, doctors can withdraw fluids and drugs from patients if they are deemed close to death. Many are then put on continuous sedation so they die free of pain.

But sedation can often mask signs of improvement, meaning doctors may be closing the door on people who would otherwise live for months.”

In 2013, the British Journal of General Practice published “The Liverpool Care Pathway for the dying: what went wrong?” . The authors acknowledged the problems that led an independent review to call for an end to the Liverpool Care Pathway but concluded that:

“(a)vacuum left by the abolition of the LCP makes a return to the ‘bad old days’ of poor or non-existent communication about dying a real possibility: we would argue that the response to poor use should be right use, not non-use” and  called for “increased funding and training in palliative care and suggest that skills in end-of-life care should become a required competency for all health care professionals.” (Emphasis added)

THE GOSPORT INDEPENDENT PANEL REPORT

More details of this scandal have just now surfaced in a report on the Gosport War Memorial Hospital  where patients were often admitted for rehabilitation or respite care. The report concludes that at least 450 patients had their lives “shortened” by denial of food and water along with powerful painkillers between 1989 and 2000. It details cases and concerns and ultimately acknowledges the families’ years-long pleas for the truth. Here is one excerpt:

“Those (nurses) who raise concerns about the conduct and practice of colleagues are now widely known as ‘whistle-blowers’. To put it into context, it is generally agreed that the NHS (National Health Service) has not been good at protecting people who take such a difficult step; as the documents make clear, the events of 1991 were no exception. Nor should the consequences for whistle-blowers be underestimated: these commonly included disciplinary action and undermining of professional credibility.

“The documents show that, following a complaint to the Trust in 1998 and the police investigation, it should have become clear to local NHS organisations that there was a serious problem with services at the hospital. Although the successive police investigations undoubtedly complicated the NHS response, it is nevertheless remarkable that at no stage was there a public admission of failure or any public apology. Nor was there a proportionate clinical investigation into what had happened. On the contrary, the documents show numerous instances of defensiveness and denial – to families, to the public and the media, and to health service and other organisations.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

Will charges now be brought against those involved in the Gosport War Memorial Hospital euthanasia deaths? Who knows? The Independent Panel only concluded that:

“With this Report and an online archive of documentation, the Panel has completed its Terms of Reference. The Panel now calls upon the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the relevant investigative authorities to recognise the significance of what is revealed by the documentation in this Report and to act accordingly.

But just as important is the question “Has health care now improved?”

Unfortunately, the answer may be no.

As the UK Telegraph reported in 2015 in the article “New NHS (National Health Service) death guidelines ‘worse than Liverpool Care Pathway’”, the Liverpool Care Pathway was supposedly phased out in 2014 in favor of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines. but families were still reporting poor end of life care, including denial of food and water.

And now, unlike that Liverpool Care Pathway horrors that were hidden for so long, we had the very public case of Baby Alfie Evans this year where courts enforced the doctors’ decision to shorten his life by removing his ventilator, refused his family’s requests to transfer him or take him home and even take away his feedings when he continued to breathe for days after the ventilator was removed.

Apparently, the death culture is apparently very hard to kill in the UK and, as we are finding, also in the US.

“Fatal Flaws”: A Must-See Film

With the American Medical Association considering changing its’ long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide despite the recommendations of its’ ethics committee and the California assisted suicide law declared unconstitutional now reinstated pending appeal, assisted suicide/euthanasia groups like Compassion and Choices (the well-funded former Hemlock Society) are ramping up efforts nationwide to legalize assisted suicide.

Along with major media outlets overwhelmingly supporting their efforts and a recent Gallup poll showing  that the “Majority of Americans (73%) Remain Supportive of Euthanasia”, how do we fight against this and educate the public?

One excellent answer can be found in the recently released 80 minute film “Fatal Flaws”.

“Fatal Flaws” features filmmaker Kevin Dunn who spent three years traveling throughout Europe and North American asking the question “should we be giving doctors the right in law to end the life of others by euthanasia or assisted suicide?”

In the film, Mr. Dunn respectfully interviews people and experts on both sides of the issues and the candid testimonies are powerful and moving. I have viewed the film myself and I believe that showings of this film to senior citizen groups, pro-life groups, churches and clergy, medical professionals, etc. would go a long way in educating the public, many of whom are supportive  or unsure of where they stand.

The film was produced in association with The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. For information on purchasing the  “Fatal Flaws” film and/or the accompanying pamphlets, please go the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition “Fatal Flaws” site.

There will be a preview viewing of the film at the National Right to Life Convention June 29, 2018.

On a personal note: I am speaking at the NRL convention myself on the Alfie Evans’ case June 30, 2018 and I would love to meet those of you attending the convention.

 

 

Good News/Bad News about Alzheimer’s

First the good news:

Alzheimer’s disease is a currently irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

However, a new study “Estimation of lifetime risks of Alzheimer’s disease dementia using biomarkers for preclinical disease” shows that “most people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease will not develop Alzheimer’s dementia during their lifetimes”, according to a mathematical analysis based on several large, long-term studies.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association , the term “preclinical” refers to “a newly defined stage of the disease reflecting current evidence that changes in the brain may occur years before symptoms affecting memory, thinking or behavior can be detected by affected individuals or their physicians”.

Although biomarkers are still being investigated and validated, this new study can be reassuring to many people worrying that, for example, forgetting where they left their car keys means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

While the cause of Alzheimer’s is still a mystery, research on the disease is massive and ongoing. Currently, there are drug and non-drug treatments that may help with both thinking and behavior symptoms. There is hope.

THE BAD NEWS

With the many negative stories in major media about Alzheimer’s, it is no wonder that people are so afraid of it.

As Deakin University Professor Megan-Jane Johnstone says in her book “Alzheimer’s disease, media representations and the Politics of Euthanasia-Constructing Risk and Selling Death in An Ageing Society”  :

“Alzheimer’s has been portrayed as the ‘disease of the century’ that is poised to have a near catastrophic impact on the world’s healthcare system as the population ages…

This representation of the disease—along with other often used terms such as ‘living dead’, a ‘funeral that never ends’ and a ‘fate worse than death’—places Alzheimer’s as a soft target in the euthanasia debate because it plays to people’s fears of developing the disease and what it symbolizes. It positions Alzheimer’s as something that requires a remedy; that remedy increasingly being pre-emptive and beneficent euthanasia.” (Emphasis added)

While countries like Belgium and Holland have long allowed lethal injections for people with Alzheimer’s , this is forbidden in the US-for now. However, assisted suicide groups are now trying new “living wills” stating that if or when the person is diagnosed “with Alzheimer’s or another incurable dementing disease”, he or she refuses not only a feeding tube but also even assistance with oral eating and drinking to end their lives.

Compassion and Choices, the well-funded former Hemlock society, has long promoted VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as a legal alternative to assisted suicide in states without assisted suicide laws. But at the present time, people who cannot make medical decisions because of  conditions like Alzheimer’s cannot sign an advance directive.

So influential major media outlets like the New York Times often publish articles such as the May 30, 2018 article titled “Alzheimer’s? Your Paperwork May Not Be in Order” that quote Dr. Judith Schwarz:

“People should at least understand what the normal process of advanced dementia is about,” Dr. Schwarz said. “Feeding tubes are not the issue…. Opening your mouth when a spoon approaches is a primitive reflex that persists long after you’ve lost the ability to swallow and know what to do with what’s put in your mouth.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Schwarz’s advice?

“Complete her organization’s Advance Directive for Receiving Oral Food and Fluids in the Event of Dementia.”

But what Dr. Schwarz and others do not want to talk about is the often tragic reality of deliberate death by starvation and dehydration.

Although media articles portray VSED as a gentle, peaceful death, a 2018 Palliative Practice Pointers article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society  titled Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking” states:

“VSED is an intense process fraught with new sources of somatic and emotional suffering for individuals and their caregivers…The most common symptoms encountered after starting VSED are extreme thirst, hunger, dysuria (painful urination due to concentrated urine NV),  progressive disability, delirium, and somnolence.” (Emphasis added)

Most chillingly, the authors state:

 “Because an individual with delirium may forget his or her intention and ask for drinks of water, caregivers will struggle with the need to remind the incapacitated individual of his or her own wishes. This possibility should be anticipated and discussed with the individual in advance. While reminding the individual of his or her prior intentions may feel like coercion, acquiescing to requests for water will prolong the dying process for someone who has clearly articulated the desire to hasten death.” (Emphasis added)

The authors also state that if the patient’s suffering becomes severe, “proportionate palliative sedation and admission to inpatient hospice should be considered”. This is not the so-called peaceful death at home within two weeks that people envision with VSED.

Lastly, on the legal requirement of  a cause on the death certificate, the authors state:

“the clinician may consider including dehydration secondary to the principle illness that caused the individual’s intractable suffering. Although VSED is a self–willed death (as stopping life support might also be), use of the word “suicide” on death certificates in this context is discouraged because in incorrectly suggests that the decision for VSED stemmed from mental illness rather than intolerable suffering.” (Emphasis added)

So, like assisted suicide, the real cause of death is basically falsified with the rationale that the deliberate stopping of eating and drinking to hasten death is just another legal withdrawal of treatment decision like a feeding tube.

CONCLUSION

Years ago, my mother told me that she never wanted to be a burden on her family.

I never told my children that-especially when they were teenagers and already thought I was a burden to their lifestyles! Instead, I told them that the “circle of life” includes caring for each other at all ages and stages. Such caring also eliminates future guilt and leaves a sense of pride that we did the best we could for each other during our lives.

When my mother developed Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s (and later terminal thyroid cancer), a friend asked if I was going to feed her. At the time, my mother was fully mobile and able to get ice cream out of the freezer and eat it. I was shocked and offended.

“Do you want me to tackle her?!” I asked my friend.

“Oh, no!”, he answered, “I was talking about a feeding tube later on.”

I told him that my mother would die of her disease, not from deliberate starvation and dehydration.

Near the end of her life, we did spoon feed my mother and she enjoyed it very much before dying peacefully in her sleep.

For decades now, I have enjoyed caring for many people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias both personally and professionally.  I can attest that such people can be sweet and funny and as well as difficult at times.

Just like the rest of us!

Surprising Twist to a Good News Story You May Have Seen

TV and social media are reporting a wonderful story about Dr. Eric Voigt and Nicole McGuinness. Dr. Voigt, an ENT physician, was watching the “Beachfront Bargain Hunt” TV show (one of my own semi-guilty pleasures) when he noticed that a woman on the show named Nicole McGuiness seemed to have a suspicious lump in her neck. Alarmed, Dr. Voigt turned to Facebook find her and urge her to get the lump checked. Nicole had her lump checked and it was thyroid cancer. She will be starting treatment soon and is very grateful to Dr. Voigt for his sharp eye.

However, this story has a surprising twist.

Nicole was diagnosed in December 2015 with a glioblastoma cancer in her brain at age 29 and was successfully treated and doing well after almost 3 years.

Ironically, Brittany Maynard was also 29 and had a glioblastoma brain cancer when she decided to move from California to Oregon, a state that legalized assisted suicide in 1997. She and her family moved to Oregon so that Brittany could commit physician-assisted suicide before her symptoms became more severe. The date she chose was November 1, 2014. Brittany also agreed to help Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) use her story to raise funds with the goal of legalizing physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.

After weeks of widespread and sympathetic media coverage, Brittany did take a doctor-prescribed lethal overdose on her planned date.

Ironically and 5 months later, CBS’s TV show “60 Minutes” reported on an innovative treatment for glioblastoma brain cancer . And, as I wrote in my blog “Could Brittany Maynard Have Been Saved?, this innovative treatment was granted breakthrough status by the FDA in 2016.

No one will never know if Brittany could have been one of the people this treatment could help.

CALIFORNIA AND PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE

The first target state for Compassion and Choices’ campaign for legalizing assisted suicide after Brittany’s assisted suicide was her home state of California. Both Brittany’s mother and husband went to California to support a physician-assisted suicide bill. Although the bill apparently died in committee, Governor Jerry Brown called a special legislative session to deal with healthcare spending where the assisted suicide bill was resurrected and passed. Governor Brown then signed it into law in October, 2015. Over 100 people died by assisted suicide in the first six months after the law took effect.

However just last month, a California judge overturned the law stating that the California Legislature violated the law by passing it outside of the scope of health care spending which was given as the reason for a special session and thus was unconstitutional.

This decision was quickly appealed by the California attorney general to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals who upheld the judge’s decision.

Now Compassion and Choices has filed an appeal on behalf of a palliative care doctor and two terminally ill patients in California to get California’s law back into law.

Stay tuned for further developments.

CONCLUSION

As a former oncology and hospice nurse, I pray that Nicole has a speedy recovery from her thyroid cancer and I am still saddened by Brittany’s assisted suicide but assisted suicide is not a remedy for cancer.

I remember when just a few decades ago, AIDS was the poster disease for legalizing assisted suicide. Then it became terminal cancer after AIDS became treatable. Now the scary poster disease is Alzheimer’s.

And that’s how the slippery slope works.

Instead, we need realistic hope and real support for people and their families dealing with difficult situations rather than just offering the “solution” of death.

 

 

Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Brain Death

Most people who sign organ donor cards believe what organ donation campaigns tell us, such as:

“A person who has sustained a severe brain injury, such as from an accident, stroke or lack of oxygen is put on artificial support.

Doctors work hard to save the patient’s life, but sometimes there is a complete and irreversible loss of brain function. The patient is declared clinically dead. Only then is donation an option.” (Emphasis added)

This is termed “brain death” and organs are harvested while the patient is still on a ventilator (breathing machine) and has a heartbeat.

But as a May 29, 2018 Wall Street Journal article Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Death- As families challenge the determination of brain death, physicians are changing their approach.”, the assumptions about brain death are now being challenged because of cases like Jahi McMath, a 13 year old girl who suffered complications after a 2013 tonsillectomy in California and was declared “brain dead” but who is still alive in New Jersey after her parents refused to allow the ventilator to be removed.

With this article as well as a February 5, 2018 New Yorker magazine article titled “What Does It Mean to Die?” about the McMath case, the public is now becoming aware of the ethical, legal and medical controversies surrounding “brain death” and questions are being asked.

One doctor quoted in the Wall Street Journal article stated:

“Dr. Ross believes states should adopt laws that would allow people to choose their preferred definition (of death). One likely consequence would be that physicians wouldn’t do the brain-death examination if an individual doesn’t want death determined based on neurological criteria, she says.

For some of us, it is more about the quality of life rather than quantity of life,” she says.” (Emphasis added)

Alarmingly, the use of “quality of life” determinations as a basis for withdrawal of treatment decisions expected to end in death are already a serious problem when it comes to people with brain injuries or disabilities.

And doctors like Dr. Doyen Nguyen are writing articles like Brain Death and True Patient Care” that cite encouraging results regarding survival and even some good recoveries when severely brain-injured patients received newer treatments like body cooling and neuro-intensive care.

MY JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE FACTS ABOUT BRAIN DEATH

Back in the early 1970s when I was a young intensive care unit nurse, no one questioned the new innovation of brain death organ transplantation. We trusted the experts.

However, as the doctors diagnosed brain death in our unit and I cared for these patients until their organs were harvested, I started to ask questions. For example, doctors assured us that these patients would die anyway within two weeks even if the ventilator to support breathing was continued, but no studies were cited. I also asked if we were making a brain-injured patient worse by removing the ventilator for several minutes for the apnea test to see if he or she would breathe since we knew that brain cells start to die when breathing stops for more than a few minutes.

I was told that greater minds than mine had it all figured out.

It was years before I realized that these doctors did not have the answers to my concerns either. After more investigation, I found that my questions were valid.

I also discovered that some mothers declared “brain dead” were able to gestate their babies for weeks or months to a successful delivery before their ventilators were removed and that there were many cases of “brain dead” people who lived for months or years and even grew proportionally and achieved puberty.

If the legal definition of brain death is “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” (Emphasis added), these cases would seem to be impossible.

And when I served on a hospital medical ethics committee, I was horrified when one doctor found a less rigorous set of brain death tests at another local hospital and proposed that we adopt this standard so that more of our patients could be declared “brain dead” for organ donation.

Investigating further, I also found “near-miss” cases like Zach Dunlap’s. Zach Dunlap is a young man who was declared brain dead after an accident in 2007. Testing showed no blood flow to his brain and he was being considered for organ donation when a relative discovered a physical response. Four months later, Zach was making plans to return to work. In an interview, he said he heard a doctor say he was dead and it “just made me mad inside”.

CONCLUSION

As I pointed out in my Spring, 2016 NCBC Quarterly journal article titled “Brain Death: Do We Know Enough?” :

“When cases like those of McMath and Dunlap are routinely dismissed instead of rigorously investigated to establish the facts, medical certainty is not achieved and medical integrity is undermined. In addition, when hospitals set their own standards and policies for determining brain death without external accountability, lives—as well as the essential and necessary trust in the health care system—can and possibly will be lost.” (Emphasis added)

Personally, I am not against all organ donation.

In the past, I have offered to be a living donor for a friend who needed a kidney, watched my grandson cured of a rare disease through a bone marrow transplant and told my family that I wanted to donate my corneas and any other tissues that can be taken after natural death.

I am open to new facts but, until then, I refuse an apnea test or any other test to specifically determine brain death if I have a severe brain injury.

And I will not sign an organ donor card.

 

 

Don’t Write Off The Elderly

Late last year, my 95 year old friend I will call “Melissa” fell and fractured her hip which is especially serious at her age. In one study of people over 65 who fractured a hip, up to 50% died in 6 months with the highest mortality rates found in people over 90 years old.

In Melissa’s case, she also had long-term chronic congestive heart failure when she fell in her bathroom at home. She underwent successful surgery and was sent to a rehab facility where she developed a blood clot that went to her lungs. After successful treatment of that complication, she later developed a life-threatening pneumonia after returning to the rehab facility. She had difficulty breathing even with 100% oxygen by mask and 911 was called. I was with her when the ambulance arrived and I followed it to the hospital.

In the Emergency Room, the doctor asked her son and I about how aggressive to be if her heart or breathing worsened. I said “Ask her!” and the doctor was stunned when she vehemently said “Yes!”, even after he explained the potential problems with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and ventilators. My friend has a durable power of attorney naming her daughter as her health decision maker but the doctor wrongly assumed my friend was not able to speak for herself and that Melissa’s son and I were her decision makers. Thanks to our smartphones, Melissa’s daughter and I were in constant phone contact during that time.

After a few weeks in the hospital, Melissa astonished the doctors by recovering with antibiotics and a temporary BiPap (a face mask machine to support her breathing) until the antibiotics took hold. Then, after another short stint in a facility, my friend was finally able to go home with outpatient rehab and help from family and friends.

Going home was Melissa’s first goal.

This week, she accomplished the second of her goals: returning to Friday Mass and breakfast at Chick-Fil-A for her weekly outing with friends again. Her last goal is to celebrate at her 96th birthday party in August and none of us would bet against her achieving that also.

Elder Bias

In a society that seems to almost venerate youth and material success, those of us who are older can be made to feel useless and even a burden.

That can be fatal.

For example and just this month, 104 year old Australian scientist David Goodall who had no terminal illness traveled to Switzerland for physician-assisted suicide and to actively promote it.

According to USA Today, he said that:

My abilities and eyesight are declining, and I no longer want to live this way...I hope something positive will come out of my story and that other countries will adopt a more liberal view of assisted suicide.”

Sadly, he also added that he “had no pressure from his family to change his mind.” (Emphasis added)

David Goodall was a renowned biologist who produced more than 100 research papers and earned three doctorates when:

“In 2016, at 102, the university ordered him to leave his office, calling him a safety risk to himself. Goodall challenged the decision, which was reversed after an outpouring of public support.

Earlier this year, however, Goodall fell while at home alone in his one-bedroom apartment and remained on the floor for two days until he was found by his cleaner, according to The New Daily.

Afterward, Goodall said he was considered incapable of looking after himself. Moreover, most of his friends were dead.”

Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International, a right-to-die organization in Australia called Goodall’s “story of elective, rational suicide by the elderly is an important one.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

What a sad, depressing story Mr. Goodall’s story is compared to Melissa’s!

This should be a wake-up call to the rest of us not only about the frightening expansion and promotion of physician-assisted suicide but also about how all of us need to recognize the value, wisdom and even inspiration of older people.

We must also recognize that we all need help at some point in our lives. We are totally dependent on others when we are born and many of us need at least some help near the end of our lives. But when we truly care for each other, both the helper and the person being helped are enriched to live their best lives.

 

 

My Book Review on “Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”

“Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany-The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”
Edited by Susan Benedict and Linda Shields
Routledge Studies in Modern European History. London: Routledge 2014

My book review (abstract) was just published in the Linacre Quarterly journal. Here are some excerpts from my review with all emphasis added only for this blog.

In my nursing education during the 1960s, the Nazi euthanasia program was covered during a class but mainly as a ghastly aberration that was unthinkable today with our now strong ethical principles. As students, we were shocked and horrified by the revelation that nurses were integral to Nazi killing programs. We had little knowledge of the mechanisms that existed to encourage nurses to kill those patients whose lives were deemed “not worth living.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult these days to find information about nurses during the Nazi regime, even on the American Nurses Association website. Thus, the editors of this book do nurses and the public a great service by examining the little-known but crucial role of nurses in the Nazi euthanasia programs. Knowing this history is more important than ever as efforts to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia continue to grow.

The authors explain the history, education, propaganda, and pressures that led so many nurses to participate in the killing of hundreds of thousands of helpless men, women, and children in the 1930s and 1940s; they also propose a model for teaching nursing ethics using the Nazi euthanasia program to encourage nursing students to examine ethical principles and their own values as a nurse in today’s health-care system.

……

The authors start with the rise of the influential eugenics movement in the early twentieth century in countries like the United States where the American Eugenics Society even held conferences on eugenics, such as the 1937 one which included the topic “The Relation of Eugenics to the Field of Nursing.” Eventually, the US eugenics movement fell out of favor after the Nazi euthanasia programs were discovered in World War II.

Even prior to World War II, German professional nursing publications discussed eugenics as “providing a scientific basis for the positive eugenics promoting reproduction among the healthy (often of northern European descent) middle to upper classes and negative eugenics encouraging limited reproduction and forced sterilization of the ‘unfit’ (who were often poor, uneducated, and more recent immigrants) as reasonable”.  Eugenic language was most prevalent in public health and psychiatric nursing texts and in discussions of poverty, immigrants, cleanliness, and social problems.

The editors also point to the influence on Adolf Hitler of the 1920 book titled Approval of the Extermination of Worthless Human Lives by Germans Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist. Binding and Hoche noted that there were no legal arguments preventing legalizing the killing of those whose lives were considered not worth living. (Emphasis added)

There was extensive propaganda aimed at increasing the acceptance of euthanasia by the public and health-care providers. Only a few months after Hitler seized power, the first law, affecting people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, was passed. It mandated sterilization for people with hereditary disorders including alcoholism and epilepsy. Propaganda emphasized wastefulness of providing health care to the chronically mentally ill and the hereditary nature of undesirable physical, mental, and social traits.

Hitler did not propose the systematic killing of psychiatric patients during peacetime because he anticipated the opposition of the churches and the German people. The beginning of World War II muted moral objections and distracted the populace with concerns of conserving resources for the war effort and was the start of state-sponsored euthanasia. The first documented killing occurred in 1939 when Hitler granted the euthanasia request of a father whose son was born blind, missing a leg and part of an arm and who “seemed to be an idiot” .

In 1939, the German Ministry of Justice proposed two new clauses:

1.“Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to himself or others can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.”

2. “The life of a person who, because of incurable mental illness, requires permanent institutionalization and is not able to sustain an independent existence may be prematurely terminated by medical measures in a painless and covert manner” . (Emphasis added)

The program started targeting those in asylums and the disabled in nursing homes for death by lethal gas, starvation, drugs, and neglect. The Jewish population was especially targeted regardless of health.

………

 

In 1933, Adolf Bartels, the deputy leader of the Reich’s medical profession, provided a blueprint of the future of nursing under the Nazis. He emphasized that German nurses in social and medical service had to meet standards in the new Reich that were very different from before. The new Reich not only wanted to look after the sick and weak but also wanted to secure a healthy development of all Germans “if their inherited biological predisposition allows for it” (p. 38). Above all, the new state wanted to secure and promote a genetically sound, valuable race, and, in contrast to the past, “not to expend an exaggerated effort on the care of genetically or racially inferior people”. (Emphasis added)

As a Nazi politician stated, “a nurse is the one who should carry out the will of the State in the health education of the people”. It was not necessary for the majority of nurses to become ardent supporters of the Nazi regime for them to do the will of the Reich. One source noted that the majority of nurses who participated in a secret euthanasia program known as T4 tried to remain good nurses; an estimated 10 percent or fewer were enthusiastic supporters of Nazi practice. But, as in other areas of public life, the Reich absorbed professional nursing organizations, leaving the nursing profession with no means of expressing opposing or dissenting views as well as no organizational support for refusing to participate. (Emphasis added)

……

 

Using midwives, the Reich took various measures both to prevent those regarded as having a “hereditary disease” or who were “racially inferior” from reproducing while increasing the birth rate of those considered valuable and healthy. Thus, the traditional midwife focus on the mother and child was changed to focus on the nation as a whole.

Midwives could initiate proceedings for forced sterilization, and it was now a duty for midwives to report to public health officers “deformed” births and small children with disabilities before their third birthday. Reports received from doctors and midwives were reviewed by medical examiners, and based solely on the reports, the examiners decided whether the child was to be killed or spared.

Parents with such children were told about institutions for children who needed special care that were being established through the country. They were persuaded to admit these children and were assured that the children would receive the best possible care. Parents could refuse but had to sign forms stating their responsibility to supervise and care for their children. The identified children in these institutions were killed by starvation or lethal injection. Parents were told that their children had died from natural causes.

……..

The world was riveted by the 1945 Hadamar trial, the first mass atrocity trial after the Nazi regime was defeated in World War II. This trial came before the infamous Nuremburg trials that included doctors. Hadamar was covered extensively by American media but ignored by the American Journal of Nursing even though nurses were charged.

The trial involved one of the largest and most important killing centers, Hadamar Psychiatric Hospital, one of the six institutions in Germany designated for killing the mentally ill. In 1943, a ward (called an “educational home”) was set up for mixed-race children with Jewish heritage within Hadamar. Completely healthy children were killed with lethal injections. The actual numbers are not known because employees were required to take an oath of secrecy. It is estimated that more than 13,000 patients were killed in 1941 and 1942, even before the ward was set up.

 

In the first Hadamar trial, Head Nurse Irmgard Huber was tried with six others for killing over 400 men, women, and children. Nurse Huber was charged with “obtaining the lethal drugs, being present when some of the fatal injections were given, and being present when the false death certificates were made out”. Two male nurses were charged with administering the lethal injections. All pleaded not guilty. Their defense was that they were powerless and had inadequate knowledge to judge the morality of their actions. All denied accountability. (Emphasis added)

Trial testimony confirmed that the nurses prepared patients for their deaths, directed the entire nursing staff of the institution, and were present at the daily conferences where the falsified death certificates were completed. Duties to patients were limited to so-called kindnesses that consisted of bringing small gifts to pediatric patients and taking care to prevent patients from knowing that they would soon be killed. Head Nurse Huber insisted that she wished to render a last service to these patients and did not want to do them any harm and that she had a clear conscience.

…….

The second Hadamar trial in 1947 did not receive the same attention as the first. Twenty-five members of the Hadamar staff were charged. At this trial, Head Nurse Huber was charged with killing 15,000 German mental patients. All but one of the defendants were found guilty and served sentences ranging from two and a half to five years. The one nurse found not guilty claimed she had feigned pregnancy in order to achieve release from the killing center. (Emphasis added)

In the end, Head Nurse Huber was released from prison in 1952; the others by 1954.

………

The book presents a model used for two innovative teaching programs about this subject, one in Israel and one in Australia, perhaps the most important contribution of this book. The editors believe that the Nazi era should be taught to students, “highlighting the danger of failing to see each individual as a valuable member of human society. And while the heart of nursing and midwifery continues to be care and caring practices, it is fundamental for students to confront this history to develop insights into the causes and social constructs that enabled nurses and midwives to distort the goal of nursing practice and theory to harm and murder patients.”

The results of these programs and the responses by students appear encouraging. The editors hope that by raising these issues, students will be forced to confront their own values and beliefs, sometimes an intensely uncomfortable experience. They also believe students who are exposed to this “dark element of nursing and midwifery history” will be better prepared to face pressure or to report and oppose violations of the trust that is central to any relationship between nurses and patients

 

CONCLUSION

Decades after the Nazi atrocities, we are seeing a resurgence of the same “life unworthy of life” justification that drove Nazi eugenics. We see how this perspective increasingly approves the deliberate termination of some lives as “merciful” and “humane.” There is an emerging, shocking consensus that we can—or perhaps even should—choose to have our own lives terminated when our lives are considered not worth living either by ourselves or by others if we cannot speak for ourselves.

The authors of this book make it clear: we all need to know and understand the past in order not to repeat it. Hopefully, it is not too late to turn the tide of history back toward respect for all life.

 

 

Whatever Happened to Common Sense at the End of Life?

In 2007, I wrote an article titled “Whatever Happened to Common Sense at the End of Life?” for Voices magazine. I wrote about real life situations that people and their families faced along with the principles involved. I am reprising that article here in response to the many questions I receive about dealing with such difficult situations.

Unfortunately since I wrote this article, the situations people and their families face have become worse: More states have legalized assisted suicide and have expanded the definition of “terminal”,  more parents of babies with disabilities are fighting for their  right to treatment , voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) is promoted as a legal way to kill oneself, etc.

I have and will continue to write on these newer issues but the basic principles are still valid.

Whatever Happened to Common Sense at the End of Life?

Withdrawal of treatment, “living wills”, terminal sedation, assisted suicide, organ donation, etc. Currently, it’s virtually impossible to escape all the death talk in the media and elsewhere. For example, if you are admitted to a hospital for almost any reason, you or your relatives will be asked if you have or would like information about documents formalizing your “end-of-life” choices.

But despite all the hype, not every situation involving end-of- life issues has to involve wrestling with big ethical dilemmas. Many times, there are relatively simple considerations or strategies that actually used to be commonly employed until the introduction of the so-called “right to die”. Accurate information, common sense and a good understanding of ethical principles can cut through the “right-to-die” fog and make a person’s last stage of life as good as possible both for the person and his or her family.

Here are just four examples:

Prolonging Death or Providing Comfort?

I once cared for Mary (all names have been changed), an older woman who was near death with cancer. Her loving family took her to the doctor when she became confused and severely short of breath. An x-ray showed a fluid buildup near her lungs. The doctor inserted a long needle, aspirated the fluid and Mary immediately improved. However, the family was still worried. They asked me what they should do if the fluid built up again because they were afraid that this would prolong her death. I told them that the primary question now was comfort. If, for example, fluid did slowly build up again but Mary was comfortable, it could be burdensome to aspirate the fluid. However, if Mary did develop severe breathing problems that could not be controlled by medication, they might want to consider another aspiration since the goal was to make Mary as comfortable as possible during the short time she had left.

“Why, that’s just common sense!” the daughter exclaimed. Exactly!

Mary soon peacefully died at home with her family, never needing another medical intervention.

Families often suffer undue fear about prolonging death when a family member is dying and this can spoil what can be one of the most meaningful times in life.

After almost 40 years as a nurse, I have found that barring murder or other such situations, people generally die when they are ready to die even regardless of medical interventions. When death is imminent, the big priority should be comfort rather than whether a person might live a few hours or days longer.

What if an Elderly Person Doesn’t Want Treatment?

One of my friends was very worried about his elderly grandmother whose health seemed to be declining. She ate very little and said she was ready to die. Efforts to improve grandma’s nutrition didn’t work and she refused a feeding tube. My friend was finally able to persuade her to at least try a small feeding tube inserted through her nose.

Within a short time, there was a dramatic improvement in grandma’s mood and physical functioning. According to my friend, she was back to where she was 10 years before and the feeding tube was removed. (She lived comfortably several more years.)

Too often, doctors and even families assume that an elderly person who doesn’t feel well is just dying of old age without exploring possibilities such as depression, poor nutrition, loneliness, treatable physical problems, etc. Sometimes the answer may be as simple as antidepressants or better nutrition. At the very least, it is worthwhile to explore the options. If an elderly person is truly dying, he or she will die but the family will have the comfort of knowing that they did what they could do.

For example, in a similar situation, another friend was caring for her frail, elderly mother with chronic lung and heart problems. Ann’s mom agreed to try a feeding tube but after a short initial improvement, her mom started going downhill again. Fluid began to build up and the feedings were stopped. Ann’s mom was given what little food and fluid she wanted and she eventually died of natural causes.

Particularly in the frail elderly, it can be difficult to determine whether or not a person is truly dying. And while we are never required to accept treatment that is medically futile or excessively burdensome to us, sometimes this can be hard to determine. Far too many times, feeding tubes and other interventions are automatically assumed to be futile and/or burdensome or reasonable options are presented as just a yes or no choice. But there is another alternative that is often ignored: trying an intervention with the option of stopping it if it truly is futile or burdensome.

There are no guarantees in life or death but even finding out that something doesn’t work can be a step forward.

Shouldn’t We Be Allowed to Die?

Years ago, I received a phone call from a distraught fellow nurse living in California. Her sister, Rose, was comatose from complications of diabetes and had been in an intensive care unit for three days. Now the doctors were telling the family that Rose’s organs were failing and that she had no chance to survive. The doctors recommended that the ventilator and other treatments be stopped so that she could be “allowed to die”. My nurse friend was uncomfortable with this even though the rest of the family was ready to go along with the doctors.

As I told her, back when I was a new nurse in the late 1960s, we would sometimes see patients in the intensive care unit who seemed hopeless and we would speak to families about Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. However, the one thing we didn’t do was to quickly recommend withdrawal of treatment. We gave people the gift of time and only recommended withdrawing treatment that clearly was not helping the person. Some patients did indeed eventually die but we were surprised and humbled when an unexpected number of these “hopeless” patients went on to recover, sometimes completely.

About six weeks after the initial phone call, my friend called back to tell me that the family decided not to withdraw treatment as the doctors recommended and that her sister not only defied the doctors’ prediction of certain death but was now back at work. I asked her what the doctors had to say about all this and she said the doctors termed Rose’s case “a miracle”.

“In other words” she noted wryly, “these docs unfortunately didn’t learn a thing.”

Cases like this are usually not miracles. Virtually every doctor and nurse has seen at least one surprising recovery and almost every day brings a new media report about yet another unexpected recovery. However when such considerations as cost, a poor prognosis or low quality of life intersect with the “right to die”, people can literally be forced to die prematurely. When doctors and ethicists decide to play God — even with good intentions — that arrogance can be fatal.

Isn’t It Compassionate to Support a Person’s Right to Die?

When I first met Frank, I was puzzled. Frank was a terminally ill man who I was supposed to see for pain control but he didn’t seem to be in any physical pain at all. I talked to Frank’s wife Joan who tearfully confided to me that Frank was cleaning his gun collection when he asked her if she would still be able to live in their home if, in his words, “anything happened”.

Joan knew he was talking about shooting himself and even though she was horrified, she said she knew the right thing to say: “I will support any decision you make”. However, she later panicked and called the doctor to ask about pain control and that’s when I came in.

When I suggested to Joan that Frank’s real question might not be about their home but rather about whether his slow death might be too hard on both of them, she was stunned and said that this never occurred to her. She loved Frank and she wanted to care for him until the end.

Frank and Joan then finally had an open and long overdue discussion about their sorrow and fears. When I last saw them, they were holding hands and smiling. Frank died peacefully — and naturally — a few weeks later with his wife at his side.

As a situation like this shows, political correctness can actually be lethal itself. Unfortunately, the public is given the message that “tolerance” is a paramount value. From abortion to euthanasia, we are constantly told that opposition to these practices is callous and inhumane. We are told that we cannot impose our own narrow morality on people who do not agree.

Sadly, in the case of assisted suicide/euthanasia, it’s this tolerance that really can make the life or death difference. I’ve worked with some suicidal people over the years and I have found that ambivalence over whether or not to kill oneself is virtually routine. For example, one terminally ill woman I cared for said that she would take an overdose when she left the hospital. She didn’t seem sad or depressed and was actually quite animated and smiling. As she put it, she was just tired of being tired and feared that the future “was just all downhill”.

However, when we talked about her feelings, the ramifications of her decision and what help was available, she slowly changed her mind. But when she excitedly told her friends about her new decision to live, these friends tracked me down to give me a real tongue-lashing about not supporting this woman’s original choice.

The ultimate irony of the push to spread legalized assisted suicide beyond Oregon’s terrible law is that at the same time we naturally see suicide as a tragedy to be prevented, we are pressed to accept that suicide is a compassionate choice for the terminally ill and even others.

A Time to Live, a Time to Die

When I worked as a hospice nurse years ago, our guiding principle was that we neither prolonged nor hastened dying. I totally supported this and I felt great satisfaction helping my patients and their relatives live as fully as possible until natural death. We nurses not only made sure that people were as physically comfortable as possible, we also helped with spiritual, emotional and practical concerns.

Unfortunately, the “right-to-die” enthusiasts have had way too much success in trying to convince both medical personnel and the public that choice in dying is really the ultimate principle. However, trying to micromanage death by such measures as withdrawal of basic treatment, terminal sedation, lethal overdoses, etc. profoundly changes the medical system, even for people who may recover or who may live with disabilities.

The “right to die” movement is really about despair rather than hope or true justice. People deserve the best in health care and that includes the right to both excellent care and a natural lifespan.

It’s just common sense.