In 2018, Chris Dunn survived a freak diving accident that left him paralyzed, mostly blind and on a ventilator to breathe. He spent most of the next year in an ICU in rural Maine.
Unable to see, eat, breathe or move on his own, the 44 year old father and concrete work spent his days in bed listening to the History Channel and hoping for a chance to show he could do more.
Efforts to find a rehab center failed. Even worse, hospital administrators and others were encouraging Chris’s mother Carol to put him in hospice to die. As the article states:
“Drugged up and confined to bed, Chris waited while dealing with a hospital staff that didn’t know what to do with him. ‘There would be nurses that would come in and tell me, ‘You know you’re making your son suffer,’ says Carol. ‘I mean, what’s a mother to do with that?’” (Emphasis added)
However, Carol refused to give up trying to find help for Chris and after 7 months, finally contacted the United Spinal Association. Jane Wierbicky, a longtime nurse and a member of the Association’s Resource Center team worked to help find a rehab center in Atlanta.
Now Chris only uses the ventilator a few hours a night, got outdoors to catch a fish, and returned home to spend Thanksgiving with his mother and girlfriend.
With the help of his mother and a team of advocates, Chris hopes to eventually live in an accessible apartment.
Medical care for Chris was not futile.
The National Council on Disability defines “medical futility” as
“an ethically, medically, and legally divisive concept concerning whether and when a healthcare provider has the authority to refuse to provide medical care that they deem ‘futile’ or ‘nonbeneficial’. A “medical futility decision” is a decision to withhold or withdraw medical care deemed “futile” or “nonbeneficial.” (Emphasis added)
Because of my professional and personal experiences with disability bias as well as my volunteer work with people with disabilities, I have seen firsthand the potentially lethal effects of medical futility decisions based on disability. I have been writing on this topic for years, most recently on Missouri’s Simon’s Law enacted after the parents of a baby with Trisomy 18 and a heart defect who died later found out that doctors had ordered a “Do Not Resuscitate” and withheld life-sustaining treatment without their knowledge due to a secret medical futility policy at the Catholic hospital treating their son.
Recently, I found out that the National Council on Disability just published a 82 page comprehensive report titled “Medical Futility and Disability “ as part of a five-report series on the intersection of disability and bioethics.
In a letter to President Trump, the Council chairman states that the series:
“focuses on how the historical and continued devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities by the medical community, legislators, researchers, and even health economists, perpetuates unequal access to medical care, including life-saving care.
and notes that:
“In recent years, there has been a push to regulate medical futility decisions on the state and institutional levels. State laws, which vary greatly in their content and approach, define the protections, or lack thereof, of a patient’s wishes to receive life-sustaining treatment. Hospitals have turned to process based approaches, utilizing internal ethics committees to arbitrate medical futility disputes. Despite the increased attention, however, disability bias still finds its way into futility decision making.” (All emphasis added)
The Council identifies four factors that are influencing the futility debate today: “Advanced life-saving medical technology, Changes in healthcare reimbursement, Evolving concepts of patient autonomy and the Rise of the right-to-die movement”.
The Council report also evaluated current state laws regarding medical futility decisions and found only 11 with strong patient protections, 19 without patient protections, 19 with weak patient protections, and 2 with time-limited patient protections.
Further complicating the state laws is the lack of transparency for patients or other family members regarding an institution’s medical futility policies. Hospitals are rarely transparent with their medical futility policies, as in the Simon’s Law case. The report is right when it states that “the disclosure of medical futility policies is essential to providing patients, their surrogates, and their families with the information they need to protect their rights and ensure accountability”.
The Council also notes that “Disability nondiscrimination laws, including the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, provide a viable, yet largely unexplored vehicle for enforcing the rights of people with disabilities in the medical futility context.”
The report ends with recommendations for Congress, the executive branch, medical and health professional schools, professional accreditation bodies, healthcare insurers and state legislatures to combat the problem of disability bias in healthcare.
One of the reasons I chose to become a nurse decades ago was the strong ethical principles in medicine. We were educated to treat all patients to the best of our ability regardless of race, disability, socioeconomic status, etc. “Quality of life” was something to improve, not judge. The traditional hospice philosophy was to neither hasten nor prolong dying.
But over time, I saw ethics change. As the report itself notes, the advances in technology, changes in health care reimbursement, evolving concepts of patient autonomy and the rise of the right-to-die movement led to radical changes in both law and medical ethics.
The concept of medical futility was no longer limited to medically certain circumstances of treatment ineffectiveness but, all too often, also to the patient’s (and sometimes the family’s) perceived “quality of life”.
Such disability bias is often unrecognized, even by the medical professionals caring for the person, but it is a real bias that must be eliminated in our society.
I admire people like Chris Dunn and his determined mother who show us the possibilities when people with even severe disabilities get a chance to have the best life possible.