PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU AGREE TO BE AN ORGAN DONOR

Whether we are renewing our driver’s licenses, watching the TV news or just picking up a newspaper, it’s impossible to miss the campaign to persuade us to sign an organ donation card such as this one. We see story after story about how grieving relatives have been comforted by donating a loved one’s organs after a tragic death, and how grateful the people are whose lives have been changed by the “gift of life”.

But are ethical lines being crossed in the zeal to obtain organs to transplant?

While most people presume that organs can be removed and transplanted only after “all efforts to save your life have been exhausted” and brain death has been determined, that presumption is no longer necessarily true.

Now, organ donation can occur with a person who is in a coma and considered close to death but who does not meet the criteria for brain death. In those cases, a organ donor card or relatives who have agreed to withdraw a ventilator (a machine that supports or maintains breathing) and have the person’s organs removed for transplant if or when when the heartbeat stops. This was called DCD or donation after cardiac death until some doctors found that the stopped heart could be successfully restarted it in the patient receiving the transplant!

Now, that ethically questionable procedure is called donation after circulatory death (also DCD) since circulation stops when the heart stops.

If circulation does not stop within 60 minutes, the organs are deemed to be too damaged for transplant and the patient dies without donating organs.

IT GETS WORSE

Last month a September 29, 2022 article in Medpage titled “No Brain Death? No Problem. New Organ Transplant Protocol Stirs Debate-Is it ethical to pull the plug in patients who aren’t brain dead, then restart their hearts?” reported on a new procedure to get more organs:

“With little attention or debate, transplant surgeons across the country are experimenting with a kind of partial resurrection: They’re allowing terminal patients to die, then restarting their hearts while clamping off blood flow to their brains. The procedure allows the surgeons to inspect and remove organs from warm bodies with heartbeats.” (Emphasis added)

The article also said that this new procedure is being criticized by doctors like Dr. Wes Ely and the American College of Physicians that warned the procedure raises “profound ethical questions regarding determination of death, respect for patients, and the ethical obligation to do what is best.”

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 innovation of brain death organ transplantation. We trusted the experts and the prevailing medical ethic of the utmost respect for every human life.

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 up to 10 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 so I shouldn’t worry.

It was awhile before I realized that these doctors did not have the answers themselves and 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 cases of “brain dead” people like Jahi McMath living and maturing for years after a diagnosis of brain death or even recovering like Zack Dunlap

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

PRESUMED CONSENT AND LAW

Another problem is “presumed consent” which is the assumption that everyone is willing to donate his/her organs unless there is evidence that they would not want to donate. Illinois narrowly avoided a “presumed consent” statute a few years ago where people who didn’t want to donate had to file an opt out document with the Secretary of State.

Some countries already have “presumed consent” laws, most recently in England that states:

“it will be considered that you agree to become an organ donor when you die, if:

  • you are over 18;
  • you have not opted out;
  • you are not in an excluded group

Even more horrifying, there have also been proposals to even link organ donation and assisted suicide as “a potential solution to the organ scarcity problem”. Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands already allow this.

CONCLUSION

Organ donation can truly be “the gift of life”, and innovations such as adult stem cells and the donation of a kidney or part of a liver by a living person generally pose no ethical problems and hold much promise to increasingly meet the needs of people with failing organs. I have a grandson whose life was saved by a stem cell transplant and another relative who has had 2 kidney transplants.

Personally, I have offered to be a living donor for friends and my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like bone, corneas, skin, etc. that can be donated after natural death.

Everyone can make his or her own decision about organ donation but it is crucial that we all have the necessary information to make an informed decision..

What Will It Take?

I recently wrote a blog titled “The War Against Crisis Pregnancy Centers Escalates” about the attacks on crisis pregnancy centers after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision returning abortion law to the individual states was outrageously leaked.

 Now that the final Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision  is public, the violence against crisis pregnancy centers and churches has continued with few if any arrests.

However, now even pro-life individuals have been targeted.

For example, an 84-year-old pro-life volunteer was shot on Sept. 20 while going door-to-door in her community to talk about a ballot measure concerning abortion in Michigan. Thankfully, she is expected to recover.

Even more disturbing and over the last weekend, was the news that the FBI raided the home of a pro-life advocate Mark Houck and arrested him in front of his 7 crying children for the alleged crime of “Assaulting a Reproductive Health Care Provider”.

According to the National Review, Mrs. Houck “described an incident in which her husband ‘shoved’ a pro-abortion man away from his 12-year-old son after the man entered ‘the son’s personal space’ and refused to stop hurling ‘crude… inappropriate and disgusting’ comments at the Houcks.” The man did not sustain any injuries but did try to sue Houck. The charges were later dismissed.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO RESOLVE THE NATIONAL TURMOIL SURROUNDING ABORTION?

I was a young intensive care unit nurse when the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973. Like most people I knew, I was surprised and shocked when abortion was legalized. However, I quickly found that my medical colleagues were split on the issue, and I was vehemently attacked for being against abortion. I was even asked what I would do if I was raped and pregnant. When I replied that I would not have an abortion and would probably release the baby for adoption, I was ridiculed. Our formerly cohesive unit began to fray.

But I was professionally offended by the pro-life argument that legalizing abortion would lead to the legalization of infanticide and euthanasia.  

It was one thing to deny the truth with an early and unobserved unborn baby, but it was quite another to imagine any doctor or nurse looking at a born human being and killing him or her.

But I was wrong.

As I wrote in my 2019 blog “Roe v. Wade’s Disastrous Impact on Medical Ethics”, personal and professional experiences opened my eyes to the truth.

I have seen the push for “choice” to expand to abortion for any reason up to birth, infanticide and medical discrimination against people with disabilities, including my own daughter who had Down Syndrome.

I wasn’t long until “choice” also became the heart of the “right to die” movement to include to include legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia, withdrawal of feedings from people with serious brain injuries whose “choice” was exercised by family members or doctors and even the voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (called VSED by the pro-death-choice group Compassion and Choices).

With VSED, Compassion & Choices maintains that:

“Many people struggle with the unrelieved suffering of a chronic or incurable and progressive disorder. Others may decide that they are simply “done” after eight or nine decades of a fully lived life. Free will and the ability to choose are cornerstones of maintaining one’s quality of life and dignity in their final days”.  (All emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

I have long preferred the term “respect life” to “anti-abortion” because obviously we should respect the lives of all people at any age or stage of development.

But this doesn’t mean anger or vilification of others.

Over the years I have written, spoken, debated, etc. people who do not agree with the respect life philosophy, but I never became angry.

I also found that listening to and not judging others-especially people in crisis-was crucially important.

For example and many years ago, I ran into an acquaintance I will call Diane and I congratulated her on her obvious pregnancy.

I was stunned when she replied, “Don’t congratulate me yet. I might not be pregnant.”

Diane, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, went on to explain that she was awaiting the results of an amniocentesis and said, “I know what you went through with your daughter but I can’t give up my life like that. If this (the baby) is Downs, it’s gone.”

I reassured her that the test would almost surely show that her baby was ok, but I added that if the results were not what she expected I would like her to call me. I promised that I would give her any help she needed throughout the pregnancy and that my husband and I or even another couple would be willing to adopt her baby. She was surprised, as I later found out, both by my reaction and the information about adoption.

Diane gave birth to a healthy baby girl a few months later and ran up to me to apologize for her comments, saying that she probably would not have had an abortion anyway. But I understood her terrible anxiety. Society itself seems to have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards children with disabilities. Special Olympics is considered inspirational but Down’s Syndrome is too often seen as a tragedy.

Whether it is abortion or legalized assisted suicide, we must be prepared to help desperate people either personally and/or referring them to a crisis pregnancy center or suicide hotline.

Every life deserves to be respected.

An Unexpected Recovery and What We Can Learn from It

When 28 year old Jacob Haendel was rushed to an emergency room in Massachusetts four years ago, the doctors thought he was having a stroke but brain scans showed something very different. Instead, his brain scans showed that his “brain seemed to be unplugging itself from the rest of his body”. One doctor described it as “The wires weren’t sending signals from place to place.”

The doctors were unsure what was going on until Jacob revealed that he had been doing drugs, mostly opioids, until he turned to street heroin. The medical team thought he might have ingested a toxin which led to their diagnosis of a very rare condition called: Toxic Acute Progressive Leukoencephalopathy. Only a few dozen people had ever been diagnosed with this.

Six months later, Jacob deteriorated to what the doctors thought was a “vegetative state” and completely unaware of himself or his surroundings. He was sent to an extended care facility on a ventilator to breathe and a feeding tube. Eventually, he was put in hospice and by Christmas, his family told that he probably would die in a couple of days. Jacob’s father whispered to him that it was “ok to let go”.

But Jacob didn’t die and slowly his brain started to sputter back to life.

The first sign was a small twitch in his wrist. Some thought this meant nothing but his family thought otherwise.

A few weeks later, everyone was stunned when Jacob started moving his tongue and his eyes, “almost imperceptibly at first, but enough to use a letterboard to spell out a message he’d been desperately trying to send for almost a year. His message was I can hear you. (Emphasis added)

As Jacob began communicating, the doctors realized that he had not been unconscious but rather awake the whole time. Jacob remembered nurses calling him “brain dead” and that visits slowed over time.

In a July 25, 2021 CBS Sunday Morning tv segment, Jacob told CBS correspondent Lee Cowan that “I couldn’t express anything to anyone. No one knew what was going on in my head, and I just wanted someone to know, like, that I was in there.”

He also said that he talked to himself a lot and felt pain. Jacob also revealed that “he would do math problems in his head just to help keep himself from the guilt that his drug use has caused all of this.”

Jacob’s mother had died of breast cancer and Jacob said he started using drugs to cope.

Jacob’s road to rehabilitation has been long and still ongoing. However, Jacob has “come back with such a profound understanding of what a second chance really means. “I am an improved Jake,” he said. “And I’m a happier Jake. I don’t want to give up.”

Although Jacob still has limitations of speech and movement, he now was a website and writes updates.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM JACOB’S STORY

Over my years in mostly critical care nursing, I spoke to all my patients patients-regardless of a diagnosis of coma, “vegetative state”, etc.-as if they were totally awake and explained everything I was doing as well as the time and date, visitors who came, etc.

I also closely watched for any sign of voluntary movement or reaction. Like Jacob, even almost imperceptible movement could be a sign of awareness and I encouraged my patients to repeat the movement.

I was often teased and asked if I spoke to my refrigerator too but the teasing stopped when some of these patients started to respond or even recovered. Some of them later related what they heard and/or felt when they were assumed to be unaware. My point was that speaking empathetically to all our patients was a matter of respect that could even help them get better.

Hopefully, Jacob’s story will be an encouragement for all healthcare providers as well as people with severe brain injuries and their families.

CONCLUSION

But Jacob has another big message for every one of us in our daily lives: simplicity.

In Jacob’s own words:

“My life was never a walk in the park, but I never truly appreciated how important the simplicities of life are until I began my journey to recovery. My reasoning for this word is multi-focal just like my case. The only word that can accurately describe my case is “complex” and I am un-ironically striving for just the opposite; simple. After surviving and overcoming locked in syndrome, all I want are the simplicities in life; things like talking, connecting with friends and family, enjoying solid foods, breathing on my own, going outside instead of being locked in a hospital, being able to feed myself and even taking a walk in the park. All of these simple things I took for granted are now goals I am working towards being able to enjoy again”

Especially at a time of such discord in our society now, we all need to remember and celebrate the so-called “little things” that make us grateful for our own precious lives.

Think the Political and Cultural Divisions in Our Country are Bad? The Divisions in Medical Ethics Could Cost Your or a Loved One’s Life!

I wanted to be a nurse since I was 5. I was drawn to nursing not only because I wanted to help people but also because medical ethics standards were so high, especially in contrast to some of the corrupt business practices that I saw.

I graduated from a Catholic nursing school in 1969 and spent the next 50 years working mostly in intensive care but also in home health and hospice, oncology (cancer), kidney dialysis, volunteer work and on ethics committees.

I first noticed the change in medical ethics when the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalized abortion for the first three months of pregnancy. I was working in intensive care at the time and found that my fellow medical professionals who supported the abortion decision angrily rebuked those of us who were shocked that the first rule of medical ethics we were taught-First, Do No Harm-was eroding.

Then in 1982, my doctor husband and I were shocked by the Baby Doe case where the parents received a judge’s approval to let their newborn son with Down Syndrome die instead of repairing an easily correctable hole between the tube that leads from the throat to the stomach and the  tube that leads from the throat to the windpipe and lungs.  While lawyers were appealing his case and many parents (including my husband and me) wanted to adopt Baby Doe, the newborn starved and dehydrated to death without the desperately needed surgical repair.

My husband asked “What has happened to medical ethics??” but we both knew the answer: babies with Down Syndrome are often unwanted and aborted.

Five months after Baby Doe died, our third child Karen was born with Down Syndrome and a reparable heart defect but the heart doctor gave us a choice to “let” our baby die without surgery. We refused but my former trust in the medical system was shattered.

After I suddenly became a single parent in 1988, I had to return to a paid nursing job to support my three children but found a drastically different medical ethics system.

I found that during the 1970s, medical ethics began to evolve into the newer “bioethics”, even in Catholic hospitals.

This new bioethics has essentially four principles:

1. Respect for autonomy (the patient’s right to choose or refuse treatment)

2. Beneficence (the intent of doing good for the patient)

3. Non-maleficence (not causing harm)

4. Justice (“fair distribution of scarce resources, competing needs, rights and obligations, and potential conflicts with established legislation”) Emphasis added.

Unfortunately, those principles are malleable and then used to justify actions and laws that would have been unthinkable when I graduated from nursing school. That bioethics mindset changed not only medical and nursing education but also the principles that informed our work.

Even the Hippocratic Oath, the oldest and most widely known treatise on medical ethics that forbade actions such as abortion and euthanasia that medical students routinely took upon graduation, has now been revised or dropped at many medical schools.

SOME MEDICAL ETHICS DIVISIONS THAT CAN COST YOU OR A LOVED ONE’S LIFE

Abortion

The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Nurses Association and other healthcare organization that used to condemn abortion are now supporting “abortion rights”.

Abortion on demand and taxpayer-funded has now been deemed a “civil right” by Planned Parenthood and many Democratic politicians throughout pregnancy to birth and even beyond. Alternatives to abortion such as free pregnancy tests, counseling, ultrasounds, maternity and baby clothes, diapers, car seats, bassinets, etc. are not options at Planned Parenthood but rather at non-profit crisis pregnancy centers.

As a parent of an unwed teenage daughter, I support these services and give thanks for my now 22 year old granddaughter.

Assisted suicide/euthanasia

In the early 1970s when I was a young ICU nurse, none of us medical professionals had even heard of a “living will”. There was a universal presumption for life and “quality of life” was something to be improved, not judged.

Nevertheless, sick people could and did refuse treatment and even check themselves out of the hospital against medical advice. When patients appeared to be dying, they or their families could agree to a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order. Treatments could be ethically refused when such measures were considered medically futile or excessively burdensome for the patient. But one thing we didn’t do was offer to withhold or withdraw medical care like tube or even spoon feedings to cause or hasten a patient’s death. And it was unthinkable that medical professionals could assist even a dying patient’s suicide.

Unknown to us, all this began to change after Louis Kutner, a Chicago lawyer, wrote a 1969 article in the Indiana Law Journal titled Due Process of Euthanasia: The Living Will, A Proposal” in 1969. (emphasis added).

By 1970, The Euthanasia Society of America (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die) distributed 60,000 living wills. In 1976, California passed the nation’s first “living will” law and in 1990, The US Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act that requires information to be given to patients about their rights under state laws governing advance directives (commonly called “living wills), including the right to accept or refuse medical or surgical treatments.

Now, 8 states and the District of Columbia have assisted suicide laws and Compassion and Choices, the largest advocacy group for medically assisted suicide, is using the Covid 19 pandemic to push for telehealth (the provision of healthcare remotely by means of telecommunications) for medically assisted suicide.

Infanticide

In my nursing school 50 years ago, we were taught medical ethics and one example used was the case of a newborn with Down Syndrome who needed life-saving surgery but whose parents refused, choosing to let him die. We were told that the law would protect such children from medical discrimination-even by the parents.

Now we have cases like Charlie Gard and Simon Crosier and others whose parents chose life for their babies with disabilities but were thwarted by doctors and courts.

Organ donation

When I started working in an ICU in 1971, I had questions about the brain death diagnosis for organ harvesting but was told not to worry because there were strict rules.

However and over subsequent years, I discovered that the rules for organ donation have been changing from brain death to other criteria including severe brain injury. There have even been proposals for “presumed consent” state laws where people would have to register an “opt-out” or be automatically presumed to consent to organ donation.

I do not have an organ donor card nor encourage others to sign one. Instead, I once offered to give a friend one of my kidneys as a living donor. Although I was not able to donate then, my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like corneas, bone, etc. that can be ethically donated after natural death and will only agree to that donation

Conscience rights

Doctors and nurses used to be protected when asserting their conscience rights when refusing to deliberately hastening or causing a patient’s death.

Now, even that protection-which protects both patients and medical professionals-is under attack.

I discovered this personally several years ago when I was almost fired for refusing to increase a morphine drip “until he stops breathing” on a patient who didn’t stop breathing after his ventilator was removed.

CONCLUSION

The bottom line is that everyone must remain vigilant when they or a loved one becomes seriously ill, regardless of the hospital or institution. It is also important not to be afraid to ask questions.

There are also non-denominational, non-profit groups like the National Association of Pro-life Nurses, the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization and state and national pro-life organizations that have much useful information and resources for patients, families and the public.

The bottom line is that what we don’t know-or allowed to know-can indeed hurt us. We need to demand transparency and the highest ethical standards from our doctors and healthcare system before they can earn our trust.

And without a change in laws, policies and attitudes promoting deliberate death as an answer to human suffering, those of us medical professionals who believe we should never cause or hasten anyone’s death may become an endangered species-as well as our medically vulnerable patients.

Surprising New Test for Predicting Recovery after Coma

An April 29, 2020 Nature Journal article titled “Olfactory sniffing signals consciousness in unresponsive patients with brain injuries” found that nasal response to odors (sniffing) by 43 severely brain-injured patients predicted the likelihood of recovery and long-term survival.

According to Noam Sobel, PhD, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, one of the authors of the article and speaking to MedpageToday:

“If you sniff at an odorant, then it’s 100% you will regain consciousness to at least a minimal level, and you will likely live for years,” he told MedPage Today. “If you don’t sniff at an odorant, that is a bad sign, but not all hope is lost.” (Emphasis added)

Amazingly, he said that 37.5% of the unresponsive patients who didn’t sniff did eventually regain consciousness.

Dr. Giacino, PhD of Harvard Medical School who helped write the 2018 American Academy of Neurology guidance on disorders of consciousness told Medpage that this study is “a cleverly and carefully designed study that adds another much-needed tool to the consciousness-detection toolbox” even though “Between 30% and 60% of patients who sustain severe TBI (traumatic brain injury) have diminished or complete loss of smell due to the mechanics of the injury.”)

He also noted that, based on available evidence, about four in 10 patients who are deemed unconscious on bedside examination actually retain conscious awareness and that “A significant portion of these patients have covert consciousness — preserved cognitive function that cannot be expressed through speech or movement.” (Emphasis added)

WHY IS THIS STUDY SO IMPORTANT?

As Dr. Giacino said in the Medpage article:

“Published evidence from Canada in a large cohort of ICU patients with traumatic brain injury [TBI] found that approximately 70% of the deaths were due to withdrawal of treatment and in about 60% of cases, the decision to stop treatment was made within 72 hours,” he said. “It’s possible that a positive sniff test might delay this decision, which is important since we know that about 20% of TBI patients who survive what appears to be catastrophic injury recover to a functionally-independent level by 5 years post-injury.” (Emphasis added)

As we have seen over the past decades, whether or not a severely brain-injured person is or can become conscious has become a life and death matter. We have seen this in the cases of Nancy Cruzan, Terri Schiavo and Zach Dunlap even though, as I wrote in my August 18, 2018 blog, “Medical Experts Now Agree that Severely Brain-injured Patients are Often Misdiagnosed and May Recover”.

THIS ISSUE HAS BEEN CLOSE TO MY HEART FOR DECADES.

Just before Drs. Jennet and Plum invented the term “persistent vegetative state” in 1972,  I started working with many comatose patients as a young ICU nurse. Despite the skepticism of my colleagues, I talked to these patients as if they were awake because I believed it was worth doing, especially if it is true that hearing is the last sense to go. And why not do it to respect the patient as a person?

Then one day a 17 year old young man I will call “Mike” was admitted to our ICU in a coma and on a ventilator after a horrific car accident. The neurosurgeon who examined him predicted he would be dead by morning or become a “vegetable.” The doctor recommended that he not be resuscitated if his heart stopped.

But “Mike” didn’t die and almost 2 years later returned to our ICU fully recovered and told us that he would only respond to me at first and refused to respond to the doctor because he was angry when heard the doctor call him a “vegetable” when the doctor assumed ‘Mike” was comatose!

After that, every nurse was told to treat all our coma patients as if they were fully awake. We were rewarded when several other coma patients later woke up.

Over the years, I’ve written about several other patients like “Jack”“Katieand “Chris in comas or “persistent vegetative states” who regained full or some consciousness with verbal and physical stimulation. I have also recommended Jane Hoyt’s wonderful 1994 pamphlet “A Gentle Approach-Interacting with a Person who is Semi-Conscious  or Presumed in Coma” to help families and others stimulate consciousness. Personally, I have only seen one person who did not improve from the so-called “vegetative” state during the approximately two years I saw him.

CONCLUSION

But I never even thought to give any of my patients a sniff test. What a simple test for medical professionals to do!

And even though this study is small and needs to be replicated and validated, I believe it is further evidence that we need to reevaluate our current medical ethics and laws that allow life-sustaining treatment to be withdrawn from people with severe brain injuries on the premise that such brain-injured people have no “quality of life” and that such injuries are routinely hopeless.

And I hope that the sniff test can become a standard part of all medical evaluations of people with severe brain injuries.

Strongest “Simon’s Law” Yet is Passed in Iowa

When baby Simon Crosier was born with Trisomy 18  and a heart defect in 2010, his parents and brothers fell in love with him despite his life-threatening diagnosis and the medical community’s opinion that Trisomy 18 is “incompatible with life”.

However, just days before three month old Simon was scheduled to see a cardiac surgeon, his parents begged for help at the Catholic hospital treating Simon when his condition started to deteriorate. They were shocked when the staff did not intervene. They did not know that the hospital had made their baby a Do Not Resuscitate and that Simon was given only so-called “comfort feeds” due to a secret futility policy. They had to helplessly watch as Simon died in their arms.

Heartbroken and outraged but determined that this would not happen to another child, the Crosiers went to legislator Bill Kidd who formulated Simon’s Law. After five long years of frustration even getting the bill out of committee, Simon’s Law was finally and unanimously passed in the Missouri legislature and signed by Governor Mike Parson last year.

The law prohibits “any health care facility or health care professional from instituting a do-not-resuscitate or similar order without the written or oral consent of at least one parent or legal guardian of a non-emancipated minor patient or resident.”

I testified on Simon’s Law myself because when my own daughter Karen was born in 1982 with Down Syndrome and a heart defect, I was tipped off that my pediatrician had secretly given Karen a Do Not Resuscitate order against my expressed wishes because she felt I “was too emotionally involved with that retarded baby”. I protested and the order was withdrawn.

During the fight for Missouri’s Simon’s Law, other states passed similar laws. Some require only that parents be informed that doctors plan to write a DNR order for a child while others prohibit writing the order over parental objections. Hospital ethics committees are usually involved, especially when such cases go to court. And some states like Texas have problematic laws that give objecting parents 10 days to find a new healthcare facility if they disagree with doctors and ethics committees who decide to take a child off life-sustaining treatment.

However, the strongest type of “Simon’s Law” yet was just signed into law in Iowa on June 29, 2020 by Governor Kim Reynolds.

The law states that:

A court of law or equity shall not have the authority to require the withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures from a minor child over the objection of the minor child’s parent or guardian, unless there is conclusive medical evidence that the minor child has died and any electronic brain, heart, or respiratory monitoring activity exhibited to the contrary is a false artifact.” (Emphasis added)

This is stunning, especially since it requires conclusive medical evidence that the child has died using the most stringent criteria of no brain, heart or respiratory activity. (As one legislator explained in a video, the “false artifact” provision would prevent a “crooked parent” from keeping the child on life support indefinitely in a felony murder situation.)

In recent years, we have seen court cases like the teenager Jahi McMath who lived for years and even seemed to improve after a diagnosis of brain death and now the case of Baby Tinslee with heart and lung problems whose doctors want to remove her ventilator against the parents’ wishes.

At the very least, this new Iowa law illustrates the necessity of better legal protections for both medically vulnerable children and their parents.


A Very Special 6th Birthday Party

Recently, I was invited to a 6th birthday for a special boy.

“John” (as I will call him for privacy reasons) was born a healthy baby boy. But when he was a few months old, he stopped breathing and 911 was called. Apparently, John had a near-SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) event.

John was resuscitated but the doctors in the emergency room told the parents that he had severe brain damage.

John’s mom was a special education teacher and told the doctor that she often cared for severely brain-injured children and would do the same for her son. She was just so glad he survived.

I was called about John to help with information and support.

At one point months later, John became critically ill and was hospitalized. The doctors did what they could but said his chances of survival were bleak.

However, John surprised us all by getting better and going home. He was tough!

It takes a lot to care for a child on a ventilator and feeding tube at home but John’s parents were up to the task, along with help from their church and family members. John’s family later expanded when his two younger sisters were born. They obviously love their big brother.

When John had his 6th birthday a few weeks ago, it was a joyous occasion with family and friends. I was delighted to be invited. Although John is still severely brain-injured and still on a ventilator and feeding tube, he spent much of the party cuddled in his grandfather’s arms. He was the center of attention.

John’s grandfather told me about his brother who was born with cerebral palsy decades ago. The family was told that he would not live long but with supportive siblings and parents, the brother lived a good life until he died at age 60. The grandfather is still proud of his brother.

CONCLUSION

When my Karen was born with Down Syndrome in 1982, I didn’t really know what to expect and I was shocked by negative attitudes-even from her medical professionals.

But that was wonderfully counteracted by the other parents in the St. Louis Down Syndrome Association who told me how their child was a blessing and how that child opened their hearts and eyes. I was awed by these other parents’ concern, help and support for my daughter and our family.

I later asked these amazing parents if they were like this before their child was born. Every one of them said no and that it was their child that led them to open their hearts and eyes.

I eventually discovered how true this is even though my Karen only lived 5 1/2 months and I’ve been blessed by meeting other children with special needs and their parents.

Too often, people assume that a child with special needs is automatically a family tragedy.

The truth is that children with even severe disabilities can teach the rest of us so much about love, acceptance, true happiness and resilience.

And, of course, faith.

 

 

Dying Well?

I discovered that former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Katy Butler is now publishing yet another book on dying well (her first book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was a best seller) when I read her lead essay in the February 8, 2019 Wall Street Journal article titled “Preparing for a Good End of Life”.

However, I recognized her name from reading her 2014 interview with Compassion and Choices , the well-funded former Hemlock Society that promotes physician-assisted suicide .

In that interview, she urged people to back the 2014 “Better Care. Lower Cost Act” sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon “to improve appropriate medical support for people with chronic illness” and to “advocate to reduce payments to doctors who perform futile ‘Hail Mary’ surgeries, tests and treatments near the end of life”. Ms Butler also added that “we have an epidemic of unnecessary suffering at the end of life, and what’s more, it’s expensive!” (All emphasis added)

In that interview, Ms. Butler also talked about how her mother was “exhausted from nonstop caregiving” and how they fought doctors to have her father’s pacemaker turned off after he developed dementia, couldn’t walk to the neighborhood pool, became deaf and “too blind to read the New York Times-his last remaining pleasure”. Ms. Butler said she was glad to learn “from Judith Schwartz at Compassion and Choices that we each have a constitutional right to refuse any medical treatment or ask for its withdrawal.” (Compassion and Choices also promotes VSED, the voluntary stopping of eating and drinking, as well as terminal sedation as two legal options to hasten death in states without physician-assisted suicide laws.)

SCARE TACTICS?

In the Wall Street Journal article, Ms. Butler flatly states-without a source-that “Pain is a major barrier to a peaceful death, and nearly half of dying Americans suffer from uncontrolled pain.” (Emphasis added)

However, in an article “Pain Control at the End of Life” , June Dahl, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a founder of the American Alliance of Cancer Pain Initiatives states that:

“Thanks to recent advances in pain treatments, roughly 90 to 95 percent of all dying patients should be able to experience substantial relief from pain.”

Although Ms. Butler doesn’t mention physician-assisted suicide specifically, she does strongly advocate taking control of how we die, especially as we get older, because “Advanced medicine is replete with treatments (ventilator, dialysis, defibrillators, feeding tubes, to name a few) that postpone death and prolong misery without restoring health“. (Emphasis added)

She writes that “The best way to achieve a peaceful death is by planning ahead and enlisting the help of loved ones.”

In the Wall Street Journal article, she approvingly writes:

“When Liz Salmi’s mentor lay unconscious on a ventilator in a dark, windowless ICU room, attended by a cacophony of hisses and electronic bloops, she and other close friends lobbied for a better setup. All monitors but one were silenced, a doctor removed the breathing tube, and nurses and aides gurneyed her dying friend quickly into the ICU’s “best room”—a sunny spot, with windows opening to the outdoors.” (Emphasis added)

In this instance, note that the friends-apparently not the family or a “living will”- lobbied  the doctor to remove (not try to wean off) the ventilator. I am not surprised since I have personally heard some doctors say that, if in doubt, it might be legally safer not to treat rather than treat a patient because of the risk of a future lawsuit.

These kinds of articles and books are being used as “end-of-life education” for both the public and professionals. Can this be dangerous?

CAN WHAT YOU SAY POTENTIALLY BE USED AGAINST YOU?

My own mother often told me “I never want to be a burden on you children”. Then she developed Alzheimer’s and a terminal thyroid cancer. I was asked if the family wanted her fed if she got worse. “Of course, if she needs it”, I responded. My mother should die from her condition, not from starvation and dehydration. I  never told the doctors her comment about not wanting to be a burden because she wasn’t a burden. Mom died shortly after she went to a nursing home for safety reasons and we spoon-fed her at the end. She had no pain, thanks to a short course of radiation and chemo that she tolerated. My last memory of my mother was her smiling and enjoying the attention of her family before she died in her sleep.

In 1990, 2 years after my mother’s death, Nancy Cruzan died after 12 long days without a feeding tube, even after the US Supreme Court ruled that Missouri could require “clear and convincing evidence” that she would not want a feeding tube if she was in a “vegetative state.” At the time of the decision, there was no evidence of this.

However, Nancy’s parents later returned to a Missouri court with some of Nancy’s former co-workers who testified that they recalled her saying she would never want to live ‘like a vegetable’.

Three years later in a letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the future architects of Obamacare, acknowledged that this “proof” of Nancy Cruzan’s alleged statement rested only on “fairly vague and insubstantial comments to other people”.

However and most disturbing, he also wrote that:

“…increasingly it will be our collective determination as to what lives are worth living that will decide how incompetent patients are treated. We need to begin to articulate and justify these collective determinations.” (Emphasis added.) Source: The American Journal of Medicine January 1993 Volume 94 p. 115

CONCLUSION

As a hospice and critical care nurse, I strove to make sure dying patients and their families had a good death, either in a hospital or other institution or at home.

Personally, my husband and I also made a careful durable power of attorney document that only designates each other as our decision maker with the right to make decisions about our care rather than signing a “living will” to refuse potential future treatments or set possible future conditions like dementia where we would want treatment stopped or withheld. Instead, we want all current options, risks and benefits of treatment fully explained to the decision maker based on the current condition.

I also encourage people to check out information sites like the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership organization (I am an advisor) and magazines like “Informed-A Guide for Critical Medical Decisions”  which has sections explaining ventilators, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), feeding tubes, use and misuse of opioids and sedatives as well as other end of life considerations.

Death is a journey we all will take someday. Especially in today’s world, we should protect ourselves and our loved ones by trying to ensure a truly good death.

Medical Experts Now Agree that Severely Brain-injured Patients are Often Misdiagnosed and May Recover

People with severe brain injuries from accidents, strokes, illness, etc. are often in comas at first. If they don’t die or spontaneously wake up, they can progress to a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) described as “awake but unaware” and/or a “minimally conscious state” (MCS) described as definite, but extremely limited, awareness of self or environment, and limited means of communication. People with these conditions have had court battles over removing their feeding tubes such as the 1988 Nancy Cruzan (PVS) and the 2001 Robert Wendland (MCS) right to die” cases.

Now, an August 9, 2018 Medscape article “New Guideline for Minimally Conscious, Vegetative States Released”  reveals that 3 specialty societies including the American Academy of Neurology have just published a new guideline with 15 recommendations for “accurate diagnosis, prognosis and treatment for these conditions”.

The reason for the new guidelines, according to Dr. Joseph Giacino, who was one of the authors of the study, is because:

“Misdiagnosis of  DoC (“disorders of consciousness”) is common because underlying impairments can mask awareness — in fact, there is a 40% rate of misdiagnosis, leading to inappropriate care decisions as well as poor health outcomes.” (Emphasis added)

The 223 page new guideline titled Practice guideline update: Disorders of consciousness” states that:

 “Clinicians should refer patients with DoC (disorders of consciousness) who have achieved medical stability to settings staffed by multidisciplinary rehabilitation teams with specialized training to optimize diagnostic evaluation, prognostication, and subsequent management, including effective medical monitoring and rehabilitative care.”

and

When discussing prognosis with caregivers of patients with DoC (disorders of consciousness) during the first 28 days after injury, avoid statements suggesting that these patents “have a universally poor prognosis”. (All emphasis added)

According to Dr. Giacino, “Approximately 20% of individuals who have disturbance in consciousness from trauma regain functional independence between 2 and 5 years post-injury, even though they may not return to work or pretrauma functioning.” (Emphasis added)

The study also cites the drug amantadine and brain imaging showing that the brain can still respond normally to stimulus even though the person seems unaware as potentially helpful.

What about the “right to die” for these people? Ominously, the guideline does mention 1 study found that hospital mortality was 31.7%, with 70.2% of those deaths associated with the withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy”. (Emphasis added)

IS THE “40% MISDIAGNOSIS” RATE REALLY NEWS?

Doctors like Dr. Keith Andrews of the UK and US doctor Mihai Dimancescu published  medical journal articles  in the 1990s showing that around 40% of patients in a so-called “persistent vegetative state” were misdiagnosed.  And in 1987, the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in the UK opened a “vegetative state” unit and later developed the “Sensory Modality Assessment and Rehabilitation Technique (SMART)” as a clinical tool for the assessment and rehabilitation of people with disorders of consciousness following severe brain injury.

Despite this, most media stories about cases like Terri Schiavo’s and “right to die”/assisted suicide groups continued to insist that “PVS” is a hopeless condition for which everyone should sign a “living will” to ensure that food and water is withheld or withdrawn to “allow” death.

This happened despite articles like the New York Times’ 1982 article “Coming Out of Coma”.  about the unexpected return of consciousness of Sgt. David Mack over a year after the famous “right to die” neurologist Dr. Ron Cranford  predicted ”He will never be aware of his condition nor resume any degree of meaningful voluntary conscious interaction with his family or friends” before. (Emphasis added)

There have also been articles about people like Terry Wallis who in 2003 regained consciousness after 19 years in a “minimally conscious” state. Unfortunately, such cases were often explained away as just “misdiagnosis” or a “miracle”.

MY EXPERIENCE

Just before Drs. Jennet and Plum invented the term “persistent vegetative state” in 1972,  I started working with these many comatose patients as a young ICU nurse. Despite the skepticism of my colleagues, I talked to these patients as if they were awake because I believed it was worth doing it for the patient if hearing is truly the last sense to go. Because of this, I unexpectedly saw some amazing recoveries and one patient later  told me that he would only respond to me at first and refused to respond to the doctor because he was angry when heard the doctor call him a “vegetable” when the doctor assumed the patient was comatose.

Over the years, I’ve written about several other patients like “Jack”, “Katie” and “Chris” in comas or “persistent vegetative states” who regained full or limited consciousness with verbal and physical stimulation. I also recommended Jane Hoyt’s wonderful 1994 pamphlet “A Gentle Approach-Interacting with a Person who is Semi-Conscious  or Presumed in Coma” to help families and others stimulate healing of the brain. Personally, I have only seen one person who did not improve from the so-called “vegetative” state during the approximately two years I saw him.

CONCLUSION

It is good news that the American Academy of Neurology and other groups are finally rethinking their approach to people with severe brain injuries, especially the recommendation to start rehabilitation therapies as soon as the person is medically stable and the recommendation for  periodic and thorough testing over time.

This is crucial because the often quick prognosis of “hopeless” attached to people with severe brain injuries can-and has-led to early withdrawal of feeding tubes and ventilators as well as DCD (donation after cardiac/circulatory death) for these non-brain dead people.

Dr. Joseph Fins MD and chief of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College perhaps says it best when he praises the new guideline as “a real step forward for this population that has historically been marginalized and remains vulnerable” and “suggests that brain states are not static, but dynamic, and that people can improve over time”. (Emphasis added)

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!