Home Health Care and Safety in the Age of Covid 19

In the 1990s, I reluctantly had to leave my hospital position in oncology after an  operation on my right foot surgery that left me unable to stand on my feet for even just a few hours. I decided to go into home health  to support my children and possibly help my foot heal.

Surprisingly, I found that I loved home health nursing and I learned a lot that even helped my patients when I was finally able to resume hospital nursing some years later.

Home health nursing wasn’t an easy job even back then. I drove up to 200 miles some days to care for just about every kind of patient from medical patients just needing blood work to hospice patients and even a young man unable to move below his neck after a diving accident. But I loved the independence and really getting to know my patients and helping them in their own environment.

In May, I wrote a blog “Covid 19 and Nursing Homes” about friends of mine who refused to go to extended care nursing facilities because of the outbreaks of Covid 19 which are especially dangerous to the elderly. Instead, these friends chose to stay home with help from home health caregivers, family and/or friends.

I wondered how home health nursing was now coping with the pandemic.

HOW COVID 19 IS CHANGING HOME HEALTH CARE

A May 18, 2020 article written by 3 geriatricians and titled “How coronavirus could forever change home health care, leaving vulnerable older adults without care and overburdening caregivers” reveals how Covid 19 is now changing a sector of health care that has received little attention during the pandemic.

According to the article, over 5 million people in the US are currently receiving paid home care from personal care assistants, home health aides, nurses and therapists. But even before Covid 19, there were not enough of these health care workers.

As the geriatricians write:

 “(N)ow, not only must home care continue for older adults, and for those with disabilities, but many people with COVID-19 will need it too”.

While home health care reduces the stress on hospital systems, Covid 19 means that home health care is facing new challenges.  Because home health workers travel to multiple homes and people, this increases the risk of possible Covid 19 transmission both for the workers and their often frail and older patients. How can health care workers and their patients both stay safe during the pandemic?

The geriatricians researched the problem and came up with 10 recommendations to  deal with Covid 19 and also improve home health care.

These recommendations include access to personal protective equipment (PPE), regular COVID-19 testing for both staff and patients,  Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanding the definitions of “home health” and “homebound” to include “personal care” to help more patients, as well as increasing federal funding for community health workers.

They also recommend more flexibility using options like telehealth which has been particularly useful for one of my older friends.

ONE BIG REASON WHY I LEFT HOME HEALTH NURSING

Although this article did not address this issue, one of the big reasons I finally left home health when my foot improved was the danger of working in a large city like St. Louis that has several high-risk areas as well as the roving packs of wild dogs  that were a problem at the time.

I often saw patients in these areas and sometimes even during the night when I was on call for the agency. On occasion, even the police stopped some of us nurses when were going in to see a patient in these high-risk areas and they offered to wait outside until we returned. I especially appreciated this because as a single mother, I was concerned about what could happen to my children if anything happened to me.

Personally, I saw guns in some households, was cut off by some young men trying to stop my car, dealt with some suddenly psychotic patients, tried to mitigate domestic disturbances, etc. Some areas were so high-risk that I took the fire escape for safety reasons rather than use the elevator to get to my patients’  apartments.

It took many attempts before we nurses finally got our agency to help us get pepper spray and provide a security person to accompany us nurses to high-risk areas when we felt it was necessary.

But sadly, I could never consider going back to home health now with the protests, riots and escalating violence we are seeing in many cities like St. Louis and other areas.

I fervently hope and pray that the important issues that are tearing our country apart will soon be resolved for the safety of all of us.

Especially because I am a nurse, I do know how much every life matters.

Sweden and Covid 19: Families Complain That “Palliative Care” Instead of Treatment Is Being Given to the Elderly

A June 18, 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Coronavirus is taking a high toll on Sweden’s elderly. Families blame the government”  starts with a disturbing story:

“When 81-year-old Jan Andersson fell ill with Covid-19 at a nursing home in the Swedish town of Märsta, a doctor consulted by phone ordered palliative care, including morphine, instead of trying to help him fend off the infection.

Mr. Andersson’s son, Thomas Andersson, says he was told his father was too frail for other treatment. The younger man disagreed and, after arguing with the physician, summoned journalists and insisted his father be given lifesaving care. Mr. Andersson has since recovered.

The county that runs Mr. Andersson’s nursing home said all decisions on medical treatment for the residents were made by doctors employed by a company that provides medical services. (All emphasis added)

The Wall Street Journal reports that cases like this have sparked a public outcry from not only relatives but also from some doctors and nurses. There is now an investigation by Swedish national health-care authorities into the treatment of older patients in nursing homes and Stockholm hospitals. There are now 5,041 people in Sweden who have died from Covid 19 with about half being nursing home residents.

“Many people have died unnecessarily,” said Yngve Gustafson, a geriatric-medicine specialist in Sweden, who looked into more than 200 cases in which people were denied care. He said that doctors were too quick to put patients on palliative care. He also said that he believed many would have survived and lived year longer had they been provided basic care.

Furthermore, a June 12, 2020 British Medical Journal article “Has Sweden’s controversial covid-19 strategy been successful?” stated that Dr. Gustafson also spoke to the Svebsja Dagbladet newspaper and “expressed concern about the increasing practice of doctors recommending by telephone a “palliative cocktail” for sick older people in care homes.

He also was quoted as saying:

“Older people are routinely being given morphine and midazolam, which are respiratory-inhibiting,” … “It’s active euthanasia, to say the least.”

Thomas Linden, chief medical officer of Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, said the triage guidelines for Covid 19 were developed to prepare the health-care system for a potential crisis while ensuring best-possible treatment for all patients.

However, the Wall Street Journal article reports that Swedish critics say these guidelines have too often resulted in older patients being denied treatment, even when hospitals were operating below capacity.

“Dr. Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, a physician at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, said that “the ICU wards were comparatively empty “because elderly people were not taken to hospitals—they are given sedatives but not oxygen or basic care.”

The Wall Street Journal article also notes that “About 90% of nursing-home residents who succumbed to Covid-19 in Sweden were never admitted to a hospital, according to official estimates. ” (Emphasis added)

Most poignantly, Latifa Löfvenberg, a nurse  for a company providing medical services to several nursing homes, said she sought treatment for residents with Covid-19 and was told by company physicians to administer morphine and a sedative.

She  described what happened:

People suffocated, it was horrible to watch. One patient asked me what I was giving him when I gave him the morphine injection, and I lied to him,” said Ms. Löfvenberg, who is now working at a hospital in the Swedish capital. “Many died before their time. It was very, very difficult.” (Emphasis added)

COULD-OR HAS-THIS HAPPENED IN THE US?

As I wrote in my May 20, 2020 blog “Covid 19 and the Culture of Death” about the dangerous and unethical responses to Covid 19 in the US:

“(T)he National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) has a new resource for Crisis Standards of Care for the “ethical allocation of scarce medical resources during a disaster” that:

‘provides a framework for healthcare professionals to utilize a predetermined framework to determine which individuals will receive life saving care during an emergency event or disaster and which ones will not.’ With the event of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), it is important for palliative and hospice care providers to be familiar with Crisis Standards of Care.” (Emphasis added)

However, access to the actual crisis standards is restricted to NHPCO members only.

But transparency is not the only  problem.

Unfortunately, I have also personally and professionally seen cases of deliberate overdose sedation. I have written about this, most recently in my 2019 blog When Palliative Care goes Horribly Wrong”.

CONCLUSION

While Sweden has not yet legalized physician-assisted suicide, Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare did authorize passive euthanasia in 2010, whereby “patients may request the termination of their treatment knowing that this will lead to their death”. This ruling came in response to a request by a 32 year old woman who was totally paralyzed and dependent on a ventilator since the age of six. She requested it be shut off when she was asleep. Whether or not she received a “palliative cocktail” beforehand is unknown.

Now, Swedish officials seem to have forgotten the part about “patient request” when it comes to Covid 19 and the elderly.

In the US, we started down a similar path when “right to die” groups focused on “living wills” and withdrawal of even basic treatment before outrightly promoting physician-assisted suicide.

The bottom line for any country is that we must not lethally discriminate against anyone, regardless of age or condition like Covid 19 and we must hold palliative care to the high standards set by the late Dame Cicely Saunders,  founder of hospice movement (1918 – 2005) who said:

“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.” (Emphasis added)

 

 

 

Over 600 Doctors Send Powerful Letter to President Trump Calling the Covid 19 Lockdown a “Mass Casualty Incident”

Although it received little media notice, a May 19, 2020 letter to President Trump signed by over 600 doctors detailed the physical and mental impact of the lockdown in the US due to Covid 19, calling it a “mass casualty incident” with “exponentially growing negative health consequences” to millions of non-COVID patients. 

As the highly contagious Covid 19 virus was spreading around the world, President Trump issued a proclamation on March 12, 2020 declaring a national emergency with “preventive and proactive measures to slow the spread of the virus and treat those affected”.

On March 18, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommended that hospitals cancel all elective surgeries and nonessential medical, surgical and dental procedures to prepare for the expected deluge of patients with Covid 19 and the health system complied.

Regular healthcare became virtually suspended as states went to lockdown with rules to shelter in place except for essential errands or work. Schools and many businesses were closed. 

Ironically,  except for New York and other hotspots that received massive federal help including ventilators and emergency field hospitals, US hospitals wound up with many empty beds and even emergency room visits dramatically declined

Many hospitals are now facing a financial crisis and health care professionals are being furloughed.

THE IMPACT OF THE LOCKDOWN ON AMERICANS’ PHYSICIAL AND MENTAL HEALTH

The doctors’ letter to President Trump focused on the devastating impact on Americans’ physical and mental health of the lockdown and why the months-long lockdowns should be ending. 

Here are some excerpts:

“Suicide hotline phone calls have increased 600%,” the letter said. Other silent casualties: “150,000 Americans per month who would have had new cancer detected through routine screening.”

“Patients fearful of visiting hospitals and doctors’ offices are dying because COVID-phobia is keeping them from seeking care. One patient died at home of a heart attack rather than go to an emergency room. The number of severe heart attacks being treated in nine U.S hospitals surveyed dropped by nearly 40% since March. Cardiologists are worried “a second wave of deaths” indirectly caused by the virus is likely.

“The millions of casualties of a continued shutdown will be hiding in plain sight, but they will be called alcoholism, homelessness, suicide, heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure. In youths it will be called financial instability, unemployment, despair, drug addiction, unplanned pregnancies, poverty, and abuse.

“It is impossible to overstate the short, medium, and long-term harm to people’s health with a continued shutdown,” the letter says. “Losing a job is one of life’s most stressful events, and the effect on a person’s health is not lessened because it also has happened to 30 million [now 38 million] other people. Keeping schools and universities closed is incalculably detrimental for children, teenagers, and young adults for decades to come.” (All emphasis added)

But while nearly all 50 states are starting to relax lockdown rules to some extent, some officials are threatening to keep many businesses closed and other draconian measures in place until August or even later. Many schools and universities now say they may remain closed for the remainder of 2020.

But as Dr. Marilyn Singleton, a California anesthesiologist and one of the signer of the letter said, “Ending the lockdowns are not about Wall Street or disregard for people’s lives; it’s about saving lives.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

We know a lot more about Covid 19 now. The US Center for Disease Control’s new ‘best estimate’ implies a COVID-19 Infection fatality rate below 0.3% with an estimated 35% of people with Covid 19 never having symptoms. 

States have rescinded orders that forced long term care facilities with our most vulnerable people to admit Covid 19 patients after hospital discharge resulting in lethal outbreaks.

But as more states are slowly opening, Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute writes:

“Will patients come back? COVID-phobia is deathly real.

Patients still are fearful about going to hospitals for heart attacks and even for broken bones and deep lacerations. Despite heroic efforts by physicians to deeply sanitize their offices, millions have cancelled appointments and are missing infusion therapies and even chemotherapy treatments. This deferred care is expected to lead to patients who are sicker when they do come in for care and more deaths from patients not receiving care for stroke, heart attacks, etc.”

While still observing social distancing, sanitizing and other common sense measures to protect ourselves and others, it is my opinion that the more than 600 doctors writing to President Trump are right when they urge ending the Covid 19 shutdown as soon as possible for all Americans’ physical and mental health.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covid 19 and the Culture of Death

“Ironically, the Covid 19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how far our healthcare ethics has fallen from the ideal of  respecting every life to the dangerous notion that some lives are expendable-even our own.”

I have written about how the Covid 19 pandemic has resulted in dangerous and unethical responses like ventilator rationing,  unilateral DNRs, and some states ordering nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to accept coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals.

But now,  the Covid 19 crisis has also spawned new ideas such as the American Clinicians Academy On Medical Aid in Dying’s policy recommendations on medically assisted suicide requests by telemedicine in the context of Covid 19  and Covid 19 advance directives aimed at refusing potentially life-saving treatment.

Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society that promotes assisted suicide, voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) and terminal sedation, now has a Covid 19 toolkit with a special Covid 19 addendum  to add to an existing advance directive to refuse care if a person gets Covid 19. The addendum even contains the question:

“Do you want your healthcare proxy to have the ability to override any of these orders if he or she believes you have a reasonable chance of living a life consistent with your values and priorities based on the information provided by the doctor? Or, do you want these orders followed no matter what?” (Emphasis added)

Another organization “Save Other Souls”, headed by an MD and an ethicist, has an “altruistic” advance directive for Covid 19 that states:

“In the event of shortages during the period of a declared emergency related to COVID-19, and in order to direct resources to others, I am willing to receive palliative care instead of: Critical medical equipment (ventilator, ECMO, etc.), Medication (other than palliative), Placement in a hospital care unit that provides critical care.” (Emphasis added)

Even more disturbing, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) has a new resource for Crisis Standards of Care for the “ethical allocation of scarce medical resources during a disaster” that:

“provides a framework for healthcare professionals to utilize a predetermined framework to determine which individuals will receive life saving care during an emergency event or disaster and which ones will not. With the event of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), it is important for palliative and hospice care providers to be familiar with Crisis Standards of Care.” (Emphasis added)

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), founded in 1978, is the nation’s largest membership organization for providers and professionals who care for people affected by serious and life-limiting illness”. NHPCO states that it “represents the interests of its members and the general public with legislative advocacy that helps to enhance and expand access to care that addresses holistic health and the well-being of communities.” (Emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, the NHPCO has supported  the problematic Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act, currently still in the US Congress awaiting passage.

CONCLUSION

The Covid 19 pandemic is especially terrifying to many people but we must realize that just like any other serious or terminal illness, we must act responsibly and ethically in caring for people with Covid 19.

While medical treatment that is medically futile or unduly burdensome to the person can be ethically refused or withdrawn, refusing or removing ordinary medical treatment or deliberately oversedating a person in order to cause or hasten death is unethical. Even when we think it may help another person get care.

We need to know the difference, especially when it comes to making out living wills” or other advance directives.

Ironically, the Covid 19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how far our healthcare ethics has fallen from the ideal of  respecting every life to the dangerous notion that some lives are expendable-including our own.

 

 

Covid 19 and Nursing Homes

Recently, two good friends of mine with physical limitations who had been waiting for over a year to enter a carefully chosen assisted living/long term healthcare facility changed their minds about going. They found out that the facility had at least one resident with Covid 19. They are now staying at home with help from their sons, friends and a paid caregiver.

And my 97 year old friend Melissa with heart and mobility problems is adamant about staying at home to be cared for, primarily by her wonderful family. Recently, she developed a disturbing symptom but instead of going to her doctor as usual, her doctor was able to come to her via a telehealth visit by computer. Melissa is happy at home and knows that other options like home hospice are available if necessary.

Are these three people overreacting about nursing homes?

In my opinion, the answer is probably no at this time.

Unfortunately, long-term health facilities for the elderly have become hotbeds for Covid 19 despite those residents being the most at risk during the pandemic. A number of  staff at those facilities have also caught Covid 19 and some have also died.

Even worse, as NBC News reported April 25, 2020:

“Three states hit hard by the pandemic — New York, New Jersey and California — have ordered nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to accept coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals.” (Emphasis added)

On May 6, 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that New York nursing homes may have nearly 5,000 Covid-19 related deaths and the next day, the California Mercury News  reported that  “at least 41 percent of all known coronavirus deaths in California have occurred among residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.” (Emphasis added)

And, unfortunately, these same people are usually dying alone due to restrictions for even family members in hospitals and nursing homes. Sadly, even funerals are changing with new restrictions for ceremonies and mourners.

According to an April 21, 2020 article “Nursing Homes Balk at COVID Patient Transfers From Hospitals” by the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP):

“The American Health Care Association says discharged hospital patients should return only to nursing homes with separate COVID-19 units. Ideally, those units are staffed with employees with access to personal protective equipment. The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which regulates nursing homes, endorsed the idea of separate COVID units this month.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

I was personally shocked to discover that  only  23 states publicly reported data for cases and deaths due to COVID-19 in long-term care facilities  as of April 23, 2020.

However, the Trump administration has recently announced upcoming new regulatory requirements that:

“will require nursing homes to inform residents, their families and representatives of COVID-19 cases in their facilities. In addition, as part of President Trump’s Opening Up America, CMS will now require nursing homes to report cases of COVID-19 directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” (Emphasis added)

When my mother with Alzheimer’s disease was dying from cancer in 1988, there was no pandemic and we cared for her at home as long as possible before placing her in a nursing home nearby for safety reasons. So I do know that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities can be wonderful and even necessary options.

But until this pandemic dissipates, we need all the essential information  necessary to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable among us.

CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) in the age of Covid 19-What You Need to Know

Several years ago, a nurse friend was with her boyfriend at a concert hall when he collapsed with no heartbeat or breathing. She called for 911, started CPR and asked for an AED (automatic external defibrillator) , which is located in most offices and public buildings. An AED is a sophisticated, yet easy-to-use (even for a lay person with training), medical device that can analyze the heart’s rhythm and, if necessary, deliver an electrical shock, or defibrillation, to help the heart re-establish an effective rhythm.

However, the concert staff didn’t know where it’s AED was.

My friend continued to deliver mouth to mouth an chest compressions while a crowd gathered, some of whom were physicians who told her to stop because it was hopeless.

Finally, an ambulance arrived and took the boyfriend to a local hospital. He not only survived but was discharged 3 days later in good condition and determined to start a healthier lifestyle.

So I was stunned to read an April 21, 202 New York Post article “NY issues do-not-resuscitate guideline for cardiac patients amid coronavirus” (Covid 19) that said New York state had just issued “a drastic new guideline urging emergency services workers not to bother trying to revive anyone without a pulse when they get to a scene, amid an overload of coronavirus patients.” (Emphasis added)

While paramedics were previously told to spend up to 20 minutes trying to resuscitate a person in cardiac arrest, the new guideline was deemed “necessary during the COVID-19 response to protect the health and safety of EMS providers by limiting their exposure, conserve resources, and ensure optimal use of equipment to save the greatest number of lives.’’

First responders were outraged and their union leader said “Our job is to bring patients back to life. This guideline takes that away from us.”

Earlier this month, the Regional Emergency Services Council of New York had issued a new guideline that said cardiac arrest patients whose hearts can’t be restarted at the scene should no longer be taken to the hospital for further life-saving attempts because the city hospitals had been “inundated with dying coronavirus patients to the point where there are frequently no ICU beds.”

One paramedic acknowledged that only a small percentage of people in cardiac arrest-3 or 4 out of 100-are brought back to life through  CPR and other aggressive interventions such as drugs and hospitalization but insisted that “for those three or four people, it’s a big deal.”

On April 22 and just hours after the initial New York Post article was published, the new guidelines were rescinded. New York City’s Fire Department and first responders never adopted the no-revival directive from the state and kept using the traditional 20-minute policy.

WOULD YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE COLLAPSES WITH NO HEARTBEAT OR BREATHING?

When I started as a nurse in many decades ago, we were trained in CPR and taught how to use AMBU bags (mask, valve and self-inflating bag) to breathe for patients in arrest or distress in place of mouth to mouth resuscitation. AMBU bags are now standard equipment on ambulances and other rescue services.

Over the years, techniques for CPR changed especially in 2008 when the American Heart Association released new recommendations that bystanders can skip mouth to mouth resuscitation and use “Hands-Only CPR” to help an adult who suddenly collapses:

“In Hands-Only CPR, bystanders dial 9-1-1 and provide high-quality chest compressions by pushing hard and fast in the center of the victim’s chest.”

Now, the Covid 19 pandemic has changed CPR guidelines.

As the April 16, 2020 Notre Dame Fire Department concisely explains on pandemic-modified CPR guidelines for bystanders:

“Bystander CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) improves the likelihood of an individual’s survival from cardiac arrest occurring outside of the hospital. However, coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. If a rescuer breathes into a cardiac arrest individual’s mouth, there will likely be an exchange of respiratory droplets. Household members who have been exposed to the individual at home should not hesitate to attempt life-saving rescue measures.

A non-household bystander who attempts to rescue a cardiac arrest individual should wear a face mask or cloth over his/her mouth and nose and place a face mask or cloth over the mouth and nose of the individual to reduce the risk of transmission.

In the case of an adult in cardiac arrest, lay rescuers should perform at least hands-only CPR. For children, lay rescuers should perform chest compressions and consider mouth-to-mouth ventilation, if willing and able, given the higher incidence of respiratory arrest in children.

To perform Hands-Only CPR, you place your hands in the center of the chest and pump hard and fast at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute.

If an AED (automated external defibrillator) is available, please proceed with opening the AED and following the automated prompts to initiate life-saving intervention. Defibrillation is not expected to be a highly aerosolizing procedure. If an AED is not available, please proceed with Hands-Only CPR.

For all cardiac related emergencies, EMS (911) should be called…For more information, refer to the American Heart Association’s interim CPR guidance.

CONCLUSION

As a nurse, I have participated in many instances of cardiac or respiratory arrest and it’s always stressful. However, the joy of participating in saving someone’s life is indescribable. And even when we were unsuccessful, we had the consolation of knowing that we did everything we could for that person.

I encourage everyone to take a course to learn CPR. To find such a course, you can contact your local hospital or go to the American Heart Association’s Find A Course  or to the Red Cross website.

And I personally thank the courageous New York Fire Department and first responders for upholding the standards of care for all their patients.

 

Health Care Rationing, Covid 19 and the Medical Ethics Response

While the key medical model in the US for Covid 19 deaths has just again been revised from 240,000 to 100,000 to now just 60,000 by August along with concerns about the possible overuse of ventilators in Covid 19, there is still a push for medical health care rationing guidelines.

As the April 8, 2020 Wall Street Journal article As Coronavirus Peaks, New York City’s Hospitals Prepare ‘Live or Die’ Guidance” notes, some hospitals and health care systems are coming up with guidelines and scoring systems to allocate ventilators. At the same time, New York lawmakers have recently passed a measure to protect hospitals and clinicians from certain medical malpractice lawsuits while the Covid 19 virus strains the health system.

Disability groups are complaining about discrimination in health care rationing plans that would “illegally deprive people based on age, mental cognition or disability”. In addition, a recent Center for Public Integrity analysis shows that policies in 25 states would ration care in ways disability advocates have denounced.

While such rationing plans are usually said to be based on determining which patients have little if any chance of a good outcome, i.e.  medical futility, even the American Medical Association has admitted in its Code of Ethics that “However, physicians must remember that it is not possible to offer a single, universal definition of futility. The meaning of the term “futile” depends on the values and goals of a particular patient in specific clinical circumstances.” (Emphasis added)

THE CATHOLIC MEDICAL ETHICS PERSPECTIVE

Medical ethics in Catholic health care institutions are often considered the most stringent in terms of protecting human life from conception to natural death. So what do Catholic ethics authorities say about rationing?

On April 3, 2020, the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) issued a powerful statement “Bishop Chairmen Issue Statement on Rationing Protocols by Health Care Professionals in Response to Covid-19” that stated:

“Every crisis produces fear, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. However, this is not a time to sideline our ethical and moral principles. It is a time to uphold them ever more strongly, for they will critically assist us in steering through these trying times.”

and

“Good and just stewardship of resources cannot include ignoring those on the periphery of society, but must serve the common good of all, without categorically excluding people based on ability, financial resources, age, immigration status, or race.” (Emphasis added)

The statement cited other Catholic health care groups like Catholic Medical Association, the National Association of Catholic Nurses and the National Catholic Bioethics Center that all issued helpful statements.

However another Catholic group mentioned, the Catholic Health Association, has also issued a problematic statement on the rationing issue titled “Code Status and COVID-19 Patients “ stating that:

“CPR may be medically inappropriate in a significant portion of elderly, critically ill patients with COVID-19 and underlying comorbidities. As per Parts 3 and 5 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, if it is shown that the burdens exceed the benefits, it is morally acceptable to withhold such procedure.” (Emphasis added)

And even worse:

“If treating clinicians, including more than one physician, determine that CPR is not medically appropriate, a Do Not Attempt Resuscitation Order (DNR) may be written without explicit patient or family consent.” (All emphasis added)

In a separate April 7, 2020 statement from the  National Catholic Partnership on Disability titled “Rights of Persons with Disabilities to Medical Treatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic , the NCPD states “As The Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recently reminded us, America’s basic civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibit discrimination:

“[P]ersons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities. ”  (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

Over my many decades as a nurse, I have seen the question of “quality of life” deteriorate from what can we do to improve the quality of life for every patient to judging whether or not a patient has sufficient quality of life to justify treatment or care like a feeding tube.

During that time, Alzheimer’s and major CVAs (strokes) in advanced age have come to be seen as fates worse than death that should not be a burden on people and their families or a waste of health care resources.

Before my own mother developed Alzheimer’s and a terminal cancer, she often told me that she never wanted to be a “burden to her family”. I never considered her a “burden” when I cared for her and she was comfortable and fed to her last day. I will never tell my children what my mother told me.

And especially with assisted suicide polls showing much public support, we cannot afford to play into the idea that some people are “better off dead” regardless of whether or not they “choose” a premature death or someone else “chooses” it for them.

We should also remember the lethal legacy of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. Flooding caused the New Orleans mayor to issue an unprecedented mandatory evacuation of the city with the exception of major hospitals. But when conditions worsened at the large Memorial Medical Center and evacuation efforts were slow, some medical staff allegedly euthanized some of the patients.

However and despite strong evidence, a massive PR campaign portraying those patient deaths as “compassionate” resulted in the 2007 grand jury refusing to indict the doctor and 2 nurses charged.

As we see this debate over medical ethics in crisis situations continue today, we must continue to insist that every person deserves a natural lifespan without discrimination.

Ventilator Rationing, Universal DNRs and Covid 19 (Coronavirus)

As a nurse myself, it is hard to watch my fellow nurses bravely fighting on the front lines of this pandemic without being able to be there with them.

Nurses are a special breed. In my over 50 years as a nurse, I found that most of us chose nursing because we want to help people and alleviate suffering. We work the long hours on our feet, skip meals, hold hands and listen, cry when our patients die, etc. because we truly do care.

But the health care system has been changing. A dark new ethics movement is infecting our system and telling us not only that our patients have a right to choose to end their lives but also that some of our patients even “need” to die and that we can’t care for all of them during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Worst of all, we are being told that we can now know how to decide which patients are “expendable”.

VENTILATOR RATIONING

A 71 year old man with a heart condition arrives at a hospital is diagnosed with Covid 19. His condition worsens and he is placed on a ventilator to help him breathe. Then the infection rate spikes in the city and the hospital is overrun with severely ill patients, many between 20 and 50 years old and otherwise healthy.

The health care team is forced to decide which patients should they focus on and care for.

This is the scenario posed in a March 20, 2020 Medpage article “Ethics Consult: Take Elderly COVID-19 Patient Off Ventilator?— You make the call” along with an online survey with 3 questions:

1. Would you prioritize the care of healthier and younger patients and shift the ventilator from the elderly man to patients with a higher probability of recovering?
2. Would you change your decision if the elderly patient had been in intensive care for a non-COVID-19-related illness?
3. Would you prioritize the older man over college students who had likely been
infected during spring break trips?

After almost 4000 votes, the survey showed 55.65% voting yes on prioritizing the care of the healthier and younger patients, 78.11% voting no on changing their decision about the elderly patient if he didn’t have Covid 19 and 71.12% voting no on prioritizing the elderly man over college students likely to have been infected on a spring break trip.

So while most people fear becoming infected with Covid 19, less well-known ethical dangers may also affect us-especially those of us who are older or debilitated.

Every day, we hear about the shortage of ventilators needed for Covid 19 patients and the overworked and understaffed health care professionals providing the care. Now both mainstream media and medical journals are publishing articles about the ethical dilemma of denying CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or a ventilator to older patients or those with a poor prognosis with Covid 19 in a triage situation.

Triage is defined as “A process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment. Triage is used in hospital emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at disaster sites when limited medical resources must be allocated.” (Emphasis added)

But this definition does NOT include deciding how to triage people based on age or “productivity”.

UNIVERSAL DNRs

A March 25, 2020 Washington Post article “A Framework for Rationing Ventilators and Critical Care Beds During the COVID-19 Pandemic” posed the question: “how to weigh the ‘save at all costs’ approach to resuscitating a dying patient against the real danger of exposing doctors and nurses to the contagion of coronavirus.”

This is not just an academic discussion.

As the article reveals, “Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has been discussing a do-not-resuscitate policy for infected patients, regardless of the wishes of the patient or their family members — a wrenching decision to prioritize the lives of the many over the one.” (Emphasis added) And Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine and a University of Pennsylvania surgeon, described how colleagues at different institutions are sharing draft policies to address their changed reality.

Bioethicist Scott Halpern at the University of Pennsylvania is cited as the author of one widely circulated model guideline being considered by many hospitals. In an interview, he said a universal DNR for Covid 19 patients was too “draconian” and could sacrifice a young person in otherwise good health. He also noted that the reality of health-care workers with limited protective equipment cannot be ignored. “If we risk their well-being in service of one patient, we detract from the care of future patients, which is unfair,” he said.

The article notes that “Halpern’s document calls for two physicians, the one directly taking care of a patient and one who is not, to sign off on do-not-resuscitate orders. They must document the reason for the decision, and the family must be informed but does not have to agree.” (Emphasis added)

This could not only upend traditional ethics but also the law as “Health-care providers are bound by oath — and in some states, by law — to do everything they can within the bounds of modern technology to save a patient’s life, absent an order, such as a DNR, to do otherwise.”

Both disability and pro-life groups have condemned such health care rationing with Covid 19, especially for older people and people with disabilities.

However, this and more is apparently already happening.

In an April 1, 2020 Wall Street Journal article “What the Nurses See: Bronx Hospital Reels as Coronavirus Swamps New York” a co-worker told the nurse interviewed that the nurses were no longer doing chest compressions to resuscitate Covid 19 patients because “it uses lots of protective gear and puts workers at greater risk than chemical resuscitations”. This was corroborated by other nurses who said this has become an “unspoken rule.”

CONCLUSION

How can we protect ourselves and our loved ones in these circumstances?

At the very least and whether or not we are older or have disabilities, we should consider or reconsider our advance directives.

As the Life Legal Defence Foundation  writes in their “SPECIAL MESSAGE ABOUT COVID-19 AND ADVANCE HEALTH CARE DIRECTIVES”:

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, the public is learning about the importance of mechanical ventilators in providing temporary breathing support for many of those infected. Ventilators are saving lives!

A false understanding of respirators and ventilators has become commonplace in recent years. Many people think that these and similar machines’ only role is prolonging the dying process. The widely publicized treatment of COVID-19 patients is helping to dispel that myth. Many patients rely on machines temporarily every day for any number of reasons and go on to make full recoveries.

Unfortunately, many individuals have completed advance health care directives stating or suggesting that they do not wish to receive breathing assistance through mechanical ventilation.

Please take the time to review any advanced medical directives (including POLST forms) signed by you or your loved ones to make sure they are clear that mechanical ventilation is not among the forms of care that are refused. If there is any ambiguity, you may want to consider writing, signing, and dating an addendum specifying that mechanical ventilation is authorized. (Emphasis in original)

I would add that other treatments or care such as DNRs and feeding tubes also not be automatically checked off. I believe it is safer to appoint a trusted person to insist on being given all information concerning risks and benefit before permission is given to withdraw or withhold treatment.

Even as the nation is racing to get more ventilators and staff as we cope with this terrible pandemic, we all must continue to affirm the value of EVERY human life.

 

Coping in the Time of the Covid 19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic

Although we are in a time of national crisis that is causing disruption in all of our lives, we need to avoid panic and foster realistic optimism and resolve in ourselves and others. We are all in this together.

As a semi-retired nurse, I have been following the Covid 19 situation closely. We and our extended family and friends keep up with and strictly follow the sanitary and social isolation recommendations. If we all follow these precautions, this crisis may begin to abate in hopefully weeks or months.

There is cause for cautious optimism. Although the numbers of people infected will increase with more testing now available, most people will not die from Covid 19 and many will have no or mild symptoms. And a promising experimental vaccine against the Covid 19 virus has been developed in record time and is now being tested on humans. However it may take a year or more to prove its effectiveness. We must be patient.

Even better, a FDA drug long used to treat malaria has shown promise in treating Covid 19 patients in other countries and a clinical trial of the drug will start here.

However, the Covid 19 virus has and will continue to have an enormous impact on our lives for the foreseeable future not only in our homes but also in our work lives, education, the economy and the health care system.

But, as frightening as this crisis is now, in the end it may help us reorder our priorities from materialism and political/social divisions to a new appreciation for our families, our country and our ability to work together for the greater good.

One of the advantages of being older is that I am old enough to remember the polio virus epidemic in the 1950s that struck so many children and caused panic in my own parents until Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine. As a nurse, I also remember the terrible AIDS virus epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s that killed so many people and even became the “poster child” for legalizing physician-assisted suicide until an effective treatment was developed in 1997. And I remember the relief and joy when the polio vaccines and AIDS treatments were found.

Like AIDS, polio and other deadly infections in the past, the Covid 19 crisis will also eventually pass. I recently asked my wonderful 97-year-old friend “Melissa” who lived through World War II about how people got through those terrible years of turmoil and sacrifice. She seemed surprised by the question and said, “We just did what we had to do”. No wonder she is one of those people now celebrated as the “Greatest Generation”  with the values of  “personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.”

Those values are just as important today.

FIGHTING WORRY AND FEAR WITH GRATITUDE

In our current crisis, one way we can help ourselves cope is by being grateful for the often unrecognized blessings we do have. Gratitude is a potent antidote to the panic, worry and fear that can infect us, our loved ones and others.

So I am grateful that we live in a time when computers, smartphones (especially with text and FaceTime) and other devices that are available to most people now. How much worse would social isolation and access to critical information be in the past without these devices?

Personally, I am grateful that our grandchildren have access to online learning after their schools closed and that some of our adult children are now able to work by computer from home.

I am also grateful for my religious faith that encourages trust in God, prayer, hope and helping the less fortunate in times of crisis. And I am grateful that even though churches and other places of worship are closing, religious services and inspiration are easily available online or on television. And I am inspired by the efforts of religious groups like the St. Vincent DePaul Society that never stop caring for the less fortunate no matter what the crisis.

I am also grateful that I am healthy enough to help my more elderly or infirm neighbors by picking up items from the store or even just calling them on the phone to chat. We can all look for ways to help our community without endangering ourselves or others such as ordering take-out food from small businesses that had to close their dining rooms and lay off workers. I have always found that helping others promotes happiness and optimism in both the person receiving help and the person giving the help.

I am grateful for my husband and family, especially now that we are grandparents who can help care for our grandchildren-particularly those who are out of school and have (thankfully) working parents. In times of crisis, we have a great opportunity to get closer to all our loved ones and the entertainment value of family alone is worth it.

All of us should remember that it’s the tough times that strengthen us most. We have a duty to set a good example for our families and our nation so that when the crisis is behind us, we all will be kinder, wiser and better people in the future.