Two Disturbing Articles about the Education of Doctors and Nurses

A September 12, 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns- At ‘woke’ medical schools, curricula are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness” exposed the problem with including politically popular courses at the expense of hard science.

This was preceded by an August 23, 2019 MedPage article titled A Radical Change to Nursing Board Exams” that exposed a “A lack of situational teaching in clinical settings has led to inadequate skills in critical thinking and decision-making on the part of novice new graduate nurses” resulting “in an epidemic of poor clinical judgment among novice nurses, preventing them from making the best decisions for their patients and incurring huge costs to the institutions where they work for longer orientation periods and malpractice lawsuits.” (Emphasis added)

It is hoped that this new nursing board exam will force nursing schools to make clinical judgment and clinical experiences a central part of nursing education.

I was shocked but not actually surprised by these two disturbing articles.

NURSING EDUCATION

I started to notice the problems some new nurses were having several years ago after the traditional 3 year nursing diploma education in hospitals was  phased out in favor of 2 year associate degree programs (ADN) and 4 year bachelor degree programs (BSN) with less clinical experience.

Many of our new nurses had trouble with decision-making and couldn’t function well in the hospital. Many were demoted to nursing assistant or left after their trial period. I tried to personally help some of these new nurses who were obviously dedicated and wanted to do their best for their patients but many froze from the fear of making a wrong decision.

These new nurses needed more continuous help than I could give so I talked to nursing supervisors but the situation did not change much.

In the meantime, my hospital announced that every nurse now must have a bachelor degree in nursing (BSN) by 2021. This started at many hospitals after a 2010 Institute of Medicine paper recommended a goal that 80% of nurses have a BSN by 2020. RN to BSN programs then proliferated, eventually even online.

Most of my fellow nurses who took these BSN courses on their own time while working full-time complained to me that these courses were not especially helpful clinically and more geared to management preparation and community education. They also complained about exhaustion and difficulty managing family, work and study. Several wound up getting sick themselves.

Although the hospital helped with the expense of the BSN degree, the hourly salary increase for a BSN only went up to 10 cents more an hour when I was there.

MEDICAL EDUCATION

In the September 12, 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns”  by Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a former associate dean of curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, highlights  another but similar problem. He asks “Why have medical schools become a target for inculcating social policy when the stated purpose of medical education since Hippocrates has been to develop individuals who know how to cure patients?”

He complains that:

“These educators focus on eliminating health disparities and ensuring that the next generation of physicians is well-equipped to deal with cultural diversity, which are worthwhile goals. But teaching these issues is coming at the expense of rigorous training in medical science. The prospect of this “new,” politicized medical education should worry all Americans.” (Emphasis added)

He also states that:

“The traditional American model first came under attack by progressive sociologists of the 1960s and ’70s, who condemned medicine as a failing enterprise because increased spending hadn’t led to breakthroughs in cancer treatment and other fields. The influential critic Ivan Illich called the medical industry an instrument of “pain, sickness, and death,” and sought to reorder the field toward an egalitarian social purpose. These ideas were long kept out of the mainstream of medical education, but the tide of recent political culture has brought them in.” (Emphasis added)

He concludes:

“Meanwhile, oncologists, cardiologists, surgeons and other medical specialists are in short supply. The specialists who are produced must master more crucial material even though less and less of their medical-school education is devoted to basic scientific knowledge. If this country needs more gun control and climate change activists, medical schools are not the right place to produce them.” (Emphasis added)

After an apparent avalanche of criticism, the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial defending Dr. Goldfarb’s op-ed stating:

“Patients want an accurate diagnosis, not a lecture on social justice or climate change. Thanks to Dr. Goldfarb for having the courage to call out the politicization of medical education that should worry all Americans.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION AND SOLUTIONS

I became an RN fifty years ago in what I now call a “golden age”.

Before we could even be admitted to nursing school, we had to submit a character reference. My fellow nursing students were as excited and dedicated as I was to become the best nurse possible for our patients. We regularly saw programs like “Marcus Welby, MD” and “Medical Center” where doctors and nurses worked tirelessly and bravely to help their patients.

When my preferred hospital changed its nursing program from a 3 year diploma program to a 2 year ADN program, I was worried but decided to trust the hospital. However, I felt somewhat unprepared after graduation and found a 1 year nursing internship program at another hospital that gave me supervised clinical experience in every area.

Not only did that increase my competency, it changed my mind from specializing in pediatrics to critical care. I think that such programs should be encouraged at every hospital for new nurses to help solve the problem of poor decision-making and clinical judgement. Nothing substitutes for actual clinical experience which is in short supply  in many ADN and BSN programs.

Also 50 years ago, rigorous ethics were an important part of our nursing education with “do no harm” to patients, report our mistakes, never lie, advocate for our patients regardless of age, socioeconomic status or condition, etc. incorporated as standard requirements. We happily took the Nightingale Pledge.

However in the 1970s, I saw ethics slowly become “bioethics”. The tried and true Hippocratic Oath principles requiring high ethical and moral standards for doctors including prohibitions against actions such as assisting suicide and abortion gave way to “bioethics” with 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”)

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

While we cannot recreate the past, we can reform our medical and nursing education and practice to return these professions-and our medical and nursing associations-to positions of trust. This is crucial not only for our professions but also for our patients and the public.

 

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses Statement Opposing the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019)

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses joins the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA and the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization (HALO) and other organizations in opposing the  Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) H.R. 647, S.2080.  (HALO has issued an action alert with the contact numbers for legislators on the Senate committee considering this bill.)

As nurses, we strive to care for our seriously ill, disabled and terminally ill patients with compassion and the highest ethical standards. We applaud the medical innovations and supportive care options that can help our patients attain the highest quality of life possible.

However now many of us nurses are now seeing unethical practices such as assisted suicide, terminal sedation (with withdrawal/withholding of food, water and critical medicines), voluntary stopping of eating, drinking and even spoon feeding, etc. used to cause or hasten death but often called palliative, “comfort” or routine hospice care for such patients.

We believe that the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) will allow federal funding to teach and institutionalize such unethical practices without sufficient oversight, safeguards or penalties.

For example, the Section 5 Clarifications (p. 21) against federal funding for objectionable practices “furnished for the purpose of causing, or the purpose of assisting in causing, a patient’s death, for any reason” is toothless. Such practices are already  considered acceptable by many influential hospice and palliative care doctors like Dr. Timothy Quill, a board-certified palliative care physician, 2012 president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and promoter of legalizing physician-assisted suicide and terminal sedation.

It is also disturbing the Compassion and Choice, the largest and best funded organization promoting assisted suicide and other death decisions,  has a mission statement stating:

“We employ educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.”

and a “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”  goal to:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….” (All emphasis added)

As nurses, we are also very concerned that the Act contains no conscience rights protection for those of us-doctors and nurses alike-who will do anything for our patients except deliberately end their lives or help them kill themselves.

Many of us have already faced threats of termination of employment for refusing to participate in unethical, life-ending practices without support from our nursing organizations like the American Nurses Association that recently dropped their traditional opposition to physician-assisted suicide and voluntary stopping of eating and drinking.

For the sake of protecting our patients, the integrity of our medical and nursing professions as well as our healthcare system, we urge the public and our congressional representatives to oppose this dangerous Act.

 

Assisted Suicide and “Failure of Unconsciousness”

As a nurse, I have seen patients assumed to be unconscious while in a coma or sedated on a ventilator later tell me about some memories and feelings during that time. This is why I always cared for such patients as if they were awake.

Now in a stunning February, 2019 Association of Anaesthetists article titled “Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying”, a group of international doctors explore the difficulty in ensuring unconsciousness to death in lethal injection capital punishment and assisted suicide/euthanasia. (Note: Since the authors are international, some quoted terms here are spelled differently than here in the US)

Believing that “A decision by a society to sanction assisted dying in any form should logically go hand‐in‐hand with defining the acceptable method(s)”, the authors reviewed the methods commonly used and contrast these with an analysis of capital punishment in the US. They “expected that, since a common humane aim is to achieve unconsciousness at the point of death, which then occurs rapidly without pain or distress, there might be a single technique being used.”

They were wrong.

They found that with self-administered lethal overdoses “with death resulting slowly from asphyxia due to cardiorespiratory (heartbeat and breathing) depression”, helium self-suffocation and the Dutch lethal injection that resembles US capital punishment, “there appears to be a relatively high incidence of vomiting (up to 10%), prolongation of death (up to 7 days), and re‐awakening from coma (up to 4%), constituting failure of unconsciousness.” (Emphasis added)

The authors take no position on assisted suicide and state their intention to “dispassionately examine whether the methods used to induce unconsciousness at the point of death in assisted dying achieve their objective”. With many of the authors being anesthesiologists themselves, they used the most recent research into “accidental awareness” during anesthesia to try to find an “optimal means” that could better achieve unconsciousness.

ASSISTED SUICIDE AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

It was difficult for the authors to find discussion of actual methods to cause death but the Dutch have published guidelines for both “passive participation” where the doctor prescribes a high-dose barbiturate and “active participation where the doctor administers a high dose of IV anesthetic and a neuromuscular (paralyzing) drug.

Notably, the authors found that a lethal injection is recommended by the Dutch when self-ingestion death fails to occur within 2 hours and that this is “an explicit recognition” that self-ingestion can fail.

The Dutch lethal injection resembles (except for the use of potassium to stop the heart) the US method of capital punishment so the authors looked at the US method of lethal injection capital punishment because it is “designed to be ‘humane’ and bears technical similarities” to lethal injection assisted suicide/euthanasia. The US lethal injection protocols also includes technical aspects such as drugs, dosage and monitoring of the patient.

However, as the authors note, “prisoners have been reported to be clearly awake and in distress during some executions”. Two death row prisoners even petitioned the US Supreme Court to consider a requirement for a physician to confirm unconsciousness before the lethal drugs are given. They argued that they “might be awake but paralysed at the point of death, making the method a ‘cruel or inhumane punishment’ which violated the US constitution’s Eighth Amendment”. (Emphasis added) The authors note that this “situation has clear parallels with the problem of ‘accidental awareness during general anesthesia’, where the patient awakens unnoticed and paralysed during surgery, which is known to be a potent cause of distress.” However, the US Supreme Court rejected this argument in 2008, “concluding that the anaesthetic doses used reliably achieved unconsciousness without any need to check that this was the case.” (All emphasis added)

As the authors state, “We now know that the Court was wrong.” (Emphasis added)

DO US ASSISTED SUICIDE LAWS GUARANTEE A PEACEFUL DEATH?

The US assisted suicide laws mandate secrecy in reporting requirements and the little yearly data available about complications is self-reported by the doctors who are not required to be with the person during the process or even afterwards to pronounce death.

However, the authors were able to use data from the Dutch protocols, and other similar methods used elsewhere and state that after taking the lethal overdose:

“patients usually lose consciousness within 5 min. However, death takes considerably longer. Although cardiopulmonary collapse occurs within 90 min in two‐thirds of cases, in a third of cases death can take up to 30 h(ours) 3133. Other complications include difficulty in swallowing the prescribed dose (in up to 9%) and vomiting thereafter (in up to 10%), both of which prevent suitable dosing, and re‐emergence from coma (in up to 2%). Each of these potentially constitutes a failure to achieve unconsciousness, with its own psychological consequences, and it would seem important explicitly to acknowledge this in suitable consent processes.” (Emphasis added

The authors also note:

“that the incidence of ‘failure of unconsciousness’ is approximately 190 times higher when it is intended that the patient is unconscious at the time of death 3133, as when it is intended they later awaken and recover after surgery (when accidental awareness is approximately 1:19,000)21, 22. (Emphasis added)

CAN TECHNOLOGY ENSURE UNCONSCIOUSNESS?

The authors discuss the limitations of just using EEGs (brain wave tests) and the isolated forearm technique (IFT) where the person can move their single, non-paralysed forearm to signal their awareness.

Instead the authors state:

“Recent lessons from anaesthesia lead us to conclude that, if we wish better to ensure unconsciousness at the point of death… then this can be achieved using: (1) continuous drug infusions at very high concentrations; (2) concomitant EEG‐based brain function monitoring, targeted to the very low, burst suppression or isoelectric values; and (3) clinical confirmation of unconsciousness by lack of response to command or to painful/arousing stimuli (and this last could include an IFT). Alternative methods that do not include these elements entail a higher, possibly unacceptable, risk of remaining conscious and so, by definition, are suboptimal.” (Emphasis added)

However, the authors acknowledge practical problems with this protocol such as the technical requirements requiring the involvement of trained practitioners like anesthetists.

And the “optimum method” for ensuring unconsciousness is so medicalized that:

“Society or individuals might prefer to retain a choice for alternative methods, even if these are suboptimal and carry a greater risk of consciousness at the point of death 54. If so, then legal frameworks and consent processes should explicitly acknowledge this choice. ” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

The assisted suicide legalization movement led by Compassion and Choices portrays assisted suicide as an easy and dignified death, even one that can be a cause of celebration.

Polls about assisted suicide like the latest Gallup poll find 65% say “yes” when asked “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living is severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?” even though assisted suicide laws don’t mention pain and state that the person must be terminally ill and expected to die within 6 months.

But how many people, especially legislators, would still say “yes” to legalizing assisted suicide after learning the truth in this article about the so-called “peaceful” assisted suicide?

And how many people would still pursue assisted suicide if they knew they might be conscious and in more distress during the process?

Unfortunately and right now, no assisted suicide law requires that kind of  explicit “informed consent”.

The obvious solution is to fight all assisted suicide laws and support all suicidal people.

 

Lessons from the Victory against Assisted Suicide in Maryland

In a dramatic end, the Maryland Senate was deadlocked in a 23-23 on their physician-assisted suicide bill when it came time for the last senator to vote on March 27, 2019.

Sen. Obie Patterson decided not to cast a vote which effectively killed the bill that needed a majority vote to pass.

Sen. Patterson told reporters that “I researched it, I talked with folks and my decision today was not to cast a vote. But I think I did my job. I did not relinquish my responsibility to thoroughly review all of the concerns I had about the bill. At the end of the day, I felt I could not cast a vote.”

This fourth attempt in Maryland to pass a physician-assisted suicide bill had just passed in the Maryland House of Delegates following “an intense and emotional debate that brought some lawmakers to tears”.

Although there was testimony on both sides with many personal stories, a Goucher College poll of people in Maryland showed 62% of those polled supported “allowing terminally ill adults to obtain medication to end their lives”. The Maryland State Medical Society that previously opposed assisted suicide bill had now changed its stance to “neutrality”.

Kim Callinan, CEO of the Compassion & Choices organization that promotes such legislation throughout the US had said that “with baby boomers beginning to reach retirement age, they are dealing with deaths of their parents and peers, causing them to rethink their views on death experiences allowing terminally ill adults to obtain medication to end their lives.”

Disability advocates were forced to wait to testify until all witnesses in favor of the bill testified, effectively blocking those advocates who had to leave.

LESSON ONE: DON’T GIVE UP EDUCATING  LEGISLATORS AND THE PUBLIC ON THE FACTS AND DANGERS OF ASSISTED SUICIDE

Although it seemed that the bill would pass in the Senate, all the efforts by disability advocates, pro-life people, medical professionals, concerned Maryland residents, etc. to write, speak and even march about the facts and dangers of physician-assisted suicide apparently had an effect.

When the bill was sent to a Senate committee to evaluate before being sent to the entire Senate for final passage, members of the committee now had reservations about the assisted suicide bill itself. Committee chairman Senator Bobby Zirkin said the bill as introduced to the committee was “flawed to its core”, even though he said he didn’t want to stand in the way of terminally ill people “who are truly, truly at the end of their life and out of treatment options.”

The senate committee members “spent more than 7 hours hashing out dozens of proposed amendments to the bill” before agreeing to vote it out to the full senate with these changes requiring patients:

“Be at least 21 years old, a change from 18 in the original bill.

Have their diagnosis confirmed by their attending physician and a consulting physician. Those two physicians cannot be in the same practice or have a financial relationship

Ask for the prescription three times, including once in private with a doctor and with witnesses.

Undergo a mental health evaluation.”

The senators also set a stricter definition of who could qualify for assisted suicide, and removed the prescribing doctors’ immunity “from civil lawsuits related to prescribing the fatal drugs.”

Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices said “the new drastically revised version of this bill includes troubling amendments that we know from our experience in other states will make the bill nearly impossible for patients to access.”

But as I noted in my previous blog on the assisted suicide bill, the Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide coalition correctly noted that even with the revisions, the bill “does not offer sufficient protection of those in our system of health care who are most vulnerable to abuse” and should not be passed.

After the bill died in the senate, one senator said he would sponsor yet another assisted suicide bill sometime in the future.

LESSON TWO: REVIEW THE RESULTS

As the Baltimore Sun article on the defeat of the assisted suicide bill noted:

“Some senators who voted against the bill recalled the General Assembly’s action a few years ago to abolish the death penalty — in part on the grounds that life is precious, even the life of a convicted criminal.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said that his vote in favor of keeping the death penalty has haunted him. He pledged to himself that if he ever faced a vote like that again, “I would err on the side of life.”

Others questioned the logic of allowing doctors, who they see as people who save lives, to participate in a process that leads to death.

“There are no do-overs in this type of law,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire… “Doctors have and will continue to make mistakes and miscalculations. They are humans. Once a life is taken, it is final.” (All emphasis added)

We may not always know what resonates with a legislator charged with representing his or her district but it is an awesome responsibility to make laws involving life or death decisions. That decision should not just be based on polls or horrific fears about death.

LESSON THREE: REACH OUT TO ALL GROUPS AND PEOPLE

None of us who oppose assisted suicide has the power, money or media support that Compassion and Choices has. But when we band together and use all our personal stories as well as the moral, legal, disability and medical perspectives against assisted suicide, we can win state by state and even educate the public nationally.

Our goal should not only be about defeating assisted suicide and upholding truly ethical healthcare but also to offer hope and support to improve the lives of all people experiencing suicidal despair, whether or not they are terminally ill.

 

 

A Surprise in Maryland, Compassion and Choices is Not Happy

Last month, I joined many other people fighting the fourth attempt in Maryland  to legalize physician-assisted suicide. At that time, the Maryland “End of Life Options” bill  was in a Maryland house committee. We all were disappointed when the bill was later passed and went to the senate committee.

But then things got interesting.

According to a 3/22/19 Baltimore Sun article “Medically assisted suicide bill advances in Maryland, but with changes that frustrate advocates” , committee chairman Senator Bobby Zirkin  said the bill as introduced to the committee was “flawed to its core”, even though he admitted he didn’t want to stand in the way of terminally ill people who wanted assisted suicide.

According to the article, the senate committee members “spent more than 7 hours hashing out dozens of proposed amendments to the bill” before agreeing to vote it out to the full senate with these changes requiring patients:

“Be at least 21 years old, a change from 18 in the original bill.

Have their diagnosis confirmed by their attending physician and a consulting physician. Those two physicians cannot be in the same practice or have a financial relationship

Ask for the prescription three times, including once in private with a doctor and with witnesses.

Undergo a mental health evaluation.”

The senators also set a stricter definition of who could qualify for assisted suicide and removed the prescribing doctors’ immunity “from civil lawsuits related to prescribing the fatal drugs.”

The revised version now heads to the full Maryland Senate for a final vote, probably this week.

Compassion and Choices CEO Kim Callinan says  “The bill in its current form would create many needless hoops and roadblocks for dying patients and put doctors at risk for baseless lawsuits” and make assisted suicide “nearly impossible for patients to access.”

Compassion and Choices is urging the Maryland senate to pass a “more patient-friendly bill” that won’t erect “barrier after barrier for dying patients” including “a mandatory psychological evaluation, numerous additional witness requirements” and “preventing them (family members) from enjoying the precious time they have left with their loved one.”

However, the Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide coalition correctly notes that even with the revisions, the bill  “does not offer sufficient protection of those in our system of health care who are most vulnerable to abuse” and should not be passed.

CONCLUSION

Ironically and just last year, I wrote about the impatient calls to expand medically assisted suicide from advocates like influential lawyer Thaddeus Pope argued that the some so-called “legal safeguards” like age limits, the definition of terminal illness and the ability to ingest the lethal overdose were actually “burdensome obstacles”.

Trying to educate the public and especially legislators about the dangers of legalized assisted suicide is a daunting task, especially against extremely well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices and a mostly supportive mainstream media.

But the unexpected surprise in the progression of the Maryland assisted suicide bill and the new opposition by the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice to the death certificate falsification in that state’s proposed assisted suicide bill shows how cracks are beginning to grow in the false narrative that legalizing assisted suicide is perfectly safe and harmless to society.

 

 

 

 

What about Ventilators and “Pulling the Plug”?

When I first became a registered nurse in 1969, ICUs (intensive care units) were still new. The first one I worked was set up in the former visitors’ lounge and we learned how to read EKGs (heart tracings) by using a book.

By the early 1970s, I worked in a surgical/trauma ICU where we used sophisticated ventilators like the MA-1. We were able to get almost all our patients off ventilators by weaning, the process of gradually lowering ventilator support until the patient can breathe on his or her own.

But in 1976, I was shocked by the Karen Quinlan case that changed everything.

Karen was a 21 year old woman who suffered brain damage after apparently taking drugs at a party. She was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. When she was thought to be in a “persistent vegetative state”, her adoptive parents asked that her ventilator be removed. The doctors disagreed and they case eventually went to the New Jersey Supreme court that allowed the removal of the ventilator on the grounds of an individual’s right to privacy.  Shortly afterward, California passed the first “living will” to refuse “life support” if or when the signer is incapacitated.

Ironically, Karen lived 10 more years because, as some ethicists criticized, she was weaned off the ventilator instead of just abruptly stopping the ventilator.

My experience with ventilators became personal in 1983 when my baby daughter Karen died on a ventilator before she could get open-heart surgery. Unfortunately, one young doctor earlier offered to take her off the ventilator to “get this over with”. I reported him to the chief of cardiology who was furious with the young doctor.

In the 1990s, I returned to working in an ICU and was shocked by the development of the “terminal wean” for some patients on ventilators. Often the families were told that there was no hope of a “meaningful” life. The terminal wean involved abruptly disconnecting the ventilator and “allowing” the patient to die. I brought up at least trying regular, gradual weaning and oxygen as we did for the other patients on ventilators but I was ignored.

After I retired from bedside nursing, I was asked to be with an elderly man on a ventilator who had had a massive stroke and the family was told that he would never have any quality of life and would die soon anyway. I tried to bring up weaning but some members of the family were adamant.

When the ventilator was stopped. I held the man’s hand and prayed while he gasped for air and turned blue. I asked the nurse to at least giving him oxygen for comfort but she ignored me. Instead, she gave frequent doses of morphine intravenously until the man’s heart finally stopped after 20 minutes.

I am still haunted by this man’s death.

INFORMED CONSENT?

The medical definition of informed consent requires understanding “the purpose, benefits, and potential risks of a medical or surgical intervention…”.

But most people seem to have a vague understanding of ventilators when they sign a “living will” or other advance directives and thus have very little information about this often life-saving medical intervention.

As a nurse, I found that most people-especially the elderly-tend to automatically check off ventilators without understanding that a sudden problem with breathing can come from a number of treatable conditions that don’t require long-term use of a ventilator such as  asthma, drug overdoses, pneumonia and some brain injuries.

In some circumstances such as certain spinal cord injuries and late-stage neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the ventilator is  necessary long-term to live. But even then, people like Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking have used portable ventilators to continue with their lives. Some people with disabilities use small ventilators only at night.

It is important to know that ventilators move air in and out of the lungs but do not cause respiration-the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that occurs in lungs and body tissues. Respiration can occur only when the body’s respiratory and circulatory systems are otherwise intact. A ventilator cannot keep a corpse alive.

It’s also important to know that not all machines that assist breathing require the insertion of a tube into the windpipe. Non-invasive positive-pressure ventilation like the BiPap successfully used for my elderly friend Melissa allowed her to use a face mask to assist her breathing until antibiotics cured her pneumonia.

WEANING FROM A VENTILATOR

Many patients are easy to wean from a ventilator but some patients are more difficult.

Years ago, I cared for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who needed a ventilator when she developed pneumonia. She had made her son and daughter her medical decision makers in her advance directive.

However, the doctors found it very difficult to try to wean the ventilator after the woman improved. They spoke to the family about removing the ventilator and letting her die. The daughter agreed but the son was adamantly against this.

The woman was totally awake after the sedation to keep her comfortable on the ventilator was stopped. She was cooperative and made no effort to pull out the tube in her windpipe. She just smiled when asked if she wanted the ventilator stopped.

Having known of some great respiratory therapists in the past who were able to successfully wean difficult patients from ventilators, I suggested that she be transferred. She was transferred and a week later we were told that she was successfully weaned from her ventilator.

About a year later, I encountered the woman again when she was recuperating after a routine surgery. Although her Alzheimer’s disease was unchanged, she was doing well in an assisted living residence.

CONCLUSION

As a student nurse, I was as initially intimidated by ventilators as anyone else. But as I learned how to use them and saw the constant improvements not only in the technology but also in our care of patients on ventilators, I came to see ventilators as a great blessing when needed.

And while we are never required to accept treatment that is medically futile or excessively burdensome to us, sometimes this can be hard to determine-especially in a crisis situation. Most of my patients on ventilators recovered but some could not be saved. We were surprised and humbled when some patients with a poor prognosis recovered while others who seemed to have a better chance died unexpectedly. There are no guarantees in life or death.

That is why my husband and I wrote our advance directives that designate each other as our decision maker with the right to have all current options, risk and benefits of treatment fully explained.

We don’t want an advance directive that could be hazardous to our health!

 

Beware the New “Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act”

Right now, there is a Senate Bill 693 titled “The Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act” to authorize more and better training in palliative and hospice care. Although a provision (SEC. 6. Clarification) was recently added to explicitly forbid federal funding for any health care furnished for the purpose of causing or assisting the death of any individual by assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing, many of us have serious concerns. (The similar House Bill 1676 has already passed and sent to the Senate.)

As an RN with decades of nursing experience in hospice, oncology (cancer) and critical care, I have been involved with many end-of-life situations. I am an enthusiastic supporter of ethical palliative and hospice care which is indeed wonderful for patients of any age and their families.

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend towards calling unethical practices “palliative” or “hospice” care.

For example and just a few years ago in a Catholic hospital, I saw a nurse/friend’s life deliberately ended due to so-called palliative and hospice care labeled “comfort care.” She had recently suffered a serious brain injury and was declared hopeless after a couple of weeks. The family was strongly pushed to switch to “comfort care”.  She was taken off a ventilator, had her feeding tube removed (against her adult son’s wishes), and continued to receive the sedation medications used when she was on the ventilator, even receiving an increase in those medications when she continued to breathe on her own. Despite my friend’s son insisting that he wanted the feeding tube replaced and that he wanted to eventually care for his mother at home whatever her level of functioning was, he was told to wait until a doctor could order the feeding tube replaced. The hospital waited until he went home to sleep, transferred her to the hospice unit without his permission and she was dead by morning.

Unfortunately, similar stories have become increasingly more common since the 1970s when the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die and promoted the new “living wills”. Now we have well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) not only promoting physician-assisted suicide but also trying to change medical ethics from never deliberately causing or hastening death to merely a “choice” about when and how to die.

Two years ago in my blog “Is Compassion and Choices aiming to become the “Planned Parenthood” of Euthanasia?, I warned about the current and future involvement of Compassion and Choices in “end of life” education.

Here are some excerpts:

With over $22 million in 2015 net assets,  a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator, enthusiastic media coverage and a new  Federal Policy Agenda for 2016 and Beyond” , Compassion and Choices increasingly appears to be following in the 4 star, politically and media supported, $1.3 billion dollar revenue ($528 million in government taxpayer funding) steps of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

While Compassion and Choices claims that it just “works to improve care and expand choice at the end of life”, it also admits that “We employ  educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.” (Emphasis added)

……….

THE PALLIATIVE AND HOSPICE CONNECTION

Compassion and Choices has worked for decades not only to legalize physician-assisted suicide in every state but also to normalize and integrate physician-assisted suicide into medical practice and reaches out to established medical groups like the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine (AAPHM.

………..

Now, Compassion & Choices’ website has a video presentation based on this article  titled  “Understand the Clinical Practice of Aid in Dying” for doctors and other clinicians. The presentation even offers continuing medical education credits.

This would not be possible if the AAPHM had not changed its position on assisted suicide from opposition to “studied neutrality”, a position that the American Medical Association itself is now considering.

………….

Compassion and Choices also supports two other “legal” options for assisted suicide in states that haven’t passed physician-assisted suicide laws. One is “voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED)” and the other is “palliative sedation-Sometimes called terminal sedation”. Significantly, the recommendations include the admission that “VSED includes pain and symptom management” and “Palliative sedation must be medically managed by a healthcare provider”. Thus the need to influence and train hospice and palliative care providers.

………..

WHERE THE MONEY AND POWER IS

Compassion and Choices now has its “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”.

The priorities on its agenda include:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….”  (Emphasis added)

Also included are

Professional Education and Development” training programs for doctors and other providers “in discussing terminal prognoses and death” and  “Policies and Payment Systems” to change medical policies and payments to a “a value-based healthcare payment system” that will “(e)ncourage Congress to direct CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and other federal agencies” to withhold   “appropriations or other funds”  for treatment that was “provided but (deemed) unwanted”.

This last provision reinforces the fear many healthcare providers already have that, if in doubt, it is safer not to treat a person rather than treat him or her in hope of a good result because of potential lawsuits or reimbursement problems.

………

In the meantime, if the Compassion and Choices federal policy agenda is successful, they stand to benefit from a potential windfall of government taxpayer funding to provide their currently  “free consultation, planning resources, referrals and guidance”.

CONCLUSION

I have already contacted my state senator to express my concerns and urged him to vote “no” on SB 693.

As Nancy Elliot, chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Council USA, ended in a great letter to Senators opposing the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training  Act :

“instead of creating a rival form of palliative care…Wouldn’t it be better to educate/update all physicians and nurses about pain and symptom management?”

“13 Reasons Why”and Why Not

Today, it is hard to keep up with the constant stream of information coming not only from TV and movies but also from the social network. But to understand and hopefully to protect and help our children and others in today’s culture, it is important to keep up with current media and trends as much as possible.

This is why, after reading articles like “13 Reminders About Netflix’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’” about a popular Netflix series featuring a high school girl named Hannah who gruesomely kills herself and leaves 13 tapes for the people she blames for her suicide, I decided to watch this often acclaimed  and controversial TV series myself.

After watching several episodes, I recognized some of the factors that made “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club” so popular when my children were teenagers. The characters are attractive and bright high school students who wrestle with problems of self-esteem, setbacks, hormones and popularity.  In the end, most of the characters in those older movies were happier and/or wiser.

But the story arc and characters in “13 Reasons Why” are much darker. So far in the episodes I have watched, these teenagers are apathetic about school, seem to have no sense of humor and they dislike or barely tolerate their parents. Their overwhelming self-absorption with real or perceived offenses often leads them to be thoughtlessly cruel even to their friends. The adults in the series fare little better as they struggle with their own anger, sadness and guilt in trying to understand the tragedy.

The main character Hannah sounds almost triumphant in the tapes while chronicling the deficiencies in the people she holds responsible for her suicide. The people hearing the tapes are understandably devastated but revenge seems to be Hannah’s goal.

Even worse, the series’ depiction of Hannah’s descent to suicide, making the tapes and the reactions of her classmates tends to sensationalize suicide with little to no insight about prevention and treatment. The big lesson seems to be that bullying and sexual assault can be life-threatening to vulnerable teens.

Because this deliberately shocking series is so accessible to young people and teen suicides are rising,  many schools are now concerned about this series as are mental health experts  who recognize the phenomenon of suicide contagion.

In response to complaints and concerns from as far away as Canada and New Zealand, Netflix has now issued the following statement:

 There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about our series 13 Reasons Why. While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories. Currently the episodes that carry graphic content are identified as such and the series overall carries a TV-MA rating. Moving forward, we will add an additional viewer warning card before the first episode as an extra precaution for those about to start the series and have also strengthened the messaging and resource language in the existing cards for episodes that contain graphic subject matter, including the URL 13ReasonsWhy.info  — a global resource center that provides information about professional organizations that support help around the serious matters addressed in the show.

As a nurse who has worked professionally and personally with suicidal people as well as the mother of a daughter who died by suicide, I am glad Netflix is acknowledging at least some of the problems with the series. However, this series and the plight of our young people growing up in an increasingly secularized, materialistic and divided world that rejects God demands more.

We need to give our young people hope and support as they navigate the often rocky road to adulthood. And we also need to show them that the real heroes are those people whose dedication, moral virtues, hard work, selflessness and idealism inspire all of us to make a better world where no one will want to watch the so-called “entertainment” of a “13 Reasons Why”.

 

Is Compassion and Choices Aiming to Become the “Planned Parenthood” of Euthanasia?

With over $22 million in 2015 net assets,  a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator, enthusiastic media coverage and a new  Federal Policy Agenda for 2016 and Beyond” , Compassion and Choices increasingly appears to be following in the 4 star, politically and media supported, $1.3 billion dollar revenue ($528 million in government taxpayer funding) steps of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

While Compassion and Choices claims that it just works to improve care and expand choice at the end of life”, it also admits that “We employ  educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.” (Emphasis added)

THE PALLIATIVE AND HOSPICE CONNECTION

Compassion and Choices has worked for decades not only to legalize physician-assisted suicide in every state but also to normalize and integrate physician-assisted suicide into medical practice and reaches out to established medical groups like the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine (AAPHM).

Currently, Oregon reports that 92.2% of its physician-assisted suicides were enrolled in hospice care and in Washington state,  93% of its assisted suicides “were assisted by an EOLWA (End of Life Washington) volunteers”. 

Compassion and Choices also supports two other “legal” options for assisted suicide in states that haven’t passed physician-assisted suicide laws. One is “voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED)” and the other is “palliative sedation-Sometimes called terminal sedation”. Significantly, the recommendations include the admission that “VSED includes pain and symptom management” and “Palliative sedation must be medically managed by a healthcare provider”. Thus the need to influence and train hospice and palliative care providers.

No wonder Compassion and Choices lists as one of its accomplishments that it:

Pioneered the medical model of aid in dying that helps ensure that doctors can ethically practice aid in dying in an open, legitimate and accessible way, and integrates the option into patients’ end-of-life care. The culmination of that work was the publication of clinical criteria in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in December 2015. (Emphasis added)

The first line of this article “Clinical Criteria for Physician Aid in Dying” (their preferred name for physician-assisted suicide) is:

“More than 20 years ago, even before voters in Oregon had enacted the first aid in dying (AID) statute in the United States, Timothy Quill and colleagues proposed clinical criteria AID.”  (Emphasis added)

Timothy Quill, MD was the 2012 president and recipient of the Visionary award  of the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine. Dr. Quill also was the respondent in the 1997 US Supreme Court case Vacco v Quill arguing for physician-assisted suicide as a constitutional right. He lost unanimously then.

Now, Compassion & Choices’ website has a video presentation based on this article  titled  “Understand the Clinical Practice of Aid in Dying”  for doctors and other clinicians. The presentation even offers continuing medical education credits.

This would not be possible if the AAPHM had not changed its position on assisted suicide from opposition to “studied neutrality”, a position that the American Medical Association itself is now considering.

WHERE THE MONEY AND POWER IS

Compassion and Choices now has its “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”.

The priorities on its agenda include:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….”  (Emphasis added)

Also included are “Professional Education and Development” training programs for doctors and other providers “in discussing terminal prognoses and death” and  “Policies and Payment Systems” to change medical policies and payments to a “a value-based healthcare payment system” that will “(e)ncourage Congress to direct CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and other federal agencies” to withhold   “appropriations or other funds”  for treatment that was “provided but (deemed) unwanted”.

This last provision reinforces the fear many healthcare providers already have that, if in doubt, it is safer not to treat a person rather than treat him or her in hope of a good result because of potential lawsuits or reimbursement problems.

Also a priority is “Public Education and Engagement”.  Compassion and Choices bemoans that one survey showed “22 percent of those aged 75 and older had neither written down nor talked to someone about their treatment preferences at the end of life.”

So naturally Compassion and Choices recommended strengthening the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ proposal to “reimburse doctors for communicating with patients about whether and how they would want to be kept alive if they become too sick to speak for themselves.”  This of course involves “living wills” and other advance directives that give people a list of some medical treatments or care to automatically refuse by a check mark. Unfortunately but tellingly, these directives include no explanation of the treatments themselves or their risks and benefits which is crucial for the informed consent or refusal required if the person was making the decision while fully conscious.

CONCLUSION

Compassion and Choices has been very involved in many legal cases about assisted suicide including the 1997 US Supreme Court’s Vacco v Quill decision finding no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Undeterred, the organization continues to push for legalization of assisted suicide by fighting state by state while hoping for a possible future US Supreme Court decision that, like Canada’s in 2015, would legalize medically assisted suicide throughout the country.

In the meantime, if Compassion and Choices federal policy agenda is successful, they stand to benefit from a potential windfall of government taxpayer funding to provide their currently  “free consultation, planning resources, referrals and guidance”

As an article by Ashton Ellis has astutely observed ,

“The effort by pro-euthanasia group Compassion & Choices to use Brittany Maynard’s story to push physician-assisted suicide is part of a larger strategy. When talking about end-of-life issues, a strategically crafted frame points to only one logical conclusion: I’d rather be dead.”

Conscientious Objection, Conscience Rights and Workplace Discrimination

The tragic cases of  Nancy Cruzan and Christine Busalacchi , young Missouri women who were claimed to be in a “persistent vegetative state” and starved and dehydrated to death, outraged those of us in Missouri Nurses for Life and we took action.

Besides educating people about severe brain damage, treatment, cases of recovery and the radical change in medical ethics that could lead to the legalization of euthanasia, we also fought for healthcare providers’ rights against workplace discrimination for refusing to participate in deliberate death decisions. We talked to nurses who were threatened with termination.

Although Missouri had some protections against forcing participating in abortion, there were no statutes we could find where health care providers were protected against being forced to participate in deliberate death decisions. We were also told by some legislators that our chance of success was almost nil

Nevertheless, we persisted and after years of work and enduring legislators watering down our original proposal to include lethal overdoses and strong penalties, Missouri Revised Statutes, Section 404.872.1 was signed into law in 1992. It states:

Refusal to honor health care decision, discrimination prohibited, when.

404.872. No physician, nurse, or other individual who is a health care provider or an employee of a health care facility shall be discharged or otherwise discriminated against in his employment or employment application for refusing to honor a health care decision withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment if such refusal is based upon the individual’s religious beliefs, or sincerely held moral convictions.

(L. 1992 S.B. 573 & 634 § 7)

Fast Forward to Today

In 2016, we face groups like Compassion and Choices that have pushed assisted suicide legislation through in some states and hoping for an eventual sweeping Supreme Court decision making assisted suicide a constitutional right like abortion.

Some European countries like Belgium and Holland have virtual euthanasia on demand for even non-terminally ill people of any age. In Canada, their Supreme Court has forced assisted suicide on that country and now the province of Quebec has lethal injection kits available to any doctor.

Not surprisingly, conscience/workplace rights for health care providers are being vigorously fought both in those countries and here in the US.

For example, Compassion and Choices’ Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the architects of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, claims that strong conscience-right protections encourage “workers to exercise their idiosyncratic convictions at the expense of patient care” at the end of life.

Hope on the Horizon?

In May, a hospital in Poland stopped performing abortions after every single doctor signed a pledge refusing to do them.

Now, several hospitals in Santa Barbara  and Palm Springs as well as Providence medical centers are opting out of the new California assisted suicide law.

Personally, I believe that if people are given a choice when they are sick, they would naturally prefer a hospital that is committed to care rather than assisted suicide.

Thus, conscientious objection, workplace discrimination/conscience rights laws and the power of institutions dedicated to ethical health care can help turn the tide against assisted suicide laws or at least save some lives and mitigate some of the damage caused by assisted suicide laws. It may take a long time before killing sick or disabled people is again seen as abhorrent and unethical but the effort will be worth it.

As I have said before, “NO!” is a powerful and potentially lifesaving word.