Ethics and the Production of Covid 19 Vaccines

I am hopeful that the new Covid 19 vaccines that are being approved soon will help stop Covid 19 but, like many people, I only want to take a vaccine that does not use cell lines from aborted babies.

But that information can be hard to find, confusing and the facts are sometimes disputed.

For example, a November 18, 2020 article from the Associated Press titled “Lung tissue from aborted fetus not used in AstraZeneca vaccine development” disputes an online video that claims tissue from an aborted baby was used. I discovered later that this AP headline was inaccurate.

And there are disputes even in Catholic and other religious circles.

For example, some Catholic bishops and priests questioned the use of some vaccines before Archbishop Naumann and Bishop Rhoades from the USCCB (the US Catholic bishops conference) wrote a memo citing three Vatican documents and stating that:

“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development or production. They are not completely free from any connection to abortion, however, as both Pfizer and Moderna use of a tainted cell line for one of the confirmatory lab tests of their products.”

“There is thus a connection, but it is relatively remote,” they continued. “Some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines, then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching.”

and

“Most importantly, they all make it clear that, at the level of the recipient, it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.”

However, other articles like the National Catholic Register’s Nov. 25, 2020 Measuring Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine: Now’s the Time to Press Hard for Ethical Options” by Stacy Trasancos, PhD, MA and Children of God for Life’s Nov. 16, 2020 article “Moderna Covid-19 Vaccine – Facts – Not Fiction say that kidney cells from aborted babies were used in the development of the Moderna Vaccine but also adds that there are plenty of other ethical vaccines being developed.

CONCLUSION

After weeks of investigation, I found the simplest explanation of the vaccine production process and its’ potential problems at The Charlotte Lozier Institute website.

I also found the most expansive list of current potential vaccines at the Institute’s Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lines. (The Institute does disagree with Dr. Trasancos and the Children of God for Life organization on the Moderna vaccine.)

For myself, I do want the Covid 19 vaccine when it is available but I will make sure that I am given one of the ethically uncontroversial vaccines.

Caring for an Elderly Relative who Wants to Die

I was disturbed but not really surprised when I read the October 21, 2020 New England Journal of Medicine article by Scott D. Halpern, M.D, Ph.D., titled “Learning about End-of-Life Care from Grandpa”.

Dr. Halpern, a palliative care doctor and ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about his elderly grandfather who had been widowed for the third time and wrote “My life was over too, only existence remained,” in a memoir for his family.

As Dr. Halpern writes, “It was downhill from there” as his grandfather coped with challenges like blindness, deafness and arthritis.

Family members offered to care for him but the grandfather chose to go into an assisted living facility where family members could visit him frequently. But then, Covid 19 visitations cut him off entirely from the outside world.

Eventually, the grandfather was allowed to see relatives one at a time outdoors at the facility.

Nearing his 103rd birthday, the grandfather started asking Dr. Halpern about “any plausible option to hasten death”.

New Jersey had recently approved physician-assisted suicide, but Dr. Halpern was “ambivalent” about that option. In addition, his grandfather did not have a terminal illness but rather was “dying of old age, frailty, and more than anything else, isolation and meaninglessness”.

Alarmingly, Dr. Halpern found that the medical code for this diagnosis called “adult failure to thrive” was being used not only used to access hospice but also to access physician-assisted suicide in some states.

Unable to find a New Jersey doctor willing to use physician-assisted suicide on his grandfather anyway, Dr. Halpern offered his grandfather the option of VSED (voluntarily stopping of eating and drinking) to hasten or cause death that the pro-assisted suicide group Compassion and Choices touts as “natural” and legal in all states.

THE TRUTH ABOUT VSED

Dr. Halpern wrote that his grandfather had trouble refusing food and water on his own. He started and stopped the process a few times.

Dr. Halpern was not surprised, writing that:

“ For people with a consistent desire to end their life, unencumbered by mental illness or immediate threats to their survival, the only alternative — to stop eating and drinking — is just too challenging. Hospice experts around the country had warned me that less than 20% of people who try to do so “succeed,” with most reversing course because of vicious thirst.” (Emphasis added)

Finally, Dr. Halpern’ write that his grandfather said “I just want it over with. Scott, do whatever you need to do.”

Dr. Halpern writes that he consulted his hospice team and began treating his grandfather’s thirst “as I treat other forms of discomfort — with morphine and lorazepam” (Emphasis added)

Even then, it took 12 long days for his grandfather to finally die.

The lessons that Dr. Halpern says he finally learned were that:

“despite many problems with physician-assisted dying, it may provide the most holistic relief possible for people who are not immediately dying, but rather are done living.”

And

stopping eating and drinking is largely impossible without knowledgeable family members and dedicated hospice care.” (All emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

Dr. Halpern obviously loved his grandfather and tried to meet his grandfather’s emotional and physical needs before telling him about the VSED option and eventually adding terminal sedation. And it seems that the imposed isolation because of potential Covid 19 infection was especially devastating for his grandfather.

But his justification for physician-assisted suicide as “the most holistic relief possible for people who are not immediately dying, but rather are done living” is chilling.

Unfortunately, that is an attitude seen all to often in medical professionals that has led to the expansion of some assisted suicide laws from terminal illness to non-terminal conditions like “completed life” and disabilities.

Both personally and professionally as a nurse, I know how difficult it can be on families when caring for a family member-especially an older relative-who says he or she wants to die.

But I also know that while we all can have sympathy for someone who says they want to die, the word “no” can be a powerful and loving response. The real answer is to help make living as good and meaningful as possible until death.

For example, I became the only caregiver when my elderly aunt developed diabetes and late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2000.

I went to doctor visits with her and went over the options with her. My aunt rejected chemo and radiation that had only a small chance of even slowing the cancer. She also refused hospice.

I offered to care for her in my home with my 15 year old daughter who also wanted to help. However my aunt felt it would cramp my daughter’s lifestyle so she decided to stay in her own home until she died.

So I helped her at home and purchased my first cell phone so that she could contact me at anytime. At that time, I was a single parent and worked full time nights in an ICU.

However, one day my aunt asked me about stopping her insulin to die faster. I told her how that could put her at risk for a heart attack or stroke from high blood sugar with no one there to help.

So she changed her mind and then even began opening up about her condition with others. She was stunned when people told her how inspiring she was and offered to help her in any way.

My aunt became happier than I had ever seen her.

Eventually, my aunt did accept hospice care at a facility she knew. I visited and called often. My aunt was physically comfortable and alert.

One day when my daughter and I went to visit her, we found that she had just died quietly in her sleep. The nurses had just stepped out to call me.

My daughter later wrote a beautiful essay about her first experience with death for her high school and received an A+. Her essay was later published on a nursing website.

In the end, causing or hastening death does not really solve anything but rather can be seen as an abandonment of the suffering person and a destroyer of the necessary trust we all must have in the ethics of our healthcare system.

We must never discriminate when it comes to helping anyone contemplating suicide.

.

Protecting Premature Babies and Abortion Survivors

On September 25, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order on Protecting Vulnerable Newborn and Infant Children” that states:

“Every infant born alive, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, has the same dignity and the same rights as every other individual and is entitled to the same protections under Federal law. “

This executive order came after Speaker NancyPelosi and House Democrats refused to allow a vote on the “Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” over 80 times.

ELLIOT AND EMERY

The new executive order protects not only babies who survive abortions but also those babies born prematurely like twins Emery and Elliot who were denied medical treatment after being born at 22 weeks and 5 days, despite a doctor’s prior assurances and despite the parents’ desperate pleas for treatment after the boys were born.

In an interview, the twins’ mother Amanda told me that the doctors predicted the babies would be stillborn or die shortly after birth because of their prematurity. However, the doctors were wrong: one of the boys lived for 45 minutes and the other for 2.5 hours.

Amanda and Shaun Finnefrock, the twins’ parents, have been active ever since their boys’ deaths in 2017 , advocating for “equal protection, equal treatment, the equal opportunity for survival — whether they survived an abortion or their mothers wanted them to live, like I did mine.”

They have been working on an Elliot and Emery’s Law for their home state of Ohio to protect other prematurely born babies.

Unfortunately, a 2015 University of Iowa study found that infants born at 22 weeks received potential lifesaving treatment at fewer than one in four hospitals. Almost all hospitals, the researchers found, will treat infants born at 25 weeks, but there is substantial variation among hospitals on whether they actively treat infants born at 23 or 24 weeks.

One obstacle is the fear that premature babies will be at an increased risk of disability as a result of the prematurity. But it is impossible to know at birth if the newborn will have disabilities because of prematurity. 

The good news is that studies are now finding that the majority of premature babies born at 22 weeks survive if given care.

CONCLUSION

When I started my nursing career over 50 years ago, babies more than 3 months premature routinely died because of breathing problems. But when ventilators and especially surfactant to protect the babies’ lungs were developed, “preemies” started to be saved at earlier and earlier stages with good results.

But most importantly, this progress was made because of the willingness of both parents and doctors to try to save these babies that made all the difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This new bioethics has essentially four principles:

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

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

3. Non-maleficence (not causing harm)

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

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

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

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

Abortion

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

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

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

Assisted suicide/euthanasia

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

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

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

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

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

Infanticide

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

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

Organ donation

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

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

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

Conscience rights

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

Surprising New Test for Predicting Recovery after Coma

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY IS THIS STUDY SO IMPORTANT?

As Dr. Giacino said in the Medpage article:

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

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

THIS ISSUE HAS BEEN CLOSE TO MY HEART FOR DECADES.

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

The World Brain Death Project: What It Means

THE HISTORY OF BRAIN DEATH

In December of 1967, the first successful heart transplant was performed in South Africa by Dr. Christian Barnard. At that time, there were no guidelines for the diagnosis of death for beating heart donors.

In September of 1968, the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death was published with the purpose of defining irreversible coma as a new criterion for death.

This was done for two stated  reasons:

  1. “Improvements in resuscitative and supportive measures have led to increase efforts to save those who are desperately injured. Sometimes these efforts have only partial success so that the result is an individual  whose heart continues to beat but whose brain is irreversibly damaged. The burden is great on patients who suffer permanent loss of intellect, on their families, on the hospitals and on those in need of hospital beds already occupied by these comatose patients.
  2. “Obsolete criteria for the definition of death can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation.” (All emphasis added)

This report was quickly accepted by many and in 1968, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act was passed in the US  as a regulatory framework for the donation of organs, tissues and other human body parts. The Act allowed the donation of whole or part of a human body to take effect upon or after the death of the donor.

The Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA) was drafted in 1981 by a President’s Commission study to brain death and approved by both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association (ABA). It was intended to provide a model for states to emulate.

It offered 2 definitions of when a person could be declared legally dead to align the legal definition of death with the criteria largely accepted by the medical community:

  1. “Irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions (the traditional definition of death); or
  2. Irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem (brain death)” (Emphasis added)

The UDDA in some form has since been adopted by all US states and the District of Columbia.

However, in the June 2020 issue of the American Journal of Bioethics,  the well-known lawyer/ethicist Thaddeus  Mason Pope wrote about a current effort “to revise the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) to assure a consistent nationwide approach to consent for brain death testing.” (Emphasis added)

Why just consent to brain death testing?

According to Mr. Pope:

“Right now, a patient might be legally dead in Nevada, New York, or Virginia (where consent is not required). But that same patient might not be legally dead in California, Kansas, or Montana (where consent is required and might be refused). (Emphasis added)”

Instead, Mr. Pope proposes adding this to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA):

“Reasonable efforts should be made to notify a patient’s legally authorized decision-maker before performing a determination of death by neurologic criteria, but consent is not required to initiate such an evaluation”. (Emphasis added)

Mr. Pope states that typically, the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) follows a four-step process to change a law but notes that the Healthcare Law Committee has already skipped the first three steps and is ready for drafting the new language in the fourth step.

Ironically, there was a case last year in Michigan where the parents of a teenager  pushed for a Bobby’s Law after their son was taken off life support after being declared brain dead despite their objections. The law would “require a minor’s parents to consent to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment or to give do-not-resuscitate orders before medical professionals could end life support for a juvenile” and also allow the parents to defer an apnea test (taking the person off a ventilator to see if the person is able to breathe on his or her own) required to determine brain death. (Emphasis added)

THE WORLD BRAIN DEATH PROJECT

In an August 3, 2020 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled “Determination of Brain Death/Death by Neurologic Criteria- The World Brain Death Project” , the authors state that due to “inconsistencies in concept, criteria, practice, and documentation of brain death/death by neurologic criteria (BD/DNC) both internationally and within countries”, there is a need to “formulate a consensus statement of recommendations on determination of BD/DNC”. (Emphasis added)

In a August 3, 2020 Medpage article “Brain Death: What Does It Mean?” on the World Brain Death Project, the writer notes that the “guidelines recommend that consent not be required for apnea testing because of concerns over prolonged somatic support” while quoting a doctor who disagreed:

“Ostensibly, families should be asked to provide consent because the apnea test may lead to cardiovascular collapse in some patients, classifying it as procedure with risk,” (All emphasis added)

MY JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE FACTS ABOUT BRAIN DEATH

Back in the early 1970s when I was a young intensive care unit nurse, no one questioned the new innovation of brain death organ transplantation. We trusted the experts and the prevailing medical ethic of the utmost respect for every human life.

However, as the doctors diagnosed brain death in our unit and I cared for these patients until their organs were harvested, I started to ask questions. For example, doctors assured us that these patients would die anyway within two weeks even if the ventilator to support breathing was continued, but no studies were cited. I also asked if we were making a brain-injured patient worse by removing the ventilator for up to 10 minutes for the apnea test to see if he or she would breathe since we knew that brain cells start to die when breathing stops for more than a few minutes.

I was told that greater minds than mine had it all figured out so I shouldn’t worry.

It was years before I realized that these doctors did not have the answers themselves and that my questions were valid.

I discovered that some mothers declared “brain dead” were able to gestate their babies for weeks or months to a successful delivery before their ventilators were removed and that there were cases of “brain dead” people like Jahi McMath living for  years after a diagnosis of brain death or even recovering like Zack Dunlap

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

CONCLUSION

The World Brain Death Project is riddled with potential problems in establishing a worldwide consensus on brain death criteria and testing using a “set of criteria that satisfies the lowest acceptable standard for practice”. (Emphasis added) And changing the US Uniform Determination of Death Act to supersede states requiring consent before brain death testing will not inspire trust in the healthcare system or the law.

Personally, I will not sign an organ donor card or allow my organs to be taken by donation after cardiac death (DCD), a new category of severely brain-injured people who are not brain dead but who are on ventilators (breathing machines) and considered hopeless in terms of survival or predicted “quality of life”. The ventilator is removed and the patient’s heart is expected to stop. (However, a 2016 study showed that 27% of potential donors did not die within the window specified for organ recovery.)

Instead, my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like corneas, skin, bones, etc. that can be ethically donated after natural death.

It is vitally important that everyone understands all the facts before signing an organ donor card.

And we all should demand transparency and rigorous medical ethics from our healthcare system.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law states that:

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

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

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

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


 

Palliative Care and Artificial Intelligence for Predicting Death

Working in areas like critical care, oncology (cancer) and hospice for over 45 years, I know that it is often hard to predict how long someone may live or when that person may die.

I have seen very ill or injured people with an optimistic prognosis  unfortunately die and I have seen people expected to die very soon who recovered and went on to live for years. Back then, we used pain and other specialists, social workers, ministers, etc. for all our patients when needed. Some of our patients went into hospice.

In recent years, a new specialty called palliative care was developed to improve the quality of life for patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease with the goal of preventing or treating as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment, in addition to any related psychological, social, and spiritual problems.

So I was very interested to read a July 1, 2020 article in StatNews titled “An experiment in end-of-life care: Tapping AI’s cold calculus to nudge the most human of conversations about using cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) models in palliative care that scan patient hospital medical records and generate emails to doctors about their patients considered most likely to die within a year.

In the case of one doctor who received such an email,  she “was a bit surprised that the email had flagged” her patient who was in his 40s and seriously ill with a viral respiratory infection and too sick to leave the hospital. She thought “Why him? And should she heed the suggestion to have that talk?”

As the article states, those kinds of questions are increasingly cropping up among health care professionals at the handful of hospitals and  clinics around the country using such AI models in palliative care, stating that:

The tools spit out cold actuarial calculations to spur clinicians to ask seriously ill patients some of the most intimate and deeply human questions: What are your most important goals if you get sicker? What abilities are so central to your life that  you can’t imagine living without them? And if your health declines, how much are you willing to go through in exchange for the possibility of more time? (Emphasis added)

Some clinicians and researchers defend this AI by saying that doctors are “stretched too thin and lacked the training to prioritize talking with seriously ill patients about end-of-life care”.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of this palliative care AI discourage doctors from mentioning to patients that they were identified by an AI system because, as one doctor put it, ”To say a computer or a math equation has predicted that you could pass away within a year would be very, very devastating and would be really tough for patients to hear.”

Shockingly, while this AI is built around patients’ electronic health records, this article admits that some AI models also “sample from socioeconomic data and information from insurance claims.” (Emphasis added)

CAN AI RELIABLY PREDICT DEATH?

As the article admits, AI predictions of death “are often spotty when it comes to identifying the patients who actually end up dying” and that there has not been “a gold-standard study design that would compare outcomes when some clinics or patients are randomly assigned to use the AI tool, and others are randomly assigned to the usual strategies for encouraging conversations about end-of-life care.” (Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, using AI death predictions for earlier palliative care interventions is now also being tried for conditions like dementia. And last year in Great Britain, AI was touted as “better than doctors” in analyzing heart tests to determine which patients would die within a year.

ARE THERE OTHER AGENDAS?

The idea of basing medical decisions on a computer program to predict death is disturbing enough but there may be other agendas involved.

For example, in a May, 2020 Cancer journal article titled  “Leveraging Advances in Artificial Intelligence to Improve the Quality and Timing of Palliative Care”, the authors called palliative care “a discipline of increasing importance in the aging population of the industrialized nations.”  (Emphasis added

And according to a Hospice News article last year:

“Studies have found that palliative care saves health plans, health systems, and accountable care organizations close to $12,000 per person enrolled, as well as reducing hospital readmissions, emergency department visits, and hospice lengths of stay. “

Now Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) is not only fighting to legalize medically assisted suicide throughout the US, it has also been active in promoting training and expansion of palliative care with federal funding and now calls assisted suicide “one option in the palliative continuum” and that knowing assisted suicide “is an option is in itself palliative care.” (Compassion and Choices already maintains that VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) is already an ethical and legal means of ending life in the US.)

Even worse, a large and growing number of medical organizations-including the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM)-have endorsed or taken a neutral position on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

CONCLUSION

An artificial intelligence program predicting death cannot replace the importance of an ethical healthcare provider who knows and truly respects the lives of his or her patients.

Good palliative care can be wonderful but, as I have written before, palliative care can go horribly wrong when misused.

We need to know the difference before we are able to trust that our own healthcare providers will  give all of us the care we need and deserve, especially at the end of our lives.

 

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.