[Paleopsych] NYT: Even as Doctors Say Enough, Families Fight to Prolong Life

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Mar 27 23:29:49 UTC 2005

National > Even as Doctors Say Enough, Families Fight to Prolong Life
March 27, 2005


    BOSTON, March 26 - For years, when families and hospitals fought over
    how to treat critically ill patients, families often pressed to let
    their loved ones die, while hospitals tried to keep them alive.

    But in the last decade or so, things have changed.

    Now, doctors and ethicists say that when hospitals and families clash,
    conflicts often pit families who want to continue life support and
    aggressive medical care against doctors who believe it is time to

    "The most common case that comes before the ethics committees," said
    Dr. John J. Paris, a bioethicist at Boston College, "are families now
    insisting on treatment that the doctors believe is unwarranted."

    Extraordinary medical advances have stoked the hopes of families.
    Also, more patients and families feel empowered to make medical
    decisions, and some are skeptical of doctors' interpretations or

    When asked in polls about Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida
    woman, 60 percent to 70 percent of respondents said they would remove
    Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube and, in similar circumstances, would choose
    not to keep themselves or a spouse alive.

    Many right-to-die requests would not cause conflict with a hospital
    these days because they are more likely to be in sync with doctors'
    assessments. When there is a conflict, it typically involves families
    who feel their loved one would not want to endure surgery or treatment
    that might not succeed.

    But even families who say they believe in removing life support may
    find that position untenable when their own relatives are involved.

    "About 15 years ago, at least 80 percent of the cases were
    right-to-die kinds of cases," said Dr. Lachlan Forrow, the director of
    ethics programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who
    handles 50 to 100 end-of-life conflicts a year. "Today, it's more like
    at least 80 percent of the cases are the other direction: family
    members who are pushing for continued or more aggressive life support
    and doctors and nurses who think that that's wrong."

    Dr. Lisa Anderson-Shaw, co-chairwoman of the ethics committee at
    University of Illinois at Chicago hospital, said that in 1998 she
    consulted on 2 such cases, while last year, she fielded 11.

    Chuck Ceronsky, a co-chairman of the ethics committee of Fairview
    University Medical Center in Minneapolis, said, "The right-to-die
    families find a more receptive audience in the hospital, as opposed to
    years ago when a doctor might say, My job is not to end life."

    "We have a disproportionate number of cases where people come in with
    something they think ought to be tried, or that they've read on the
    Internet ought to be tried," Mr. Ceronsky added.

    Ethics committees resolve most cases, often through repeated family
    discussions over weeks or months.

    But at least three states, Texas, Virginia and California, have laws
    that let doctors refuse treatment against the wishes of a family, or
    even a patient's advanced directive in certain circumstances. In other
    states, like Wisconsin, doctors are seeking such laws.

    "When they're asking for things that become absolutely nonsensical,
    then you don't have to do it any more," said Dr. Kay Heggestad, who is
    the chairwoman of the ethics committee of the Wisconsin Medical
    Society and is helping draft a "futile care" bill in her state. "If
    someone marches into my office with normal kidney function and demands
    dialysis, I am not required to offer that."

    Recently, several life-support requests have landed in court.

    In October, when doctors at a hospital in Salt Lake City declared
    6-year-old Jesse Koochin brain dead and planned to remove life
    support, Jesse's parents, Steve and Gayle Koochin, went to court. A
    judge ruled against the hospital and granted the Koochins the right to
    take Jesse home, where they kept him on a ventilator and said they
    were convinced that he could get better with alternative medical
    treatments. A month later, Jesse died.

    In Boston, doctors considered it so inhumane to keep alive Barbara
    Howe, a 79-year-old woman with Lou Gehrig's disease, that the chairman
    of the ethics committee wrote in June 2003, "this is Massachusetts
    General Hospital, not Auschwitz."

    When Ms. Howe's daughter, Carol Carvitt, said her mother would not
    want to disconnect life support, the hospital sued. A judge said it
    was Ms. Carvitt's decision, but urged her to think about her mother's
    best interests. This month, Ms. Carvitt agreed to terminate life
    support by June 30.

    And last November in Orlando, Fla., Alice Pinette insisted that her
    husband, Hanford, stay on life support even though his living will
    said he would not want to. A judge sided with the hospital, which
    removed the ventilator, and Mr. Pinette, 73, died.

    "Medical advances give people greater expectations, and they're not
    willing to accept that death is inevitable; somebody somewhere can
    save Mom," said Dr. Forrow, of Beth Israel in Boston, said. "They have
    way more belief that the decision about that is partly up to them: my
    business, my body, my mom's body. Fifteen years ago, it was the
    doctor's purview alone."

    Some are wary that doctors may be truncating treatment because of
    soaring medical costs, and Dr. Dianne Bartels, associate director of
    the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, said:
    "Sometimes there's also mistrust of the medical system. A doctor might
    have said, 'Your husband's never going to make it' and he's already
    survived two or three times, so why should they believe the doctor?"

    Thomas W. Mayo, an associate professor at Southern Methodist
    University law school and an author of the Texas law, cited another

    "There are more specialists with less contact with the family," Mr.
    Mayo said. "As patient volumes have increased and reimbursement rates
    cut to the bone, there's less incentive for everyone in the system to
    provide that. When a stranger says, 'Well, there's nothing we can do
    other than turn things off,' you're hearing that from someone you have
    no reason to believe other than he's wearing a white coat."

    The Texas law, signed in 1999 by Gov. George W. Bush, allows doctors
    to remove life-sustaining treatment over the objections of families,
    provided an ethics committee agrees and the hospital gives the family
    10 days to see if another facility will accept the patient.

    Dr. Robert L. Fine, an author of the law and the chairman of the
    clinical ethics committee at Baylor University Medical Center in
    Dallas, said life support could be withdrawn even if a patient's
    living will specified otherwise, but that ethics committees would give
    great weight to such a document.

    Virginia's law is similar; California's is much vaguer, saying
    physicians cannot be required to provide health care contrary to
    generally accepted health care standards.

    Now, in most disputes in Texas, "families look for an alternative
    willing to provide care and if none is available they say, 'O.K., it's
    time to stop,' " Dr. Fine said.

    There have been two recent exceptions. Last week, Sun Hudson, a
    5-month-old, died after a judge gave Texas Children's Hospital in
    Houston permission to disconnect his ventilator over the objections of
    his mother.

    And last Sunday, the case of Spiro Nikolouzos, 68, was resolved when
    his family, who fought a Houston hospital's plan to remove his
    ventilator, found a nursing home to accept him.

    In the absence of laws like Texas's, hospitals often accede to a
    family's wishes because they fear being sued. They are reluctant to go
    to court because judges often rule that even if the hospital's
    assessment is correct, families' claims of what patients would have
    wanted take precedence. And doctors and ethicists in many states have
    not lobbied for a Texas-style law because of expected opposition from
    right-to-life advocates.

    There is also discomfort with determining when health care is futile.

    "It is controversial even within the bioethics community," Mr. Mayo
    said. "There are times when medicine has nothing more to offer and
    we're not obligated to offer it, but when you go to implement that, it
    gives people the heebie-jeebies."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=PAM%20BELLUCK&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=PAM%20BELLUCK&inline=nyt-per

More information about the paleopsych mailing list