How Doctors Die

How Doctors Die: It’s Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be by Ken Murray is a very interesting article about how doctors respond to the news that they are terminally ill. It goes into the costs associated with keeping someone alive when their bodies can no longer keep the disease in check – financial, social and suffering costs.

One of my patients was a man named Jack, a 78-year-old who had been ill for years and undergone about 15 major surgical procedures. He explained to me that he never, under any circumstances, wanted to be placed on life support machines again. One Saturday, however, Jack suffered a massive stroke and got admitted to the emergency room unconscious, without his wife. Doctors did everything possible to resuscitate him and put him on life support in the ICU. This was Jack’s worst nightmare. When I arrived at the hospital and took over Jack’s care, I spoke to his wife and to hospital staff, bringing in my office notes with his care preferences. Then I turned off the life support machines and sat with him. He died two hours later.

Even with all his wishes documented, Jack hadn’t died as he’d hoped. The system had intervened. One of the nurses, I later found out, even reported my unplugging of Jack to the authorities as a possible homicide. Nothing came of it, of course; Jack’s wishes had been spelled out explicitly, and he’d left the paperwork to prove it. But the prospect of a police investigation is terrifying for any physician. I could far more easily have left Jack on life support against his stated wishes, prolonging his life, and his suffering, a few more weeks. I would even have made a little more money, and Medicare would have ended up with an additional $500,000 bill. It’s no wonder many doctors err on the side of overtreatment.

But doctors still don’t over-treat themselves. They see the consequences of this constantly. Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures. I was struck to hear on the radio recently that the famous reporter Tom Wicker had “died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.” Such stories are, thankfully, increasingly common.

The author recaps a number of stories about doctors who get the news and simply stop working and spend their remaining time doing things they like that make them happy. He feels that for many of them, having seen the suffering caused by futile care for years, the choice to just say “no thanks” is not just easy but the only choice they can make and still do no harm to their patients (in this case themselves).

The article reminded me of doctor Mark Greene in the TV show E.R. He had ended up getting cancer and having a new wife and a young child he fought it and beat it into remission. It did however come back and he made the choice to not fight anymore. It had been hard and he didn’t want to do it again. Dr. Greene spend his dying days in Hawaii with his family and died peaceful in bed.

When I watched the show I remember thinking that it was odd that a doctor would choose not to fight again given that he had been successful the first time. But there was also something that resonated with me that sometimes the distinction that you have a battle to win is simply not true. Even if you are not sick, you will never be new again. Your body has been falling apart since you were born. If you are sick, you will never be cured, even if they cut it out, zap it with radiation and stop the bad cells from dividing. Getting cancer is a one way street and no matter what they do, it can come back. You can fight the toughest battle, but without a new body, the old one has that weakness and the cancer has time on its hands.

There isn’t anything wrong with fighting, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting more time for yourself or your loved ones. There isn’t anything wrong with being grateful for the warning and having the time of your life as it winds down. That’s what a lot of doctors do and I get the feeling it’s what most of my dad’s doctors would do.