Medical school can teach you a lot of things. Most of what they teach, they do very well: pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, pathology... One thing they don't spend much time on is how to deliver bad news. If they do have a one hour lecture devoted to it, consider yourself lucky. But something like that can't be taught in one hour. For some, even a lifetime isn't enough.
Learning how to deliver bad news seems to be part of the job description of a physician. We can't cure everything that crosses our paths. People don't get better, become debilitated, die. We should be able to do this very well.
For us, the new year has brought us to new rotations. I'm still on vascular surgery, but I'm at a different hospital. I've inherited some very sick patients who have run out of options.
One woman is in her 80's. She is on dialysis, which requries the ability to remove blood at a high rate, run it through a filtration machine, and return it to the body at the same rate. This is usually performed through what is called "access." Access can take the form of a fistula or graft in the arm, which is where we surgically make a connection between a large artery and a large vein in the arm. Or it can be via a large bore catheter with two ports sitting in one of the large veins in the neck.
Eventually, fistulas will become clotted and stop working. We can try to save the one they have through various means, but sometimes they need a new one. So you march up the arm towards the axilla making more connections between artery and vein in an attempt to keep them on dialysis.
Once all those spots on both arms are used up, you can try to do something in the groin. But these can become infected and don't usually last that long. Then all you're left with is the catheter version of access, which carries with it risk of infection or clotting of the vein in which it sits.
What happens when you run out of places for the catheter and something else hasn't killed you first? You die of renal failure. It's not a horrible death, really. The toxins in your blood make you sleepy so you just get to the point that you go to sleep and don't wake up.
Back to my patient. She's in her 80s and she's used up all the spots on her arms. All of her large veins are clotted. She is currently receiving dialysis through a catheter that is placed through a lumbar vein that goes directly into the inferior vena cava. That's the last spot. And even that is more than most people get.
Let's complicate things a bit more. We've been keeping her anticoagulated (blood thinned) on coumadin to help prolong the day when she will clot off that catheter. But for some reason (that happend before I got on the service) the blood was thinned too much (INR = 12) and she had an upper GI bleed. We the surgeons and the medicine doctors have weighed the risks; continuing anticoagulation to prolong the inevitable is not worth risking another potentially fatal GI bleed. Which would mean that we need to talk about the time when the catheter clots and we need to set up hospice care for her.
Add this to some very dysfunctional family dynamics involving debates over religion and a language barrier, and I'm a loss. Today we had a family meeting with a skilled palliative care specialist who is helping us from a hospitalist standpoint. He was able to cut through the communication issues with the family and get them to agree that the patient will indeed make her own decision about stopping anticoagulation or not. They will only become involved when she is unable to make decisions for herself. That conclusion alone is a huge help; before this meeting the daughter told me that she was "not authorizing" me talking to her mother via an interpreter about these issues.
Now that I have permission, I just have to do it. I've had these discussions before. I'm sure I could do them better. I hope I can show compassion but give her the facts she needs all at the same time.
Part 2 will include another difficult conversation I had today...