What To Expect From Death Itself, and Opportunities for Patient Partnering

I remember vividly, from when my sister was dying back in 1997 in the second hospice in the world (link to my parents’ book full text),  how important it was to my mother that when asked what she feared most, she was able to say “the death rattle” and that Dr. Robert Twycross was able to reassure her both of the insignificance of the sound, and that he would in any event make sure that it did not occur.

So, I found a new article by Doctor Sara Manning Peskin in the New York Times particularly powerful and empowering. Under the headline The Symptoms of Dying, Dr Peskin first points out that as the “letting go” gets closer, deaths become more and more similar.

You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing. We’ll call it different names: cancer, diabetes, heart failure, stroke.

One organ will fail, then another. Or maybe all at once. We’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living with your original diagnosis or mine.

Dying has its own biology and symptoms. It’s a diagnosis in itself. While the weeks and days leading up to death can vary from person to person, the hours before death are similar across the vast majority of human afflictions.

Some symptoms, like the death rattle, air hunger and terminal agitation, appear agonizing, but aren’t usually uncomfortable for the dying person. They are well-treated with medications. With hospice availability increasing worldwide, it is rare to die in pain.

And, PLEASE PLEASE, note that last sentence.  Only a couple of days ago, at dinner at our retirement community, it turned out that several of our friends, informed, educated, with great access to services, still had no confidence that they would have a “good death.”

The article  (which is the first of two) then goes on to outline those various stages and symptoms the body may face: The Death Rattle, Air Hunger, and (the wrongly named) Terminal Agitation, and how they are addressed.

I guess the reason I find this relevant to patient partnering is that I think it is really important for anybody facing serious illness to be given information about all of this as soon as possible.  Having that on the table — or at least the general reassurance that it can all be managed when the time comes, will just make it far easier for an honest cooperative partnering discussion about whatever else needs to be engaged.  My guess is that most of those providing care will also become more relaxed when they know that patient and family want to know what will happen, and are willing to share their worries and have them addressed.

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New Hopkins YouTube Video, Patients on “What I Wish You Knew…Sharing Perspective from the Bedside,” Has Many Potential Uses

The new Hopkins video on the expectations of patients will be a powerful tool.  As the link says:

Patients and families from our six Family Advisory Councils were asked a basic question: What is important to you during your health care experience? What do you wish the health care team knew? Each council created a wish list, all with many of the same common themes. Respect, communication, and partnership. These wishes embody the building blocks of patient and family centered care and they serve as a daily reminder to ask ourselves as providers, are we meeting these simple needs to show we care?

As an Oncology Council member who was somewhat involved in the drafting of the list, it really struck me how simple, but massive, the patient “asks” are.  Respect, communication, and partnership.  Of course, the process of gathering these ideas was itself an important clarifying project.

It is my understanding that the video had been primarily conceptualized as a tool to educate doctors and staff.  I would add that, perhaps with some additional framing, it could have great use as a patient-education tool, with the goal of raising expectations among patients.  Such framing might start and end with the hospital making commitments to, and and asking for help from patients to achieve, those commitments, including of course, being explicit when the goals are not met.

We certainly spend time in waiting rooms, when we might be watching videos such as this.  Moreover, as more of the appointment notification and reminder system moves online, why not include links to video like this — ideally with mention of specific steps that patients with improvement ideas might take.