End of the Line in the ICU
Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”
She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”
Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.
We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.
You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.
I cared for a woman in her 90s whose family had considered making her a DNR,but decided against it. After a relatively minor stroke that left her awake but not lucid, Helen* went into kidney failure and started on continuous hemodialysis. Because she kept pulling out her IV lines and the feeding tube we had dropped into her nose and down to her stomach, we put boxing glove-like pillow mitts on her hands. When I approached with her medicine, Helen batted at me with her boxing gloves, saying, “NO. STOP.” She frowned, shook her head and then her fist at me. Her wishes were pretty clear, but technically she was “confused,” because when asked her name, the date, and her location, she failed to answer.
During the next shift, Helen’s heart stopped beating. But despite talking with the doctors about her advanced age and the poor state of her health, her family had nonetheless decided that we should “do everything we can” for her, and so Helen died in a frenzy of nurses pumping her with vasopressors and doing chest compressions, probably cracking several ribs.