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Hard Decisions in the I.C.U.

Posted on 10/26/2012

The New York Times: Your relative has spent five days in a hospital intensive care unit, unable to breathe without a ventilator and incapable of making her own medical decisions. Because she appointed you her health care proxy, or simply because you’re her closest relative, the choices about treatments — trying them or stopping them — fall to you. It’s not a hypothetical situation: One-fourth of elderly people die in an I.C.U. A patient in intensive care on a ventilator probably requires a feeding tube, a catheter, various IV lines. Perhaps her doctors are suggesting dialysis or recommending surgery. There are many choices to be made.

Discussions about the end of life, when they happen at all, often focus on what would happen if someone becomes irreversibly comatose or faces a terminal disease. But the victim of a severe stroke, for instance, may remain extremely impaired, physically and mentally, and institutionalized for the rest of her life — yet still be semiconscious.

“Is this a state in which a person would want to be kept alive?” Dr. White said. “It’s a tough question to answer.”

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