I recently attended the death of a friend at his home. He had a disease that was terminal and untreatable and he and his wife had finally decided on no further medical treatments that would require hospitalization. He was not very old and had been cared for by his children and wife during the previous 4 months that he couldn't care for himself. Time had become short and valuable and he had become weak, so he didn't amend his POST (Physician's Order for Scope of Treatment) to indicate that he wanted no resuscitation, though his wife and family knew his preferences. He had not entered hospice because his needs were adequately fulfilled by his family, friends, his physicians, and home health.
When his wife noticed his breathing had changed, she called me, a friend of the family. I had offered to be available to come over for any medical situation in which they might need a rapid house call. I arrived about 15 minutes later and he had just died. I confirmed the situation with my medical gadgets. We were all sad and tearful and we talked and hugged and talked some more. I called the police, reported the death and the fact that it was expected. A kind and respectful sheriff's deputy came out and took a picture and a couple of statements. I called the local funeral home and a couple of guys who were on call came over with their stretcher and bag and quilt to collect him. About 90 minutes after I got the first call, his body was on its way to the funeral home and thence the earth and eventually the far corners of the universe. We sat and talked as the sun went down.
It was a good death, as much as a death of a vital and gifted person with plans can be good. It was a hospice-free home death, surrounded by family and friends. Such a thing is becoming vanishingly rare, and it made me think. Maybe we could make this easier. Maybe our community could reclaim the wisdom that it takes to facilitate better deaths, with or without hospice, nuanced to our needs and resources.
Hospice care is intended to be a holistic approach to providing support to dying patients during their last 6 months of life. The concept of hospice dates back to medieval times. Wikipedia says that in 1090 there is evidence that places existed which were devoted to care of the incurably ill, staffed by crusaders. There have been institutions for treatment of people who are dying since then, likely because of the clear need for dedicated care for people who are vulnerable and in pain and unable to advocate for themselves. Hospice at home was encouraged by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (author of the book On Death and Dying), arguing that we shouldn't institutionalize people who are going through a universal life process. Legislation to pay for hospice care passed in the early 1980s in America. Hospice care has increased in popularity, more than doubling the number of patients utilizing the service and the amount of money spent in the last 10 years. This year an industry report predicts that the U.S. will spend over $25 billion on hospice care. (It will also save several times this amount of money by providing appropriate care for the dying rather than futile procedures in a hospital setting.)
Hospice is extremely valuable in our culture which has lost the habit and skills of taking care of the dying at home. They provide a consulting nurse who keeps in touch with both the patient and his or her doctor, providing adjustment of medication to ease suffering and equipment such as hospital beds or shower chairs that may become necessary. They provide 24 hour phone advice and expertise regarding the dying process. They organize volunteers who will spell a caregiver to go out for a walk or shopping and aides who can help with bathing.
Besides being valuable, hospice is also extremely expensive (mostly paid for by insurance including Medicare) and often feels like a one-size-fits-all solution. Hospice is difficult for introverts and people who treasure their privacy. “Going on hospice” can be demoralizing. Hospice is mostly not available to people who are still undergoing life-prolonging treatments such as chemotherapy. The use of pain and anxiety medication often seems heavy handed. I have ranted about some of these issues in the past. All this aside, I am truly grateful for the existence of hospice services and devoted hospice workers who make dying at home and in peace easier.
But I think we can do more and maybe better. My friend who died, and his family, needed his wise friends and his multidisciplinary team organized by his specialist, his flexible and understanding primary care physician and, in the end, me to smooth the difficulties of his passing. It turned out that he needed a bare minimum of medication and remained intelligent and interactive up until nearly his final breath. He didn't need hospice, but he did need help. I think there is support that a community can provide that is beyond what a hospice organization does.
What we need is a network of people in our community who are good for different things, to share with each other and with people somewhere on the dying spectrum what they know. Emergency medical technicians know what needs to be done when somebody dies at home of a terminal disease and so do I, but families of dying people should know too. It would be reassuring. Lawyers know about what is needed to have a valid will. Priests, nuns and other clergy people are skilled in helping people find meaning in the process of dying. There are people in my community who always seem to be there when someone is very sick and they are comfortable with some of the worldly aspects of the end of life. There are people who have special relationships with animals who could give comfort by visiting with a cuddly creature. There are musicians of all description and artists who can brighten a dreary space. People who have recently gone through the death of a loved one might be glad to sit down for a cup of coffee or come along for a doctor's appointment to take notes or ask the right questions. They may know how to make the funeral process less expensive. There are social workers who would be founts of good advice. Some people know about helping write a life history. Some people can do guided imagery or hypnosis for symptoms control. There are needs and solutions I haven't thought of, and somebody in my community knows about them.
When I was pregnant with my second child, we hired a doula. She was a woman who had lots of experience with birth and who helped me with questions I didn't want to ask an obstetrician. She encouraged me, shared stories and sat with me the entire time I was in labor, which was a long time. Because of her confidence I didn't feel frightened and I didn't need labor anesthesia. There are also doulas for the end of life. There are none in my community, but I think there are people with the basic wisdom and experience to be a companion for a patient and family during the dying process. Death can be frightening but it doesn't need to be.
This network of people would not displace traditional hospice, at least not in most cases. It would be a volunteer organization and, with the possible exception of doulas, there would be no requirement to be “on-call.” This would create new connections within our community. There would be unexpected and probably positive consequences. Each person who volunteered would know that, although they are giving now, they will be receiving at some point because death is going to happen to all of us.
The hospice movement that gained steam in the 1980s was very important. It helped move death out of the hospital and the intensive care unit and back home, where we can be surrounded familiar things that bring us comfort. I think we are ready to take the next step. We may be ready to use our collective wisdom to find the meaning in life's end, beyond the mistaken concept that death is a failure of medical technology. Life is valuable in part because we know we will die. Like birth, we only get to do it once. Maybe we can be intentional about it and help each other out by sharing what we do well.
Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.