“Doctor…She wants a chance. She wants to live!”

“Doctor…She wants a chance. She wants to live!”

How often have I heard those words? Or some version of them? The location of the conversations varies. I might be standing outside the curtain of an emergency room bay or sitting on a worn chair inside a cramped waiting room adjacent to the ICU. Possibly on the phone in the dark of my bedroom at some pre-dawn hour. Those words, coming from the mouth of a spouse, a child, or a sibling are usually imploring and pleading and occasionally defiant and demanding. But always beneath the surface, at its origin, is fear.

Critical illness, almost by definition, does not come on slowly. Occasionally it starts as a quiet whisper, allowing time for patients and families to absorb and adjust. But all too often, it presents as a roar. Infection takes hold and explodes. A vessel once open becomes completely blocked. A beating heart suddenly arrests. An aneurysm ruptures and bleeds into the brain or belly. An accident or trauma, completely unforeseen, literally crashes into a life.

The brutal and cruel physiological disruption these insults cause a patient are usually obvious to both the care team and the family. But the additional traumas to the family and friends left to make decisions in the wake of critical illnesses are more subtle.

Some choices can be relatively simple, like placing large IV’s or draining a collection of infected fluid. But what about issues of life sustaining or death preventing treatments such as ventilators for breathing, powerful infusions of medicines to make the heart beat quicker and squeeze stronger, a machine outside the body to filter and clean the blood the kidney cannot, or chest compressions and electric shocks when the heart completely stops? These decisions are literally of life and death. And as physicians look to surrogates to help guide our interventions, we often ask, “What would the patient want?”

“Doctor…She wants a chance. She would want to live!”

And there lies the dilemma.

A chance to live. It seems like a straightforward statement.

Critical care is an amazing field. With appropriate aggressive intervention we are often able to halt the progression of and stabilize dangerously low blood pressure or oxygen levels. We can cool a patient’s core body temperature to protect injury to the brain, perform emergency surgery to repair leaks in large arteries or perforations of parts of the bowel.

But what does it mean to say we want to live?

Is it just a heart that beats? Lungs filling with air while lying in bed? Skin warm and damp on hospital sheets? Liquid calories delivered to the stomach by a plastic tube? A hand held by family sitting at the bedside? Light filtering through a window, giving just a glimpse of what lies on the other side?

Or is it a heart able to soar with love or ache from loss? To breath in air while laughing or crying? Sweat dripping from a brow, stinging the eyes, while working hard in the yard on a hot and humid summer day? A stomach full, from one too many pieces of Chicago style pizza, or a brain buzzing from that first morning cup of coffee? To be able to hug or be hugged and feel the warmth of an embrace on the surface of your skin and on your spirit?

And there are an infinite number of possibilities between these two extremes. Our interventions are often good at preventing death. But not always as effective at helping us live. And what is living? To you? To me? In my thirties with young children still to raised? In my seventies with grandkids to watch grow? What is enough quality in life to lift our hearts up high, when our bodies are still tethered to the bed?

Most of us only glance at these questions. To see them obliquely. Set them aside to deal with tomorrow. And the sequence of routines in our day to day lives help us do that, beginning with the starting gun of the morning alarm. The routine drive to work where we put in our time. Then the race to a soccer practice or baseball game and dinner on the go. Help with homework, pay some bills, read some emails, off to bed and then repeat. On our way to the next job, the next raise, the next game, the next tournament. All with our distracting smart phones in hand. To photograph, to read and reply, to text and tweet.

These questions about what makes life worth living are complicated. Not only do they make us recognize our own mortality, they also force us to confront the lack of mindfulness in our day to day lives. To separate patterns and routines from what is purposeful and meaningful.

By answering these questions directly, we can create two powerful gifts. The first is for our families, loved ones and surrogates. Having discussions with them ahead of time decreases their burden, by providing a better understanding of what it is that makes life worth living. So they may be more prepared to speak for us, if and when we cannot.

The second gift is to ourselves. Not for the future, but for the here and now. As we recognize what gives us purpose and meaning in moments of mindfulness, we learn what we want to do, not what we feel obliged to do. And in doing so, we then learn what truly makes our hearts soar.

We Failed Her

The alarm sounds, a painful reminder that it’s my week to cover the ICU. I take off my favorite sweatshirt, stripping away its warmth and comfort. I quickly jump into and out of the scalding shower, racing to get ready. Making my way toward the kitchen, I roll my eyes at my teenage daughter who is eating ice cream and waffles for breakfast. Her ride waits out front but before she can escape, I get a rare hug, her wet hair cool as it brushes against my cheek. I spy her melting, unfinished breakfast and I shovel what’s left into my mouth. The cold vanilla ice cream and maple syrup drips down my chin. Wiping away the evidence of my indiscretion, I get into my jeep with the top down. The twenty-minute ride is a guilty pleasure, with the spring air cool across my face. The coffee in my hand warms me from the inside out as I make my way to work. Read more

Injuries of the Heart

He sat next to the judge in the witness chair. Of medium height and build with a clean shaven head, he recalled the night in the hospital where he lost his dad, role model, grandfather to his newborn son and best friend. In the small courtroom he spoke directly to the jury about the fear and apprehension the night his father was admitted to the ICU. He talked about the pain his father experienced just before his eyes rolled up in his head. He recounted running into the hallway, desperate, yelling for a nurse, for anyone to come to his father’s aid. He described the profound loss, the hole left in his family’s life after his father arrested and died that night, five years ago. I was sitting 15 feet away, almost directly in front of and facing this gentleman. Because the hospital and I were on trial for the wrongful death of his dad.  Read more

Sunrise

What do you do when you know someone is going to die? I’m not talking about death when it comes at the end of a long protracted illness or a terminal diagnosis. Or the final act at the end of a “good” life, when the body and mind have ultimately given way. I’m talking about when you realize the twenty-five-year-old woman in front of you, who you met five minutes ago, has no idea she will not survive to see another sunrise.

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