When waves of medical professionals are trying to help diagnose or treat a tough condition, it’s easy for the patient to become a puzzle, an experiment, an object. So who’s best to judge what’s best for the patient, especially when he or she can’t communicate? The patient, the spouse, the children . . . who need to be the patient’s very vocal advocate. Here’s a real-life example why.
The husband was going in for surgery. Not to treat a terminal illness but to fix something. He would be in surgery for a couple of hours.
The procedure was more routine than radical. While “All surgery has its risks,” this operation was too ordinary to be in the script of a medical show on TV.
The surgery was a success. Unfortunately, they couldn’t wake the husband afterward.
The husband went straight to the Intensive Care Unit. They put a breathing tube in. All sorts of lines from all sorts of machines were hooked to him. The family held their collective breaths.
Over the next few days, it became clear that nobody knew quite what to do. Medical tests indicated nothing. Specialists were called in but nobody could make a diagnosis.
And then one day, the husband’s organs and systems started shutting down. Organ by organ, system by system.
The question came up: do we let nature take its course, or fight it out? They decided on the latter. He was too young – even in his 60s — he was active, he had been totally healthy except for the organ needing repair.
But it was taking time. Weeks. The respirator stayed in. They tried lowering his body temperature so he was in an induced coma, giving his body a chance to get going again.
Then one day, a new doctor came into the ICU room. He had the husband’s chart in his hand, he examined him and looked at the readings on some of the machines. He didn’t say anything to the wife and the adult son watching all this.
Then the doctor abruptly left the room, and came back with a clipboard and pen. He turned to the wife and said “We are going to try this new procedure. Sign here.”
The wife and her son were stunned. They had never met the doctor before, hadn’t been told he was coming by, had no idea of what kind of specialist he was, and why he was even there. Of course, they had no idea what medical thing he wanted to do.
The wife said “I’m not signing anything until you explain who you are and why my husband needs this procedure.”
The doctor identified what he wanted to do, and the son immediately started to Google it. The wife pressed the doctor for more information, too, and it came out: while the surgery could help the husband, it could possibly “affect” him for the rest of his life. And with no way to reverse what could happen.
The implication was clear. The husband’s situation could become worse – worse than his lying there like he was, on a respirator, in an induced coma, and with no apparent cure in sight.
The wife dug in her heels. She refused to sign until she talked to her husband’s main physician, his surgeon.
This mystery doctor argued. He summoned other doctors and nurses, and soon the ICU room was filled with all these medical types who were trying to convince her to sign.
She held her ground, called the surgeon in the middle of this crowd, and explained the situation. The surgeon said that there was no reason to rush into the procedure; it could wait a few days and he’d be glad to explain things further when he came by.
And when the surgeon did come by later, they decided to wait.
Ultimately, the husband didn’t have the surgery-on-the-clipboard. And over the next few weeks, he recovered enough to go home where he recuperated for a month, and eventually, was well enough to go back to his business.
The moral of this story: you need an advocate if you’re facing medical treatment and can’t ask the questions and process the answers. Or in reverse: if someone you care for is in that position, be their advocate. No experience necessary.
Having a laptop with Google helps. But being tough is the main criterion.
Doesn’t having a healthcare document solve the problem? No. Medical personnel – doctor, nurse, or otherwise – are not required to follow what’s on an Advance Directive for Healthcare or other healthcare-preference “Here’s What I Want” document. As a matter of fact, they have no liability if they don’t.
The bottom line: everybody needs a healthcare advocate, like the wife in the story above, not only to evaluate treatment, but to push for the appointment, to get the prescription filled, to ask what needs to be asked and to sift through the answers. So many doctors are caring, thoughtful and responsive . . . but like in any field, some are not.
So when a strange physician walks in the room, it’s fine to be polite, but hang tough. If it’s a life you care about, you need to protect it.