In 1859, Charles Dickens wrote the book, "The Tale of Two Cities," which was a comparison of life in London and Paris and compared life of the aristocracy versus life of the peasantry in those two cities. Throughout my 30 plus years of being a nurse and nurse practitioner, I have watched and participated in the ethical dilemmas nurses and other healthcare providers encounter on a day to day basis. I have spent the majority of my professional nursing career in acute and critical care. As a nurse practitioner, my role is different than when I was a nurse; however, the issues I face are the same as all nurses in regards to ensuring patients receive optimum care that improves quality of life, not necessarily extending it. This brings me to, "The Tale of Two Patients."
A few weeks ago I took care of two patients; two patients with similar stories, both had end-stage COPD and both were admitted to the ICU for a COPD exacerbation. Both patients received similar treatment, and both patients continued to deteriorate simply because their disease had progressed beyond recovery. As a nurse, I was always taught to focus on quality not quantity of life, and quality of life is defined by the patient, not the healthcare professionals or the family.
The first patient had an advanced directive and had obviously communicated well with her family. They were all in agreement the patient should not be intubated, and instead, be placed on hospice and made comfortable. There was great peace among the patient, her family members and the entire nursing and healthcare staff. They rejoiced in the fact the patient had lived a full life and could now go on to a better place to be with her husband who had passed two years prior. Everyone agreed -- following the patient's advanced directive and making her a do not resuscitate was the right thing to do.
The second patient did not have an advanced directive, and had never spoken to her family about her wishes. Despite numerous attempts to discuss the patient's prognosis with the patient and her family, the family insisted everything be done and the patient capitulated to their demands. The patient was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Everyone knew the patient would never come off the vent and would eventually die in the ICU. After several days, the patient went into multiorgan failure and the family finally agreed that the patient should be allowed to die in peace. The patient was placed on a morphine infusion for comfort and died with the family still fighting over her. There was great sorrow in the eyes and hearts of everyone taking care of her. Nurses are about quality care, and even though the patient eventually died comfortably, everyone knew the situation could have been avoided if the patient had discussed her wishes with her family and her primary care provider and had an advanced directive.
As nurses, we see the ethical importance of doing what our patient's want; we are their advocates and their voice even in their most desperate hour. Healthcare professionals have an obligation to speak with their patients before the patient is in a life-threatening situation. The first time a discussion occurs should not be when the patient is critically ill and facing no chance of recovery. Quality of life must be defined by the patient and no one else. In this day and age, the tale of two patients should not be a story we tell in healthcare.
Anne Dabrow Woods, DNP, RN, CRNP, ANP-BC
Health, Learning & Practice
Nurse Practitioner, Critical Care Services
Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital
College of Nursing & Health Sciences