End-of-life ethics

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Medical school definitely has its drudgery. Thankfully there are also moments of beauty — interactions and experiences that remind me why I’m here. Moments that remind me that I am in the right place, doing the right thing. This week I had one of those moments.

It was after a morning small group ethics discussion. We’d been talking about end-of-life issues: palliative care, terminal sedation, physician-assisted death, and euthanasia. Following the session, a classmate from my group stopped me in the hall. She’s someone I think highly of, but don’t know well on a personal level. We travel in different social circles. So I was curious why she wanted to talk to me. I’ll paraphrase part of our conversation. She told me:

If any of my loved ones ever needs palliative care, I’m going to look you up and find out where you’re practicing. I want you to be their doctor. I can tell you have a heart for this.

Her words touched me profoundly. The fact that my passion for palliative care emerged — at least to this particular classmate — even in our rather contentious 50-minute discussion made my day.

It was a contentious discussion, though. Fervent, ethical arguments for and against physician involvement in the death of suffering patients dominated our debate. I do have strong opinions on this hot-button end-of-life issue, and others. Midway through the hour though, I brought up a perspective I believed was missing from the dialogue. Long before you arrive at a conversation about physician-assisted death, you do everything you can to help your terminally ill patient find meaning in the last days, weeks, or months of life. You strive to relieve both physical and emotional pain and suffering with an interdisciplinary approach. You do that through the cooperation of doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, chaplains, art therapists, massage therapists, music therapists, and other medical professionals, each of whom works a little different magic. You involve the family in this process too.

It is natural for a patient and their family to feel sad when faced with a life-limiting illness. But they don’t have to feel hopeless, or depressed. There is meaning and purpose to be found at the end of life. I’ve seen it, both here at the hospital in New York City, and during the home visits I did in rural Uganda. And that’s where you go first — in search of comfort and purpose (perhaps a redefined purpose). When those efforts fail, only then do I think it’s appropriate to have a conversation about physician-assisted death or terminal sedation.

I do believe in a patient’s right to physician-assisted death — with proper safeguards and regulations to prevent misuse and abuse. I do belive that terminally ill patients who have capacity deserve the autonomy to leave the world on their own terms. But I also do believe that is an option of last resort, when the suffering has become intractable and untreatable.

I have a long way to go before I’m a practicing physician. Whether I actually pursue palliative care, who knows. Whatever specialty I enter though, I will work with patients who are in pain, and who are dying. Belief in the power of hope and palliation will serve me and my patients well regardless of what specialty I choose. That these core beliefs of mine are evident to others — this tells me I’m on the right track to becoming the kind of doctor I want to be.