With the passing of Tim Russert, we are all made critically aware of the fragile nature of life and our need to embrace every moment as a gift. Obviously, within a split second, every aspect of our lives can change, and, as in Mr. Russert’s case, can end. This is not a blog about instant death, and it is not just about recognizing our mortality. It is about preparing for our passing carefully.
Liz Szabo, a writer with USA Today described in a recent article the cancer patient experience by saying, “Patients with advanced cancer often don’t know how long they have to live or how chemotherapy will affect their lives.” According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, many physicians either don’t give patients that type of information or the patients only “hear what they choose to hear, or very often misunderstand what is said to them.”
This situation often leads to patients requesting incredibly disruptive and sometimes painful therapies that have no hope of succeeding. According to the study, more than 20% of Medicare patients who have advanced cancer begin a new chemo regimen two weeks before they die. Many times patients are admitted to hospice days or hours before they die.
What has been observed in cases like this was that the patient often misses the opportunity to repair relationships, get their spiritual house in order or even prepare the necessary documents such as advanced directives.
Where is this going? Sarah Harrington, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, co-author of the quoted article, indicated that “in the last few weeks or months of life, a lot of good work can be done.”
One of the points brought up in the article was that only about 37% of physicians told patients how long they had to live. This fact was not surprising to us because we have seen dozens of patients who were admitted to hospice over the years return home and live several more months or years. This particular prediction is not always dependable. The other fact quoted in the article, however, was that many patients learned more about their cases from other patients than from their physicians.
The article concluded with the suggestion that “patients and their families may have to take the initiative in finding answers to important questions.” Thomas Smith, co-author and Chairman of Hematology and Oncology at VCU’s Massey Cancer Center suggested that the following questions should be asked by any patient in this situation: What are my options? Can I be cured? Will I live longer with Chemo? Should I consider Hospice or Palliative Care? Who could help me cope? What do I want to pass on to my family to tell them about my life?
Palliative care is not limited to cancer. All end-of-of life diagnoses qualify patients for hospice and palliative care. Tim didn’t need or have this opportunity, but for those who do, embrace it. The primary thing that can be delivered to the patient and their family is the comfort of having caregivers dedicated to helping you move through your transition. It is what they do. These amazing people, volunteers, employees and physicians are dedicated to “paying it forward.”
So, as we eventually face our own mortality, as we evaluate what it is that we want to share with our families, as we consider the legacy that we wish to leave, having a clear mind and looking to those professionals who can help us is not only necessary, it is imperative. This transition can come in the blink of an eye.