Family Dilemmas in End of Life Care – Withdrawal of Artificial Nutrition and Hydration

The patient, Larry M, is a man in his 40s with a wife and three children at his bedside. He is in end stage liver cancer. He has been receiving total parenteral nutrition and IV fluids and has now decided to have his feeding tube and IV fluids withdrawn and to then return home with his wife and children, and with the assistance of hospice, die as comfortably as possible. The patient feels that this is be best for him and helpful to his wife and children to go through this process with him. His physicians fully support this decision.

Before leaving the hospital, however, the patient’s sister flies in from out of state, distraught, angry, and out of control. She cannot accept that her brother is “going to give up.”  She vehemently expresses her disdain for the physicians and for her sister-in-law’s support of her brother’s decision to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration and leave the hospital.  In the hospital room, sister begins to yell and throw chairs around the room.  The nurse calls security. The patient requests that his sister not be escorted out of the room, and sister agrees to “calm down.”  The sister, however, continues to subject the patient’s wife to verbal abuse. The patient does not want to expose his wife to this abuse, and is concerned that after his death there will be alienation of his wife and children from the rest of the patient’s family.  Accordingly, in order to appease his sister and to protect his wife, the patient agrees to remain in the hospital with continued artificial nutrition and hydration.
The original decision to return home was freely arrived at. His new decision to remain in the hospital is not.  Nevertheless, Larry M has changed his mind based upon factors important to him: namely, his wife and children’s future relations with his family and his sister’s anguish that he, in her eyes, do all he can to survive as long as possible.
It is not the duty of a physician or bioethicist to act as security guards or family councilors.  Bioethicists can mediate the impasse. A bioethicist could privately ask Larry M if he thought it might be helpful if he, and or physician, met with his sister and other family members to discuss the Larry’s terminal medical condition and his right to make unencumbered decisions, and also consider other approaches.

Approaches to consider:
Time is often an important factor. In this instance the patient’s sister has flown in from out of state, probably in a heighten state of panic and fear for her brother. Allowing some time to pass without argument or attempts at persuasion, may allow the sister to cool down to the point of being able to understand the reasons for her brother’s decision.

Medicine: Family members living far from the patient have not been a part of the medical care provided or the suffering that patients have endured over the course of their illness.  Apprising them, in some detail, of the long and arduous courses of treatment and make them feel a part of the process and part of the decision making process and enable family members to support the patient wishes and to move from anger and fear for her brother to support and compassion for the patient.
Physicians and nurses may tend to loose interest in patients after withdrawal of aggressive treatment, and may be seen as abandoning the patient. So, physicians and nurses should maintain ongoing and meaningful contact with the patient and family.

In some instances, it has been shown that patients, who would otherwise elect to withdraw from artificial nutrition and hydration, continue to request it in order to satisfy the concerns of family, notwithstanding abdominal discomfort and nausea. Discussions with family and physicians and nurses regarding concerns of withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration are generally helpful to the patient and the family.  


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