During my third year rotation, I experienced the terror of an anastomotic leak. This patient had previously had a resection of his colon cancer and had undergone chemotherapy. Three weeks later, he was coming in with respiratory distress and was urgently taken to the operating room for an anastomotic leak. The surgery was done in two parts. The edematous bowel, of which some was resected, did not allow for a complete closure of his abdomen. Having never seen a Bogota bag before, I watched in amazement as we took him back to the ICU, sedated. The next day, the procedure was completed, his abdomen closed.
He remained in the surgical ICU for weeks, receiving treatment for complications that seemed to change every day. He remained on the service after I left my rotation, and months later, I saw that he had passed. Throughout his postoperative recovery, I had gotten to know him, his family, and how painful treatment could be. Our discussions with palliative care, his family, and himself helped me understand medicine beyond the naive understanding of a medical student, freshly emerged from board exam studying.
Oncologic care has been the subject of national discussion, as the cost of treatments become a financial burden to the survivor and/or their family. Treatment can be continued to the detriment of the quality of the patient’s few remaining days of life. Without sufficient conversation about goals of care, treatment options become oriented to flowchart algorithm for a much different patient with very different goals.
Palliative care focuses on management of symptoms and psychosocial support, providing patients with options to achieve their personal goals for their remaining days of life. In the 1950s, Dr. Cicely Saunders first articulated the concept that would eventually become modern hospice care. From careful observation of dying patients, she advocated that the ‘total pain’ of dying could be relieved by an interdisciplinary team in the context of the patient’s family (1). This concept of teamwork is very much alive today in palliative care, where teams consist of nurses, social workers, pharmacists, chaplains, physicians, and most importantly, the patient and their family.
Unfortunately, this can be mistakenly perceived as ‘giving up’ instead of an opportunity to have informed discussions between patients and providers. It has also been traditionally delivered late in the course of care when hospitalized patients have uncontrolled symptoms. In those cases, it is often too late for palliative care to alter the quality and delivery of care provided to patients.
Pancreatic and lung cancer are diseases that have a high burden of symptoms and poor quality of life. The prognosis for metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer is less than 1 year after diagnosis (2). Early introduction of palliative care has been found to improve both quality of life and mood, as well as leading to less aggressive care at the end of life with longer survival (3).
In a retrospective study done in 2016, McGreevy et al found that for the 205 adult, nontrauma patients who had gastrostomy tubes placed, there was an 8% in-hospital mortality rate and a 19% 1-year mortality rate. Of the patients who survived to discharge, 69% were not able to live independently. Of the patients who suffered acute brain injury or respiratory failure, 90% died in the hospital or were severely disabled at discharge. For the 205 patients who had gastrostomy tubes placed, only 12% of patients received a documented palliative care assessment preprocedure (4). Gastrostomy tubes are just one example of a ‘trigger’ that can be used for a palliative care assessment. Utilizing certain interventions that alter the patient’s quality of life as the impetus to have a discussion about goals of care can help patients have a better understanding of their condition and care to guide the course of interventions throughout their hospital stay.
Palliative care is challenging for patients and providers alike. Coming to terms with what the future has to offer, as predicted by studies and interpreted through experience, is an honest conversation that tests the patient’s and family’s self-knowledge, as well as the physician’s ability and knowledge to provide the best clinical support. In life and in death, suffering may be inevitable, but it is within our realm as physicians to lessen it to the best of our ability.
Connie Shao is a fourth year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. She is originally from Michigan and enjoys swimming, reading, biking, and painting. She is applying to general surgery residency and has been meeting incredible applicants and inspirations along the way.
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