Compassion Fatigue

By: HPMFellow

“I’m happy to see that he’s stabilized for now, but it’s also a good time to revisit your family’s goals for Brian for when another episode like this happens again.”
Brian’s father’s eyes widen, he whispers, and he motions for me and his wife to join him in the adjoining living room.

Here we go again.

I lean in to speak to Brian, my 21 year old patient who’s been living – some may call it anyway – with advanced Lou Gehrig’s Disease for the better part of his adolescence. I let him know that I’d be back to examine him shortly. I’m certain he’s been “locked in” for quite some time, but I have no idea how much he actually hears me. I’ve tried to speak openly in front of him before, but out of respect for those who’ve known him all his life the serious conversations are always deferred to the living room space as they feel heavy topics may upset him. The patient’s corner is solely reserved for speaking about urine, ventilator settings, and g-tube residuals.

What every 21 year old wants to hear about. Poor guy.

I sit down with Brian’s parents. “We’ve been thinking about the code status again, and talking it over. We definitely don’t want him to have his ribs broken – we know he’s broken bones just moving before. I know we said change it to ‘DNR’ last time, but I think we’re going to leave him ‘full code’ for now.”

Dig deep for that patience. It’s not necessarily two steps back. They’re not the most difficult family on your census – cut them some slack.

“What made you change your mind?”

The father begins, “Brian’s mother asked him …”

Is she kidding herself? He doesn’t move, he doesn’t even blink his eyes! They may be agreeable, but they’re certainly some of the worst cases of denial I’ve ever seen.

“… and he expressed wanting to try. Maybe it’s not what we want for him, but we want to respect his wishes .”

Sincere. Delusional, but sincere.

“I know it’s a difficult decision. I don’t want to push you one way or the other. If you feel Brian and your family is not ready to make a change in his long-term plans, we can revisit that at a later time-“

The vibrator on my work phone goes off. I lean over to silence the ringer.

It’s probably not an emergency.

“I’m sorry. I just want to stress to you the importance of what I’m sure we’ve spoken about already. Though we’re not sure if X would survive a cardiac arrest, we do know that he would more than likely not be the same neurologically should he survive. His body has been through too much.”

“We know.”

The vibrator on my phone goes off again. I quickly silence it.

If this nurse doesn’t stop calling me I’ll never get through this!

I start again, “If you believe he knows then I would agree with your choice to respect his wishes, but if you’re not certain that he knows that, or think that he wouldn’t want that, then I would encourage you to make a decision about change sooner than later.”

Brian’s father speaks to his spouse in Japanese. There’s a heavy silence. She responds back in Japanese. Some more silence.

I sneak a peek down at my watch when they’ve looked away. I’ve already spent more time than I had planned here, but I don’t want to look like I have.

Am I giving too much of myself to my patients? Will there be any leftover for my kid?

Am I a good wife?

“I’m so sorry your family is going through this difficult process,” I add.
The parents nod. Then more discussion in Japanese. More silence.

I hope my Mom is okay. I should call her.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I notice the parents’ tone changes. Even the silence changes. The mother is nodding, holding the father’s hand.

They’re tired.

I look over at Brian – lying motionless in his hospital bed, eyes fixed ahead at the ceiling. His silence is heavy, too.

He must be tired, too.

Or is it projection? When was my last vacation?

The silence breaks. Brian’s father speaks –

“We think that Brian would still want to remain full code even if he knew he wouldn’t be the same.”

I’m tired.

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4 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue

  1. Pingback: Compassion Fatigue | Hospice Physician’s Blog | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

    • I think all physicians have an agenda (we may or may not know this). It is difficult to separate ourselves as people and not gravitate toward one way or the other. I heard a lecture from a wise mentor who stated, professionals make recommendations all the time whether it be your accountant, exercise coach, gardener etc., therefore as a palliative care provider you present all the information and make your recommendation. For example, I have recommended compassionate extubation for someone who’s had end-stage cancer, non-responsive due to disease progression and intubated in the ICU. I think patients and families appreciate and acknowledge our experience and look to us to help guide them.

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