When the nurse told me "less is more"

I was called to the emergency room to admit a very ill patient. With sepsis and an MI, this frail elder probably wasn't going to do so well.

“He’s pretty sick, eh?”
“Yah. Poor guy.”

The nurse and I paused, resigned to the fact that this elderly man was nearing his end and there was little we could do to change that. I think we both sighed at the same time.

I entered the room and talked to the patient and the family at length. They showed me a photocopy of the DNR form he had signed years ago. He didn't have any kind of advance directive, and had rarely talked about the process of dying, aspects of medical treatment, or what his goals might be for the remainder of his life.

At home, he spent most of is time in bed. Mobility was a bit shaky with a walker so it was safer to stay put. Poor hearing, shoddy vision, and mild dementia made it nearly impossible for him to read or watch TV or to do much of anything, really. He still beamed during visits from the grandkids. His daughter told me that she thinks he had been depressed for a long time; every second day he would say that he was ready to die.

I stepped closer to him. The laboured breathing didn’t look any better close up. He did have the breath to tell me, “I’m dying.” When I discussed the various range of treatments from comfort care (treating pain and respiratory distress), to medical management (antibiotics, blood thinners), to aggressive medical therapy (maybe some non-invasive support for breathing), he said that he wanted to die.

Was he just feeling terrible because his heart had jammed from the strain of fighting off a systemic infection, something that would be exhausting and uncomfortable even on its own? Or was this an expression of considered hope for an end to his now languid existence?

It wasn’t easy to communicate clearly or in detail. I asked more questions, but he said little. Even with a raised voice, I don’t know if he could hear me. His family was uncertain about what he would want done. It was clear that anything aggressive was not right. With failed kidneys, I’d have to give an IV blood thinner (heparin infusion) with up to 4x a day lab tests to prevent worsening of the heart attack. His breathing might get worse and if so, could be helped by strapping a machine on his face to push and pull air in and out of his lungs. That seemed cruel.

But, should I still offer some minimally invasive things that might improve both quality and quantity of life? Antibiotics might help the breathing to get easier and give him a chance of surviving. But this might also just delay the inevitable, prolonging suffering.

I try not to be wishy-washy and give patients and families clear recommendations, but it is hard. When people’s values vary so widely, and there are several avenues that might be appropriate, I don’t feel I can make the decisions for them.

I try really hard not to push my belief in “less is more medicine” too far. I don't want patients to be denied opportunity for healing and improvement. Just as I feel very strongly about doing less of the unnecessary things and interventions that will give more harm than benefit, I also feel very strongly that patients should have timely and meaningful opportunity to have the tests and treatments that might really benefit them.

“What do you think he would want? Is that consistent with his wishes? . . . ”

After I finished talking to the patient's family, I confirmed the plan with the nurse. We would keep the antibiotics and a few heart medications, but for the most part emphasize comfort. I left orders for adequate medications for pain, respiratory distress, and restlessness, to be used regularly if needed. If he got worse, we would stop the antibiotics. I didn’t think they would really help him but his family wanted to try. Although they would not want to extend his distress, it was all pretty sudden and not treating potentially reversible things was different than ensuring he was comfortable while dying (when no reversible causes remained).

It felt like we had arrived at some understanding of the medical reality, the patient’s wishes, and the substitute decision makers’ needs. As I discussed this and explained to the nurse that it wasn't maximum medical therapy but that it seemed a reasonable approach. Nurses, especially those who've got experience under their belt, seem to have a kind of wisdom that comes from the direct care of patients like these.

She looked at me and said "well, you know, less is more."

My colleague, an ER-physician who was in the same residency program as me and knows my passion, was within earshot. She chuckled.

A big smile stretched across my face, and I started looking at my list to find the next patient.