J. R. was an auto mechanic of French Canadian descent with a perfectly square gap between his two front teeth and the slightly off-kilter face of a retired boxer. Soon after I met him on the surgical ward, after he had been found to have cancer, he developed a habit of planting himself in front of me whenever I got within 100 feet of his room, to spin stories about his life, wax poetic about his girlfriend, and offer free auto-repair advice.
I thought we had caught the tumor in J. R.’s colon early, but in the operating room we found that the cancer had grown into his pelvic sidewalls. After surgery, when I began to tell him that some of his cancer remained, he stopped me. “Hey, Doc,” he said. “I know I’m going to be fine because you did my surgery.”
J. R. sent me a Christmas card that year, but I could not bring myself to write back. I told myself that I was too busy, when in fact I was afraid to acknowledge that J. R. was dying. Patient deaths, for many doctors, represent a kind of failure, and so without really thinking, we look the other way.
I am not the only doctor who has had difficulty dealing with dying patients. Researchers who in the mid-1990s observed more than 9,000 seriously ill patients in five American teaching hospitals found substantial shortcomings in the care of the dying. More than a third spent at least 10 of their last days in intensive care. Among patients who remained conscious until death, half suffered moderate to severe pain. And fewer than half of their physicians knew whether or not their patients wanted to avoid cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The researchers then made a multimillion-dollar effort to improve communication between patients and doctors on end-of-life care. They generated frequent reports to physicians on patients’ expected survival and hired specially trained nurses to talk with patients, families, physicians and hospital staff about prognoses, pain control and advance care planning.