I was one of the lucky ones this year and was not working on Christmas Day. After my shift on Christmas Eve I fed the cat, packed up the car with presents and headed to my brother’s house. Waiting for me was a glass of mulled wine, and a hug. Christmas Day was lovely and it was with a heavy heart that I left my family and battled the driving rain in order to get back to London for my night shift on Boxing Day. My feelings of dread were not misplaced: the shift was tough. But most of my shifts have been tough of late. I am in the midst of a six month rotation on ICU (the intensive care unit), having left the familiarity of the acute medical ward and the outpatient clinic, replacing them with a world of ventilators, alarms and intense emotions. I am used to hard work, but I find intensive care physically and emotionally exhausting. It has taken me by surprise just how difficult it is to get through the weeks and I have begun to realise that this is primarily due to a concern that not everything I am going is ‘the right thing’.
I spent a large proportion of Boxing Day night with a single patient. He was intubated and ventilated when I met him, so I found it difficult to engage with him as anything more than a body in a bed – a constant challenge for me on ICU. I spent the night watching his organs fail and escalating his treatment: I performed fluid challenge after fluid challenge; added inotropes and vasopressors and maximised their doses; corrected his electrolytes; gave bicarbonate in an attempt to improve his acidosis; watched his urine output fall to nothing and started haemofiltration. He did not improve. During the day shift whilst I was at home asleep he had a cardiac arrest. CPR was performed which led to return of a pulse. I returned and continued to try to fix his physiology, but it was futile. We all knew it. He died attached to machines and monitors: oedematous, battered and bruised. It is not a death I would wish on anyone. He had presented with an acute problem which warranted aggressive treatment but as all treatments failed it rapidly became clear he would not survive. And yet we continued. And performed CPR. And still continued. I do not know what he would have wanted, but this is not what I or his nurse wanted.
He was not the only patient I felt uncomfortable about that night. As I proceeded around the ward, inserting needles and lines, changing ventilator settings, sedating and paralysing those whose numbers were wrong, more than once I did so with gritted teeth. Many of my patients had not arrived in ICU after a sudden unexpected event like a stabbing or a car accident, but as the result of chronic disease and advanced age. More than once I asked myself whether I was saving lives, or prolonging death.
I am sure my unit is no different to any other. I am also aware that I rarely see the results of good outcomes. Some patients do make near-miraculous recoveries. Patients with severe head injuries leave the unit alive and breathing but unable to speak or walk – I do not see them after months of rehab when they are leading happy, productive lives. I also know that many of the senior physicians are expert is discussing limits of care, realistic prognoses and withdrawal of invasive treatment. But these conversations happen too late. Too many patients with chronic disease arrive in ICU without ever having considered what they would want if they became severely unwell. Too few people understand what ICU is, and what can and cannot be achieved by expensive machines. Too few people express their wishes in advance, and so the default is always to treat, treat, treat, and when there is no hope left, treat some more. A quote from Atul Gawande’s book from an ICU physician sadly rang true when she complained she was running “a warehouse for the dying.”
In this context it was with great interest that I read a number of studies into ‘moral distress’ suffered by ICU staff. Moral distress is described as the angst of feeling trapped between “what people think they ought to do, and what they’re compelled to do.” Moral distress is studied to a greater degree in nurses, and is perhaps more common in nurses than doctors, due to perceived powerlessness in the hierarchy. It is recognised that moral distress is a complex phenomena, dependant not only on an individual’s beliefs, but also the context in which he or she practices and the support structures that exist. A number of factors are contributory, including end-of-life controversies such as inconsistent care plans and families demanding that aggressive treatments are initiated or continued when all hope for recovery is gone. Perceptions of futile interventions were highly correlated with moral distress, and increased with duration of experience in ICU. Reading these studies was reassuring, as others experience the same phenomena as I have been, and also concerning, that such distress is relatively common. Most studies suggest processes or interventions to ensure staff can voice their concerns and feelings, in order to reduce distress. This certainly happens on an informal basis on my unit, where colleagues are open, honest and supportive, and on a formal basis during morbidity and mortality meetings (although it now strikes me that only doctors are present at these meetings). However, we do not have Schwartz rounds, or an equivalent and I wonder what effect they would have when the fundamental problem, a lack of advance care planning, still exists.
Of course it is difficult and upsetting to talk about death. Death itself is upsetting. But we are all heading there, and not talking about it is damaging us all. Doctors need to better equip themselves for talking to their patients about what happens at the end, and what their priorities are. And patients need to feel more empowered to make their wishes known. I have met patients who want every possible invasive intervention until the second they die. I may disagree with their choice personally, but would fully support it as a professional. But I have met many more who, given the choice, have clear ideas on what they do and don’t want and where, for them, dignity and quality of life become more important than more time. I am sure a significant number of patients who have died on my ICU in the last two months would have chosen a different death.
I have four months left in ICU and a lot more to learn about ventilation modes, renal replacement therapy, and inotropes. But more importantly I have a lot more to learn about death, decision making and dealing with my own moral distress.