The only thing I had to do was to help Jerry and I failed

I have failed Jerry, and now I’m replaying every word I ever said in my head, over and over, the whole exercise consuming my being.

Jerry was not old. He just turned sixty, a good few decades of retirement awaiting him. Then, he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. It seemed that he had spent his entire life working up to that moment, only to be stolen away unjustly, by a cancer that drowned him slowly in his own oral secretions. Jerry had been in the hospital for months, battling recurrent aspiration pneumonia that caused nasty sepsis. He frequented the intensive care unit, had a feeding tube placed along with a stent in his esophagus to remedy a fistula to his trachea, a communication caused by a large tumor burden in his chest.

I met Jerry the day before he died. Jerry was in bed under a tangle of wires, breathing quickly, gasping for air with every available muscle in his chest. He was distressed, decompensating from another ravaging aspiration pneumonia, blood pressure non-existent. I was supposed to help Jerry, as a responder from the intensive care unit. The only thing I had to do was to help Jerry and I failed.

I asked for labs and a stat chest X-ray. I was told by his inpatient doctor that Jerry was full code, meaning Jerry wanted anything and everything done, including a tube down his throat and compressions that would break his ribs, interventions that were becoming more and more realistic for Jerry. I waded through a throng of nurses poking for veins and grabbed his hand. I asked for his wishes, again, wanting to make sure I knew what he wanted for himself. I asked Jerry if he would want to be intubated – he shook his head and said no, with the perplexity of a schoolboy who was offered a rotten piece of Jello that he had already refused. Jerry seemed to have given extensive thought to this piece of Jello, and after multiple rounds decided that he would not want Jello for himself.

Still, I was not sure if Jerry was thinking clearly in his severe illness. I asked if he would want his wife to make decisions for him, seeing that Jerry was already working so hard to keep himself oxygenated. He nodded, with immense fatigue, then went back to focus on his breathing, his staying alive. I found his wife, crying and beside herself. I felt cruel when I asked her what Jerry would have wanted – what a burden I placed on her. The word unfair was an understatement. How can she agree to the tube if Jerry hates it? How can she refuse the tube if it’s the only thing that will keep the love of her life breathing longer?

She produced a piece of paper – Jerry’s living will. It said that Jerry did not want artificial respiration, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, artificial nutrition that would prolong his life. It said so in capital letters. The last sentence read, “these decisions are made when I am sound of mind.”  He signed it on February 20, 2012 – 6 months ago.

I was relieved. I thanked Jerry he made a living will. I could guide Jerry’s wife through this difficult process, having an idea of what he wanted. I was angry. If Jerry coded before I found this piece of paper, I would have done everything that Jerry did not want. The covering inpatient doctor did not know why his living will was not found or discussed on admission.

Jerry’s wife was broken, in despair. Her daughter asked her to keep Jerry alive while rushing in to the hospital. She pulled at her hair. She heavily sobbed. She begged me, begged the world and Jerry, not to make her choose. I sat her on a chair, hoping to provide some comfort, and told her that we would not intubate or perform chest compressions on Jerry – the medical team changed his code status to DNR/DNI. Luckily, even though Jerry was breathing quickly, his oxygen saturation was holding. For now an optimist could hope that Jerry would not require intubation. Jerry did not discuss pressors on his living will – most people do not. Pressors would keep Jerry’s blood pressure up in the setting of sepsis, but a central line required to administer pressors is poked through the neck, a procedure with its own set of risks and discomfort. I talked to Jerry, his wife talked to Jerry, and we agreed that Jerry wanted pressors. Jerry came with me to the intensive care unit.

The next few hours was wrong, was when I failed Jerry. He maxed out on levophed, tiring out from tachypnea, secretions building up and drowning him. Jerry was actively dying. His daughter, now at bedside, asked about intubation. She said Jerry had been intubated before, despite his living will. I asked how, and she was not sure if the living will was discussed with his doctors then. I said I did not know where Jerry would land if he were intubated, avoiding projections with my limited experience, but I said there was a good chance that once placed, the tube would not be successfully removed. Jerry might be stuck on the ventilator – a horrible way to die for someone who specifically stated, when he was sound of mind, that he would not want to die on the tube. Jerry’s wife agreed, while his daughter looked on, not saying a word, tired and holding her tongue. I told them my critical care attending was coming in – he could discuss intubation in more details with them.

By the time the attending stepped in, Jerry was out cold, no longer conscious but struggling to breathe all the same. Maybe out of experience, maybe out of comfort with aggressive medical care, maybe out of sympathy for his wife, imagining how heart-breaking it must be to watch her love drown, my attending offered intubation to the family. We can always back off, he said. It was the only tangible hope in a sea of despair and the family took it. I wondered if they took it for Jerry or for themselves, but who can fault family members, regardless of what they choose? His wife loved Jerry and wanted the best for him. She was deciding the only way she knew how, making earth-shattering choices for the first time in her life for Jerry, without Jerry.

The gamble did not pay off, for anyone. No one could know in a few hours Jerry would max out on 3 pressors, now with a breathing tube that did not do anything for him. Jerry was dead, had been dead long before the time when his heart would eventually stop. The Jerry that the world knew was dead. The-accomplished-pharmacist-who-regularly-hugs-his-wife-Jerry had left the world. The body on the hospital bed accepted breaths initiated by the ventilator, but once his heart and lungs finally gave out, chest compressions and electrical shock would not fix the sepsis within. Jerry would eventually die. He could not be saved.

And I have failed. I failed to save Jerry from the breathing tube, even though he told me clearly what to do. I failed to save his wife from the guilt that she may ruminate on, increasingly over time, wondering if she made the right choice for Jerry, and  there would be no resolutions to that doubt because we would never know what happened if Jerry was not intubated. My only hope for her was that Jerry would know every decision was made out of love, that there was no blame, that he understood and loved her all the same. In the end the sepsis overwhelmed Jerry and there were no more pressors to give. The breathing tube was never withdrawn.

“angienadia” is an internal medicine physician who blogs at
Primary Dx.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Michele

    I’m a nurse, I’ve worked as a nurse for over 25 years, and I have seen many times that families, in a last act of desperation, do what this family did. You fear that his wife may feel guilty because of that decision, but if he wasn’t intubated, she may have always wondered what would have happened, would he have survived the infection if he could have been spared the effort of breathing on his own. It seems to me that you need to cut yourself some slack. Give yourself credit for taking the time to find the living will, for asking the questions that are so hard to ask, and for doing your best to honor Jerry’s wishes. And while I really don’t think you need me to give you an excuse to forgive yourself, ultimately it was your superior, the attending physician, who gave them the option. I hope that as your patient was no longer conscious, that he didn’t suffer. I have witnessed many patients who “linger” far longer than anyone would have thought possible, in fact intubating him may have not had any effect on when his heart stopped and his body died, a mystery we can never know. You seem like a caring, kind, conscientious, intelligent, doctor and human being. Forgive yourself. You didn’t fail Jerry. You did what you could under tragic circumstances. The best you can do is to remember him, and to honor that memory through your work, and by continuing to respect your patients and their families.

Most Popular