Think medical success stories and you may envision life-saving heroics in a trauma center. Or a brilliant diagnosis of a patient’s rare illness. Or maybe a laboratory researcher who finds a new cancer treatment.
All valid successes.
But recently I was reminded that success in health care can take more modest forms.
Last week the father of a close friend took a sudden turn for the worse. He was an 85-year-old veteran of the Korean War, a Phillies fan, a man who worked all his life in a range of jobs — as a supermarket manager, a custodian, a gas station attendant.
He had five children and tons of grandchildren and was still living at home when his family took him to Kennedy Health System in South Jersey. He quickly was diagnosed with global sepsis, a life-threatening infection.
As my friend told me, the physician sat the family down and with compassion, kindness and honesty explained the graveness of their dad’s condition. She explained what sepsis does to an elderly patient and although they would start antibiotics she told them their father was not expected to live more than a day or possibly two.
The doctor made sure everyone had a chair for the discussions, even as the large family crowded into a consultation room. She told the adult children and grandchildren they could stay in Dad’s room at the hospital as long as they wanted.
The doctor explained what they could expect. At one point, she advised administering more morphine. The family was surprised. Didn’t their dad appear to be sleeping comfortably? No, the doctor explained. She showed them signs that his breathing was labored, from the stomach, and that more morphine would make him more comfortable.
The doctor was patient and explained everything that was happening in language they could understand. Someone from the hospital delivered a family comfort basket with snacks and some sweets.
At the end, the family was with their dad to say their goodbyes. There was no heroic cure but the family members nonetheless were deeply appreciative of the respect and kindness they each received and they were grateful their dad’s dignity was preserved.
In New Jersey, we spend more dollars at the end of life than almost any other state. We will see more doctors, get more tests, and spend more days in the ICU at the end of life than patients in almost any other state.
Yet we are seeing signs of change. At the Quality Institute, we started Conversation of Lifetime, a program of our Mayors Wellness Campaign, that brings communities together to talk about end-of-life issues. We distribute Conversation of a Lifetime ToolKits to help families understand their options and create Advance Directives.
Conversation of a Lifetime is now in Camden County, where my friend lives, and I know the family had one of our ToolKits. I don’t know if our program made a difference, but I do know that doctors, nurses, advocates, administrators and communities all around New Jersey are demanding that people’s wishes at the end of their lives be respected.
Change is slow, but it seems to have arrived in Camden County, New Jersey.