Nitin Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
New York Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY 10065
Saturday morning finds me in my favorite coffee shop in the West Village reflecting on the week that went by. It was a long week, even by my standards and I am happy to have the time to sit down and reflect on it. The week also saw me confronted with a moral and ethical delimma. Electroencephalogram (EEG) (this is a test to look at the brain waves) monitoring was requested for prognostication purposes on a patient in the intensive care unit. Patient had suffered multiple strokes and was on a mechanical ventilator. The purpose of getting the EEG was to get an idea of the extent of his cerebral dysfunction. His EEG showed some slowing of brain waves but otherwise surprisingly looked “good” given the extent of pathology in the brain and the fact that he was comatosed.
His wife tearfully was considering termination of care. Patient had a living will, in which he had clearly made his wishes apparent that he did not wish to live in a state where he was dependent on others, bed-bound and unable to participate in activities of daily living. Objectively as a doctor I knew he was not brain dead, my neurological examination told me that. I did know that his chances of a meaningful neurological recovery were very poor and likely he was heading to a persistent vegetative state (read more about PVS on my website http://braindiseases.info).
His wife had justifiably struggled to come to the decision of termination of care of her beloved husband. Next day when she finally made her decision to terminate care, the patient was noted to wince to pain as she walked into his room…..
There started the moral and ethical delimma for everyone, his wife as well as us doctors. Can we ever prognosticate sufficiently about the extent of someone’s neurological recovery? Can we ever be 100% sure about the extent of someone’s neurological recovery especially if we are attempting to make that decision soon after the neurological insult. Various neurological papers have attempted to answer this vexing question. We do have some leads. We know that a patient who loses brainstem reflexes such as pupillary light reflex (shine a light into the pupils and the pupils constrict) shall have a universally poor outcome. Tests like MRI brain, EEG and evoked potentials further help us in prognostication.
But what does meaningful neurological recovery mean to the patient, his family and to us doctors? To us doctors it means being independent in activities of daily living, a patient conscious and alert and productive member of society. We have scales to help us grade this recovery. But meaningful neurological recovery might have a completely different meaning for the patient and his family. For his wife, the very fact that her husband is alive, someone she can reach out and touch may mean the world. True along with that shall come the burdens of caregiving.
Now what about the patient? True our patient made a living will, a will made when he was fully alert and in control of his senses. He made his choices known. But did he plan for a situation like this? He is critically ill and the doctors are not certain what his chances for a meaningful neurological recovery are. Would he have liked to have his life sustanied if the answer was not black or white but a shade of grey?
The more I reflect on this, the more I realise that life is never simple and there are seldom easy answers. The struggle continues…..