How Mr. Jones Died

Mr. Jones was 83-years-old when he died. He came to us by ambulance from with shortness of breath beginning a little after lunch. He was from a nursing home; he had the alphabet soup of morbidities: CHF, CVA, NIDDM, CAD, COPD  — topped off by dementia related Parkinson’s.

He had pancreatic cancer, and plainly, he was dying. His advanced directives, outlining the plan for end-of-life care stated no heroic measures, but if he became seriously ill, he was to be transported to the emergency department for evaluation.

The nursing home where he lived did just that. He went through the usual emergency department process — seen, treatment started and referred to the internist for admission — all the while obtunded and gasping for air, despite the high flow oxygen. He  was a tall man, broad-shouldered; he lay restless in the narrow emergency department stretcher, his gnarled feet hanging over the end.

A flood of patients had deluged the hospital. There were no beds upstairs. I talked with Bed Flow and we made Mr. Jones a priority for a bed. But somehow his criteria never met bed availability, and when I came back two days later, he was still in the Observation room — and still no room on the floors. I had Housekeeping look for a regular hospital bed for him. There were already three being used in the department, and the overflow of  admitted patients meant there were none to spare. The Obs room nurses provided comfort measures, did mouth care, applied barrier cream over bony prominences, repositioned every two hours. They did what they could, but in truth, they were not palliative care nurses, a unique speciality unto itself. He never opened his eyes and he died by inches. Mr. Jones finally went three days after admission. His feet were still hanging over the end as we packed him away in the body bag and sent him to the morgue.

For the nurses, who knew what care Mr. Jones deserved, the experience was distressing. For the family, it was devastating, a layer of suffering over grief. For the patient himself, we can only hope he knew little and felt less.

There is absolutely no space in the system for patients like Mr. Jones — elderly, debilitated and often requiring complex amounts of care — to die with dignity. Nursing homes, despite their demographics, are very poorly equipped and frankly don’t have the resources to deal with dying patients. They dislike having dying patients; they will send them to the emergency department even when the advanced directives explicitly state the patient is not to be transported. Emergency departments are similarly not geared for end-of-life care, even though death is something we deal with frequently. We have neither equipment nor expertise; we don’t even have ready access to expertise.

And yet the case of Mr. Jones is not exceptional. How can we ensure people can die comfortably and with dignity? It’s a problem, I think, without at quick fix, but is by no means intractable or even complicated. It means explicitly recognizing that for the majority of cases, the best place to die is not in hospital, but at home or under nursing care in the community, and providing the resources to make it possible. And if such patients must come to ED, giving us the tools to do our jobs properly, so we can provide safe, competent and ethical care. That would be a good start, and a necessary one.

Because all I can think, that might be me one day. Or you.

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  1. #1 by tinfoil2009 on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 1116

    exactly! seniors deserve to pass from life with comfort and dignity. It is serious. We all want better. Thanks for sharing the important stories that you see every day.

  2. #2 by Lisa on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 1137

    Bang on. What do we need to do to make this happen?
    Besides the facts that you point out – Isn’t an ER stay always more expensive than any other option? How do we make our government see this?
    Even for younger patients with serious conditons, palliative care is not always available and it should be. the alternatives are inhumane.

    • #3 by torontoemerg on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 1143

      ER is expensive, yes, very. But so are acute care beds — money better spent in the community which is almost always more appropriate.

  3. #4 by Raquel on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 1559

    How sad for him and his family. Was the family raising all kinds of hell? I’m sure the obs nurses did everything in their power to give him the easiest, most comfortable death possible, but those are tough circumstances. What is the solution? More hospice houses? Some of our nursing homes have hospice units. Is that done in canada?

  4. #5 by ednursesauras on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 1807

    What a sad and distressing experience for all. It is true here also, nursing homes will ship to the ER despite advanced directives not to transport. It is so often a real battle to allow the patient “comfort care” in their last hours.

  5. #6 by Sarah on Tuesday 01 February 2011 - 2016

    It saddens me that I can do so much better for the animals I love than can be done for these people.

    I hope this is never me, but I guess we don’t get to choose – because who would choose this way to die.

  6. #7 by Cartoon Characters on Friday 04 February 2011 - 0714

    I remember when my Grandmother became ill – all she wanted was to die at home with my Grampa – and the policy at her retirement center was – no one could die there unless the MD agreed to come by every day – which i didn’t understand at all. I had offered to stay with her the entire time to care for her – I was a young RN at the time – but the MD pooh-poohed the idea – saying she could take weeks to go and he couldn’t be bothered. She died in the hospital one week later..

    Now we have more hospices and nursing homes that will allow it, and families that will do it with a Palliative care program that supports dying at home…..but it’s not where it should be yet. I can see changes though, and hopefully will keep improving – but I am afraid we baby boomers are aging too quickly in too great of numbers to allow catching up……….

  7. #8 by snow black on Monday 07 February 2011 - 1831

    Off topic, but have you seen the film “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”? I got it from Netflix, and it is a riveting documentary-style depiction of the last hours of a patient being bounced around in the Romanian medical care system.

    Not to everyone’s taste, and certainly not something to lift your spirits, but sharp and occasionally funny as well as sad.

    And thank you for scaring me with the story of Mr. Jones. How in the hell do I protect my parents from this?????????? (rhetorical question)

  8. #9 by Sarah on Saturday 21 January 2012 - 1144

    I work not so far away from you in a cancer clinic – we have a procedure for our patients so that they can be direct admitted to the palliative care unit and the PCU always (yes, always) holds open one bed for direct admits. If they fill that bed then they either open up an overflow bed or transfer out a medical patient (ok, that’s another story having medical patients on PCU). If one of our patients who is in ‘the program’ shows up to emerg, the emerg docs assess them and if appropriate admits them to PCU and they go up within hours. It’s one of the things that we do well. There are other things that we don’t do well.

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