Thursday, December 28, 2006

DeBakey's surgery

It is sometimes said you should be able to teach an entire Bioethics course from the stories that appear in your local daily paper, but it is also sometimes the case that you could teach the course from a single article. Once such article is "The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery" in the Christmas-day edition of The New York Times.

The gist of the story is pretty straightforward. Last Dec. 31, DeBakey, then 97 years old, was working at home

when a sharp pain ripped through his upper chest and between his shoulder blades, then moved into his neck.

Dr. DeBakey, one of the most influential heart surgeons in history, assumed his heart would stop in a few seconds.

“It never occurred to me to call 911 or my physician,” Dr. DeBakey said, adding: “As foolish as it may appear, you are, in a sense, a prisoner of the pain, which was intolerable. You’re thinking, What could I do to relieve myself of it. If it becomes intense enough, you’re perfectly willing to accept cardiac arrest as a possible way of getting rid of the pain.”

His heart didn't stop, and his self-diagnosis shifted to another life-threatening condition, a dissecting aortic aneurysm. Ironically, he pioneered the surgical procedure for correcting such conditions. Now, it appeared, he would have his own procedure performed on himself. And, one year later, he is the oldest patient ever to survive the procedure.

Nice story, but that's not the end of it. Lawrence Altman is too good a doctor and too experienced a medical journalist not to notice the other strands of this tale:

[B]eyond the medical advances, Dr. DeBakey’s story is emblematic of the difficulties that often accompany care at the end of life. It is a story of debates over how far to go in treating someone so old, late-night disputes among specialists about what the patient would want, and risky decisions that, while still being argued over, clearly saved Dr. DeBakey’s life.

It is also a story of Dr. DeBakey himself, a strong-willed pioneer who at one point was willing to die, concedes he was at times in denial about how sick he was and is now plowing into life with as much zest and verve as ever.


  • DeBakey himself did not want the operation. He did not check into the hospital for nearly a month. After he did, he had a DNR order on his chart and a progress note that indicated he did not want surgery for the dissecting aortic aneurysm. How, then, did he get the surgery (and the continuous resuscitation that went along with the surgery), apparently against his wishes? (And would the result have been any different if he had executed an advance directive that forbade surgery?)
  • The hospital ethics committee got involved. The question was apparently whether to follow DeBakey's stated wishes or the contrary instructions of his spouse. Lay people are often surprised that family members are taken seriously when they attempt to override a patient's medical choices, but they are, often to the point of an ethics consult to try to reconcile the family to the patient's wishes. This time, the ethics committee decided the spouse's wishes should prevail. Altman doesn't report their reasons, but the outcome ran against his reported preferences. As Altman reports, "Dr. DeBakey says that he refused admission to Methodist Hospital, in part because he did not want to be confined and he 'was hopeful that this was not as bad as I first thought.' He feared the operation that he had developed to treat this condition might, at his age, leave him mentally or physically crippled. 'I’d rather die,' he said."

    These are usually decisions we allow a competent patient to make for himself. The flip side of the coin, however, is that once he was admitted, and after his condition worsened and his doctors recommended surgery, he said he wanted to re-evaluate the situation in a couple of days, which certainly suggests that he was willing to depart from the "no surgery" position he took at the time of his admission. Also, Altman reports:

    Each of Dr. DeBakey’s doctors had worked with him for more than 20 years. One, Dr. Pool, said they felt they knew Dr. DeBakey well enough to answer another crucial question from the ethics committee: As his physicians, what did they believe he would choose for himself in such a dire circumstance if he had the ability to make that decision?

    Dr. Noon said that Dr. DeBakey had told him it was time for nature to take its course, but also told him that the doctors had “to do what we need to do.” Members of Dr. DeBakey’s medical team said they interpreted the statements differently. Some thought he meant that they should do watchful waiting, acting only if conditions warranted; others thought it meant he wanted to die.
    DeBakey's condition continued to deteriorate, though, and he became unresponsive and was close to death before he could make his "re-evaluation." Under those circumstances, and with a life hanging in the balance, it was proper for the hospital's ethics committee to convene to decide whether there was sufficient evidence that he might have agreed to the operation to justify ignoring his prior statements.
  • The home care he received for three weeks, with occasional trips to the hospital for imaging to measure the size of the aneurysm, was a departure from the standard of care: "In providing the extraordinary home care, the doctors were respecting the wishes of Dr. DeBakey and their actions reflected their awe of his power." VIP medicine is usually discussed in medical school as a risk -- it often involves departures from standards and procedures that work far more often than not. VIP medicine, contrary to its connotation, is not usually better medicine but just the opposite. In DeBakey's case, it sounds as though he got a pretty high level of "home care" and that it was far from suboptimal. Still, time and distance would have separated his home from the operating room had he needed a procedure on an emergent basis, an increased risk that resulted from his insistence that he not be admitted and his doctors' decision to acquiesce to a preference other, less fearsome patients would not have been allowed to make.
  • None of the anesthesiologists at Methodist Hospital were willing to participate in the surgery in light of his age and condition. Eventually an anesthesiologist from a different hospital put him to sleep. I've always marveled at the ability of surgeons and, in this case, anesthesiologists to unilateral refuse to perform a procedure when they think a patient is not a candidate for surgery. When did they acquire this right? When did medical docs lose it? The chancellor of the medical center is reported to have been stunned by their decision, one that he says he had never heard of before. (I'm stunned that he was stunned.) What does seem stunning, though, was the reported fact that none of the demurring anesthesiologists had been involved in his care so far and none had reviewed his medical record, so that their refusal was based upon "grapevine information." Maybe all they thought they needed to know was that the patient was 97 years old and on death's doorstep to conclude that his post-surgical prognosis, even with the best of care, was dismal. And maybe they would have had more going for their conclusion if they had reviewed his records before refusing.

    Other interesting questions arose. As reported by Dr. Altman, the "other anesthesiologist" was Dr. Salwa Shenaq from the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran Affairs Medical Center, who had worked with Dr. DeBakey for 22 years:

    She said that a medical staff officer, whom she declined to name, warned her that she could be charged with assault if she touched Dr. DeBakey. The officer also told Dr. Shenaq that she could not give Dr. DeBakey anesthesia because she did not have Methodist Hospital privileges. She made it clear that she did, she said.
  • The cost of his care "easily exceeded $1 million," and neither the hospital nor the physicians involved paid for his care. Professional courtesy? Who benefited from the professional courtesy? His insurer, probably. Who paid? Everyone else who paid for care at the hospital, through the increasingly difficult phenomenon of cross-subsidization, and others who might have benefited from alternative uses of that money, to the extent it came off Methodist's bottom line.
  • Ethics committees spend a lot of time trying to divine patients' wishes. State laws require that very serious consideration be given to formal expressions of a patient's treatment and nontreatment preferences, with penalties for failing to do so. And yet, as the academic literature occasionally points out, patients' actual preferences frequently depart from their prior statements. That seems to be exactly the situation with Dr. DeBakey:

    As he recovered and Dr. DeBakey learned what had happened, he told his doctors he was happy they had operated on him. The doctors say they were relieved because they had feared he regretted their decision.

    “If they hadn’t done it, I’d be dead,” he said.

    The doctors and family had rolled the dice and won.

    Dr. DeBakey does not remember signing an order saying not to resuscitate him and now thinks the doctors did the right thing.

    Doctors, he said, should be able to make decisions in such cases, without committees.
posted by tommayo, 12:15 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter