THE NEW YORKER
What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?
by Atul Gawande August 2, 2010
An extract: Part 6
I spoke to an oncologist who told me about a twenty-nine-year-old patient she had recently cared for who had an inoperable brain tumor that continued to grow through second-line chemotherapy. The patient elected not to attempt any further chemotherapy, but getting to that decision required hours of discussion—for this was not the decision he had expected to make.
First, the oncologist said, she had a discussion with him alone. They reviewed the story of how far he’d come, the options that remained. She was frank. She told him that in her entire career she had never seen third-line chemotherapy produce a significant response in his type of brain tumor. She had looked for experimental therapies, and none were truly promising. And, although she was willing to proceed with chemotherapy, she told him how much strength and time the treatment would take away from him and his family.
He did not shut down or rebel. His questions went on for an hour. He asked about this therapy and that therapy. And then, gradually, he began to ask about what would happen as the tumor got bigger, the symptoms he’d have, the ways they could try to control them, how the end might come.
The oncologist next met with the young man together with his family. That discussion didn’t go so well. He had a wife and small children, and at first his wife wasn’t ready to contemplate stopping chemo. But when the oncologist asked the patient to explain in his own words what they’d discussed, she understood. It was the same with his mother, who was a nurse. Meanwhile, his father sat quietly and said nothing the entire time.
A few days later, the patient returned to talk to the oncologist. “There should be something. There must be something,” he said. His father had shown him reports of cures on the Internet. He confided how badly his father was taking the news. No patient wants to cause his family pain. According to Block, about two-thirds of patients are willing to undergo therapies they don’t want if that is what their loved ones want.
The oncologist went to the father’s home to meet with him. He had a sheaf of possible trials and treatments printed from the Internet. She went through them all. She was willing to change her opinion, she told him. But either the treatments were for brain tumors that were very different from his son’s or else he didn’t qualify. None were going to be miraculous. She told the father that he needed to understand: time with his son was limited, and the young man was going to need his father’s help getting through it.
The oncologist noted wryly how much easier it would have been for her just to prescribe the chemotherapy. “But that meeting with the father was the turning point,” she said. The patient and the family opted for hospice. They had more than a month together before he died. Later, the father thanked the doctor. That last month, he said, the family simply focussed on being together, and it proved to be the most meaningful time they’d ever spent.
Given how prolonged some of these conversations have to be, many people argue that the key problem has been the financial incentives: we pay doctors to give chemotherapy and to do surgery, but not to take the time required to sort out when doing so is unwise. This certainly is a factor. (The new health-reform act was to have added Medicare coverage for these conversations, until it was deemed funding for “death panels” and stripped out of the legislation.) But the issue isn’t merely a matter of financing. It arises from a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is—what, in other words, we should and should not be paying for doctors to do.
The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.
More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.” All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time—just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain driven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.