The unknown quantity

What determines if and when patients ‘turn the corner’? I have never understood.

In my world of acute-on-chronic disease, where patients suffer sudden and life threatening reverses, there are numerous stories of unexpected turnarounds. Our efforts to prognosticate accurately have led to many scoring systems, all of which have been ‘validated’, but when applied to individual patients who surprise you with twists and turns, their relevance appears diminished. However bad the numbers, we treat, we support, we try to save… unless the presentation comes at the end of a long and well recognised decline, and we (the patient, the family, the team) are thoroughly ‘signed up’ to palliation. That circumstance remains a rare one, despite the increasing value we give to conversations about death.

So we are guided by experience – that fickle teacher.

Last year a very sick patient came in. He struggled, we struggled; he responded to intensive care support, we felt satisfied that our decision to advocate for aggressive treatment was the right one. He deteriorated, we isolated the infection. We talked the family through it, and suggested that not give up yet. He fluctuated, weakening a little with each reverse, until… weeks later, he died. All that hope. All that work. The ‘numbers’, at one stage, had looked better. But that is the nature of the disease. Unexpected complications. Hidden infections. Sudden ruptures.

The grim picture joined the file of failures that I, and all doctors, compile in their memories from day 1. It is called experience. But the way such memories absorb the light colours our view of the present. That is the whole point of experience, of course; to change the way we approach similar circumstances in the future.

The shapes and lines of that patient’s clinical course remained etched in my mind when, months later, I recognised an almost identical scenario. Her liver function looked the same during the first week. Her slide into an intensive care bed occurred over similar interval. I was ‘guarded’ in my prognosis, but I knew what was going to happen here. I knew. The road home presented too many traps and potholes for her body to negotiate, given the advanced nature of her disease. Any and each of them could kill her in a few hours. As time passed, her clinical course described the usual sinusoidal curve. The downslopes were not catastrophic enough to justify withdrawal, and the upward gradients were not sufficiently sustained to launch a bid for convalescence.

We reacted to each complication with urgency. Our policy was unchanged – treat, support, save. But my heart was not really in it. I did not have hope. I know I communicated that to trainees. Those muttered opinions as we walked out of intensive care. But at no point did we hesitate or withhold. And time passed.

Until… she returned to the ward. She turned the corner. She had climbed far enough up the hill for the swirling, sucking mists of death to no longer have a hold on her. Then she went home.

A trainee asked, “You know _____? I thought you said the chances of her surviving were…” I stopped her there, and turned the case into a occasion to teach on the subject of uncertainty. 

Is it a ‘survival gene’? Poor science. Then what? We do not know. Probably, luck is involved. When such large unknowns are involved, when the rules that underlie our attempted predictions appear unfixed, pattern recognition can lead to erroneous conclusions. Sometimes it’s better just to treat, support, stand back, and try not to outthink the disease… hoping that they turn the corner.

 

See also, Patterns and pride: diary of a medical anecdote

 

 

portfolio

Click image to explore all the author’s writing projects.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s