When death is not the end

gazette

This week’s report about a nurse being disciplined for failing to ‘revive’ a clearly deceased nursing home resident, has caused consternation. According to the description given, the woman was ‘yellow, waxy, almost cold’. But a rule mandated that the nurse on duty should commence basic life support and call an ambulance. For her to be punished seems perverse*.

The big fail here is not so much the rule (which is to maximise safety and ensure that no opportunities are lost to reverse acute deterioration), but the fact that the woman did not have a community DNACPR order. Such an oversight could be written about at length, and the difficulties doctors, families and patients have discussing the subject have been explored on this blog.

The other problem this case reveals is our general confusion about the transition between life and death. There is a phase in dying, perhaps fifteen minutes (longer if hypothermic – I am happy to be corrected) where vigorous efforts to restart the heart might result in more life and acceptable cerebral function. For this to happen, the heart and other organs need to be in reasonable condition. If death was sudden, re-opening a coronary artery might be all that is required. But if the patient had been ailing for a year, or succumbed to a spreading cancer, nothing will work.

So, when a nurse or a member of the public comes across a seemingly dead person, what tells them whether it is right to start basic life support, or respectfully cover their face? If the situation is at all unclear, it seems there is only one defensible answer – try to resuscitate.

When I did Advanced Cardiac Life Support training years ago I was fascinated (and disgusted) by a paragraph in the manual that described situations where resuscitation was clearly inappropriate. These included decapitation and separation of the body into two halves (sorry to make you queasy, that’s what it said; I’m not sure if the current version still includes this). It may have mentioned rigor mortis. But it did not talk about the ‘waxy’ or ‘almost cold’ person.

Faced with such ambiguity, people are quick to refer back to earlier times, when community doctors or wise neighbours were called to see people in their homes, whereupon they calmly observed that the patient had died and that there was nothing more to be done. Now, such acceptance can only occur if, prior to death, there has been a series of clear discussions and agreements (all documented) regarding resuscitation, transfer to hospital, or escalation of care.

This has come about because modern medical techniques can do much to delay death. The burden of heroic interventions has to be considered of course, hence the need to think about such things before they happen. However, the medical reflex is to treat and save. The reflex applies to all people by default, even those who appear too frail to benefit. Thus, the nursing home has a ‘reflex’ that patients found unconscious and without a pulse should be rushed to hospital unless there is a DNACPR order in place.

This evolution in our ability to preserve life has diminished the validity of the experienced nurse’s, or lay-person’s, impression. He or she is no longer trusted to recognise established death. In the case reported this week, the diagnosis of death was, presumably, only valid if made by paramedics, or by the A&E doctors who might have received her (intubated, cannulated, perhaps with intraosseous access lines protruding from both shins).

There is an argument that only those who have been trained to certify death should be allowed to bear the responsibility, and it is interesting to note that the nurse in this report has subsequently received such training. However, a part of me wonders how it is that death, which has been part of our experience since homo sapiens began spread across the globe, is still such a mystery that one needs to go on a course to recognise it.

Most ward nurses, or trainee doctors who have led a crash team, will have been in a similar situation. From a doctor’s point of view – the crash call goes out, you run to the ward, and observe nursing colleagues performing basic life support. Collateral information soon paints a fuller picture – the patient was last seen alive four hours ago; they were ‘stone cold’ when the nurse came to routine observations at 6AM; clearly, the patient died peacefully in their sleep. But, in the absence of a DNACPR order, a crash call had to go out. As the medical registrar you must now decide whether to call the resuscitation attempt off immediately, or continue for a few minutes just to make sure that there is no return of spontaneous circulation (a heartbeat and a pulse). Most doctors in this situation continue until they are sure the patient is truly dead, as they will not have known the patient and do not feel confident in stopping the attempt immediately. Some of the reasoning here is defensive. You could be criticised for saying ‘stop’ without having gone through the algorithm.

It seems to me that there is still a place for the healthcare worker’s common sense opinion, especially if they know the patient – ‘She has died, let’s ring the next of kin… no, don’t call the ambulance, don’t start compressions. They have died.’

Recent BMA/resuscitation council guidelines do, to some extent, take such ‘common sense’ into account –

…there will be cases where healthcare professionals discover patients with features of irreversible death – for example, rigor mortis. In such circumstances, any healthcare professional who makes a carefully considered decision not to start CPR should be supported by their senior colleagues, employers and professional bodies’. [see previous post on this here]

Despite this, and even with the support of medical colleagues, while nurses feel vulnerable to censure, only those with great confidence will risk not calling the crash team when they find a dead patient.

 

* We have very few details, so the arguments and conclusions drawn from the case here are generalised

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