Get real: a conversation about alcohol

Moderate alcohol drinking is recognised as a major health issue. Although end-stage cirrhosis and liver failure are the most visible and tragic results of alcohol dependence/addiction, there are many more people out there who drink regularly to excess but who have no physical or mental problems with it… until an abnormal blood test or a scan brings them in front of a doctor and the cold calculation is done. Recent studies (see below) show that many diseases, not just liver damage, are linked to alcohol use, and the maximum advisable weekly limits seem to go down every few years. So the conversation with a non-alcoholic patient who nevertheless drinks too much is a common one. Finding the right approach, and the right motivation, is hard. This week there is controversy about a new ‘2 days off a week’ message, with a prominent alcohol campaigner threatening to resign from Public Health England because the alcohol industry is involved in the initiative. And today, a Guardian columnist writes about procrastination. It’s hard.

In this dialogue a 55 year old patient has had a scan that suggests significant liver damage. But he feels perfectly well. The doctor (who may not be perfect here) tries to engage…




Dr: There’s evidence of liver damage here, Mr Jones. The most likely cause is the alcohol you drink. The fibroscan result was 9.

Patient: You think I’m an alcoholic?

Dr: No, you’re clearly not addicted as such, or ‘dependent’, but you drink enough to have caused damage to your liver. The scan is pretty accurate. [↓]


Fibroscan: a painless and non-invasive way of measuring the ‘stiffness’ of the liver, which equates to the amount of scar tissue (fibrosis). Severe scarring causing cirrhosis, and this can lead to liver failure, cancer, transplantation or death. The fibroscan provides a number, or score. Over 9 suggests you have developed serious liver scarring.


Patient: How do I stop it?

Dr: (Is this a serious question?) You need to stop drinking.


Patient: Doctor, do you drink?

Dr: Yes I do.

Patient: What would you think if someone told you you to stop drinking?

Dr: That’s a good question. I sit here every week, and tell people the same thing. That, although they are not “alcoholic”, by which I mean their day-to-day life is not affected by their addiction, they hold down their jobs, often they do very well in those jobs, they live with their families, that although they function perfectly well, nevertheless they are drinking harmfully [↓]

… and, I know that most of the time when I tell people that they need to stop drinking I may as well be talking to myself, or shouting out into the busy street below us here.


Alcohol dependence:

‘A person who is dependent on alcohol may feel a strong desire to drink and may have difficulty in controlling how much they drink. They may keep drinking despite knowing about or experiencing harmful effects. The body may become more tolerant to the effects of alcohol over time, which can lead to a person needing to drink more to feel an effect. If a person becomes dependent on alcohol, they can develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop or reduce their drinking suddenly.’

Harmful drinking:

‘Drinking is considered harmful when it leads to physical or mental health problems such as alcohol-related injury, inflammation of the liver or pancreas, or depression. In the longer term the person may develop high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, some types of cancer or brain damage because of their drinking. Heavy drinking can also lead to relationship problems, problems at work, college or school, or violence.’

(Taken from National Institute for Health and Care Excellence website)


Patient:: And why is that doctor?

Dr: Because alcohol is a part of our lives.

Patient: Yes! Yes it is. So in telling me I need to stop drinking, you are telling me to remove a part of my life.

Dr: That’s a decision for you to make, isn’t it? Because the tests that you have had suggest your life may be shortened if you don’t.

Patient: Among the hundred other things that might shorten it, doctor. I am a little bit overweight, and I know that might be affecting my chances of a long life. Despite this spreading stomach, I like to cycle at the weekends, and went I went on holiday recently and admitted that I would be doing this in Austria, the insurance company wouldn’t tale me on. Said I was in a dangerous sport category. I often drive too fast. I used to smoke. Why should my life be shortened by alcohol, when there are so many other possibilities.?

Dr: I can only advise you on the reason for coming here, to this clinic. I can’t lecture you about other lifestyle choices. But I can tell you, the fibroscan suggests significant liver damage. And it’s not just through your liver that your life might be shortened. We know that there is a good correlation between cardiovascular disease [↓], strokes and cancer with alcohol use. So in a way the fibroscan is like an hourglass, telling us how your body is fairing, not just your liver, your whole body. It may be that your liver works perfectly well until the end of your natural life, but I can tell you that there are signs that your body is being injured.


The Lancet medical journal published a paper that caused a great deal of comment. Based on large numbers (599,000 drinkers), it suggested a real association between increasing alcohol use and ‘all cause mortality’. The graphs below show how the likelihood of death and cardiovascular disease rises with increasing alcohol use. The ‘safe’ limit appears to be 100g/week, which equates to 5 or 6 glasses of wine of pints of beer per week. Interestingly, the ‘tick’-shaped graph on the right suggests that cardiovascular disease may be less common in the 100g/week drinkers as compared to minimal drinkers (‘cardioprotective effect’).


Patient: That’s the problem doctor, the uncertainty. I could stop drinking now, but it might make no difference to my life. Except… to make my life less happy.

Dr: You need alcohol to relax then?

Patient: Just as you do doctor, probably. Just as so many of us doing our society. Perhaps I would rather benefit from those thousands of nights, meals, meetings with friends that are made more pleasurable and enlivened by alcohol, and accept this against a reduction in lifespan of 10 years [↓]. Perhaps instead of 85 I will live to 75, or instead of 75, just to 65. Perhaps, to me, that an acceptable price.


The Lancet article also includes a graph showing how much life you can expect to ‘lose’ according to how old you are now and how much you drink. A 45 year old man who drinks >350g/week alcohol will lose, on average, nearly 5 years of life compared to someone drinking <100g/week.


Dr: That’s a choice for you, Mr Jones.

Patient: That’s what I dislike. Sorry. You hand the burden of choice over to the patient and almost literally wash your hands of it. But you don’t frame it as a choice. You tell me I need to stop drinking, or else I die early. The way you put it, if I don’t make that ‘choice’, I am happily saying goodbye to years of life. That makes me look stupid. You don’t accept it as a balance of medical risk and psychological or social benefit.

Dr: I didn’t mean to be so paternalistic. But at the end of the day, all I can do is give you the advice based on medical evidence. It would be same if you still smoked, and you were at risk of having a fatal heart attack. I cannot stop for you. Only you can do that. There is some help available, maybe some medication too, although that’s usually for the seriously dependent. The amount you drink, something like AA seems disproportionate. Ultimately it’s down to whether you open the bottle tonight. When you see that cool glass in the fridge, can you stop yourself, for a night, maybe two.

Patient: But if I choose to ignore that advice, I know what you will write. In a few months’ time, when I see you again, you will write a letter to my GP that ‘despite medical advice I chose to continue drinking’, and that will put me in a certain category. The non-compliant patient. The man who doesn’t really value his life. The stupid patient.

Dr: No, I wouldn’t. I am more subtle than that. I understand addiction, dependence.

Patient: You said I wasn’t dependent.

Dr: Look, some of my patients are dying from liver disease as we speak. This week I have seen a young man bleed to death on the ward, his skin deep yellow, his muscles wasted, his breath foetid, his brain no longer able to recognise his own family. His own teenage daughter. That is the death that liver disease can cause. And if you are drinking actively, the window of opportunity for salvage, when you might have a liver transplant for instance, is closed to you.

Patient: You really think that could happen to me?

Dr: It is unlikely, but it’s possible. I can’t tell how rapidly your liver disease will progress. There are factors  [↓] that we still don’t understand well that make some people more prone to liver damage than others.

Patient: Like what? Can’t you check them out?


Doctors run a series of tests to exclude other causes of liver damage (e.g. hepatitis C or haemochromatosis (a genetically inherited iron overload condition). But studies show that other genetic factors are involved in predisposition to the development of liver damage; these may be tested in the future. Although not strictly ‘inherited’, a person’s socioeconomic status is also strongly associated with the risk of alcohol related disease or death. (Graph taken from Fair Society Healthy Lives – The Marmot Review)


Dr: Some of them, not all. So I can’t reassure you, but I can’t threaten you with certain knowledge that your liver will fail either. But I can say that the only way to reduce the risk of you dying from liver failure, or any of the other alcohol related diseases, is to stop drinking.

Patient: And change my whole life. A change in life in exchange for a longer life. What value the pleasure it gives me? The friendships it cements, through conviviality, the sense of occasion? I play in jazz band at the weekends… I cannot imagine doing that without a few drinks…

Dr: You are talking about habit. If you want, you can change that. The challenge here is, I think, visualization. You do not see or feel the damage that is being done Mr Jones. It is genuinely silent. Unlike the smoker who sees her leg go black, or suffers chest pain, you will not feel anything from your liver until it reaches the point of no return. I don’t say this to scare you into abstinence…

Patient: Why not? Why not hit me with the worst picture. That, after all, is why I need to stop.

Dr: Most people would say haranguing patients is not productive.

Patient: Do it. Give us all the information. Then you know you have ‘educated’ us honestly.

Dr: I don’t get the impression it will have the desired effect. But there are ways to do it. They are called Brief Interventions. Perhaps this is one. Holding up a mirror, getting the patient to understand how much they are drinking, the risks. It works, sometimes [↓]…


Alcohol Brief Interventions (ABI) are delivered in primary or secondary care. A large meta-analysis showed that they successfully reduced alcohol use at 1 year by 38g/week, more in men than women strangely. Below are some pages from ABI booklets for staff in Scotland.

Dr: So, do you think you will stop?

Patient: I can say yes, it will make it easier to face you and leave, but to honest… not really. The benefit is too intangible, the threat invisible. It’s all so gradual, so marginal. I feel sorry for you. I really don’t know what you could say that would make me change. Are you going to see me again?

Dr: Not here. But perhaps, if things get worse…

Patient: If I go yellow you mean?

Dr: Perhaps.


Explore books on my Amazon author page


Smoker and doctor

The approach to many hospitals is blighted by an oncogenic miasma of second-hand smoke. It’s less of a problem than it used to be, but even now I pass wheelchair bound patients coughing over a fag at eight in the morning. Depending on which entrance I use, there may be a sign above their heads saying ‘STRICTLY NO SMOKING’. My reluctance to tell them to stop, or to move beyond the hospital’s boundary, says something about my identity at work.

If this was a restaurant, a train or a shop I would be the first to face them and ask politely that they stop. If there was no response, my natural reticence would do battle with my genuine annoyance/anger, and between them would work out whether I remonstrated or turned away – the older I get the more likely I am to escalate. But not with the smoking patient. Why?

It is because they are patients. What I want to say is, ‘Put that cigarette out. You know you’re not supposed to smoke here. Why shouldn’t you obey the rules? And don’t tell me you can’t go out because you’re in a wheelchair… one of the others here could take you.’ If no response, a part of me would want to continue, ‘You make this end of the hospital look horrible, why should all these people coming to work have to meet a cloud of smoke first thing in the morning… and look at all the butts on the ground, smoking doesn’t automatically give you the right to litter…’ And then, the transgression – a moral judgement, ‘Anyway, you wouldn’t be in here with this [amputation/heart problem/lung problem] if you didn’t smoke.’ This being said entirely without evidence, but as a manifestation of my frustration.

Yet even to ask them to stop or move is uncomfortable, because in doing so I am breaking out of the role of doctor, who strives to understand patients and shies away from criticism. Addiction is to be met with sympathy, allied to an agreed and constructive strategy to reduce it. When an alcoholic patient of mine returns to the ward carrying the smell of vodka, I am exasperated, but I do not criticise. That will do no good. Behaviour is challenged if clearly anti-social, but not overtly vilified. Doctors don’t come to work to tell people off.

So the doctor looks at the smoker, tuts, and moves on, leaving any correction to the security patrol who will surely pass by in half an hour or so. They, I hope, will not be inhibited by the instinct, magnified by training, to empathise and understand.


A gift freely given: dialogue on organ donation

This week it was announced that liver transplants would be offered to ‘heavy drinkers’ in a pilot programme. Patients will be young (typically less than 40) and will have such severe liver disease that the chance of them surviving the hitherto accepted period of 4-6 months of abstinence are remote. This has raised concerns that people will be less likely to sign up to be organ donors.

Here two people discuss donation. A has been put off by the idea that active drinkers might receive his liver, while B takes a more philosophical stance, and challenges A’s hesitancy.

After the main dialogue there are extended footnotes on changes that have been made to organ donation law in Wales (‘soft opt-out’) and on the involvement of families in the decision to allow organ to be retrieved.


A “I was keen to donate my organs when I died, but I’m not so sure now. They’re going to give livers to drinkers now, without even making sure that they can stop. It’s crazy. I know they can’t help it, I know there are a million back stories and life events that lead to alcoholism, but I think it gives the wrong message – don’t worry too much, if your liver packs in there’s a chance you could be rescued. Well I’m not sure I want to be one of those who gives a liver only for it to be ruined within a year or two by their addiction. We do all have the ability, and the strength, within us, to stop drinking…if we want to.”

B “So it’s weakness. They should be allowed to die because they are weak?”

A “They have a death wish, that’s what I’m saying. Whatever the reason for them not being able to stop, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, the fact is that if they are given a new liver what’s to say they won’t carry on drinking.”

B “But you realise, don’t you, that you can have no idea who will get your liver. It could go to a teenager who stupidly overdosed on Paracetamol, a haemophiliac who contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood products, or a blameless sufferer of inherited disease. Or half of it could go to very young child. If you don’t give your liver, then it will be harder for those people to be treated. You can’t predict or determine who gets it.”

A “But the chances of it going to an alcoholic will be higher. And as I say, I don’t like the message it gives. There’s so much…latitude nowadays. For patients who have inflicted damage on themselves.”

B “So is it a political or social comment that you will make by not donating? An attempt to influence society in some way.”

A “I wouldn’t say that.”

B “But it’s your opinion on the subject of addiction that is being translated into your decision not to donate.”

A “Well…it is my decision, after all. It’s my body.”

B “You presume it is, but you will be dead.”

A “Are you suggesting the state takes ownership?”

B “Legal ownership is a vexed question, but the more relevant question is how the state manages your right to decide.”

A “Involuntary inclusion on the register of donors has been considered and thrown out, hasn’t it. The ‘opt out’ was debated in Wales, I don’t know what came of that [1]. But what you’re suggesting is ‘no opt out’! That’s extreme. That sounds like the Chinese prisoners [2].”

B “Imagine this. Imagine another person, a hundred miles from here, having the same conversation with a friend. And imagine he is intending to put himself on the register of donors but is equally uneasy about, say…a convicted criminal receiving his liver or kidney or whatever. He wants to add a caveat to his donor card, that his organs can go to anyone as long as they have not been convicted of a serious crime in the past. What do you think of that?”

A “I recognise the intention, and sympathise with it, but I also recognise that it’s probably not practicable. Better to just not donate if there are going to be stipulations or exclusions. Because, as you say, you can’t control who gets your organs.”

B “So this man will not donate. Another lost donor. And taking the argument further, there may be people who are uneasy about other groups receiving organs, ethnic groups, religious groups, or those with different sexual orientations. They too will have no choice but to not donate. In fact, if we accept that anyone with any concerns about their organs being used to prolong the life of another about whom they have some moral or religious or racial misgiving should probably not go on the register, then we have automatically shrunk the pool of organs by a considerable percentage. Having made a great advances in the science of transplantation, we now elevate the instinctive judgements, dare I say prejudices, of people above the opportunities that their organs might provide. Does that sound right?”

A “But hang on. You’ve gone from alcoholics to minority groups in one leap. None of those groups will be engaged in anything specific to their identity that will damage the liver. I’m not refusing to donate because I don’t want some other person to survive – what do you think I am! – but because I don’t want my liver to be wasted.”

B “That’s been considered. The trials show that the rate of liver wastage is no higher than in other groups, because the alcoholism is monitored and treated intensively. You know about Hepatitis C? Well, that always recurs in the new liver if it is not eradicated before the transplant (which it rarely is), and very large numbers of donated livers are used to replace previous transplants that have been re-infected. So many of the livers being given now are what you might call ‘wasted’, except they were not wasted because the patients benefitted hugely from receiving them. The ‘waste’ argument is a weak one. What I want to pin down is this – do donors have any right, any right at all, to have a view on the moral or character background of potential recipients?”

A “As normal, opinion-forming human beings, we are all bound to have a view. If I donated a liver and somehow knew, in the afterlife, or more to the point if my family knew, that it had gone to a previously convicted, albeit rehabilitated et cetera et cetera child-killer, I would be so angry.”

B “Your family would be angry. You’d be dead.”

A “Yes, my family would be angry. And they have a right to an opinion too.”

B “OK, so you wish to transfer your objections to your family after death.”

A “They are the natural inheritors of a potential donors wishes and concerns, aren’t they?”

B “It’s arguable.”

A “Are you now suggesting that families have no say in this?”

B “They will bring their own moral structures and pre-judgments into the argument.”

A “No, they will do their best to express what they think I felt about it. They are the best placed to do that.”

B “And you think families can do that without colouring the subject with their own opinions?”

A “I don’t know. But they have to be consulted.”

B “You’re right, families can veto organ donation, even if the patient made it clear that he or she wanted to donate. Doctors won’t take organs in the face of strong opposition, and whether that it acceptable or not has been debated at length [3]. But let’s assume your decision, taken before death, is carried through. How do you reconcile your understandable concerns about who might get your organs? This is how I feel about it. If you would receive an organ from a random person, then you should agree to donate to a random person. And if you do decide to donate, as an act of altruism to humanity, then you should accept that the range of possible recipients will include all that humanity has to offer. All sorts. And you should trust that the donation system will have in place checks to reduce as much as possible the risk of ‘wastage’, be it through drinking, or recurrent hepatitis C, or repeated overdoses…the essential decision is Am I happy to help my fellow man or woman who will die without a transplant? Am I happy to make that contribution to society, even despite the fact that there are some aspects of society that I do not like, and do not sympathise with. Have I persuaded you?”

A “Your reasoning has. But what you miss, I think, is that the decision is an emotional one. That’s the trouble you see. People are led by their hearts, not their minds.”



1] China

Executed prisoners have their organs harvested (without prior permission), although it is said that this practise will soon come to an end.

2] Wales

A ‘soft opt-out’ has now been passed into law and will come into effect in December 2015. This means that people living and dying in Wales will be assumed to have given their consent unless they have made the effort to opt-out. This checklist is from the Organ Donation Wales website.

You will be treated as though you want to be an organ donor unless:

  • you have already registered a decision to be a donor (opted in) or
  • you have already stated you do not want to be a donor (opted out) or
  • you have appointed a representative to make a decision about consent on your behalf or
  • you lack capacity to understand that your consent could be deemed or
  • a person in a relationship to you objects at the time of your death, on the basis that they knew you did not want to be a donor

In 2008 the Organ Donation Taskforce looked into what effects an opt-out system might have attitudes to donation. It took a very cautious view. It referred to experiences in Brazil and France:

There are two examples of a negative impact of presumed consent policies. Brazil adopted a ‘hard’ presumed consent law in 1997, with opt out denoted by a note on an id card or driving licence. The law had to be repealed in 1998, principally because of mistrust of government and accusations of body snatching.

In France, which has a variation of presumed consent, there was an incident in 1992 in which corneas were taken from a 19-year-old road traffic accident victim whose parents had consented to only limited organ retrieval. This resulted in a great deal of negative press coverage of the medical profession, despite the clinicians having complied with the strict letter of the law, and damaged public trust in the organ donation system for some time.

They concluded that….

[we are] not confident that the introduction of opt out legislation would increase organ donor numbers, and there is evidence that donor numbers may go down.


3] The family veto

The role of families hit the headlines in 2012, when David Shaw (a lecturer in medical ethics) wrote an article in the BMJ criticising the medical profession for acquiescing to the family veto, especially when the deceased had put their name down on the donor register. In an interview he stated that 1 in 10 families acted in this way, and a higher proportion refused donation when asked about donation and the patient was not on the register. He suggested that families often regret this decision because they have denied their relatives express wish, and also the fact that ‘their decision may have caused deaths or suffering for other patients.’

The Organ Donation Taskforce also examined the role of families. It felt that their opinion was important, and that the decision to donate should rest in their hands.

            There is an argument, advanced by some, that a system of presumed consent would relieve families of the burden of making a decision in the absence of any indication as to the deceased’s wishes. The Taskforce finds this a somewhat paternalistic view, at odds with the ethos of today’s NHS. Further, our evidence from donor families was that they stressed the importance to them of being involved in the decision to donate and of being allowed to make the decision that was right for them at the time. The Taskforce found the evidence from donor families compelling.

Additionally, the taskforce also found that recipients preferred to know that the donated organ had been given ‘freely’ and that the family was in agreement.

            Recipients of transplants reported that it was important for them to know that the family of the donor had been involved in the decision and were comfortable with it. They also stressed the importance of knowing that organs had been freely given. These families spoke movingly of the concept of organ donation as a gift, and were concerned that an opt out system might undermine the principles of organ donation as a gift.

They concluded that systems where the opinion of families was not taken into consideration

has the potential to erode the trust between clinicians and families at a distressing time. The concept of a gift freely given is an important one to both donor families and transplant recipients. The Taskforce feels that an opt out system of consent has the potential to undermine this concept.

The Christian Medical Foundation Head of public Policy, Phillipa Taylor, expressed her concerns about the exclusion of the family in this decision in a September 2012 blog post. With regard to ownership of the body in the context of an opt out system, she wrote,

            The assumption about whose body it is begins to move from personal ownership to state ownership. Unless the state wishes to suggest that the deceased now belongs to it, the family must have the right to become his/her spokesperson.

            As we have always said, CMF is supportive of organ donation in principle. However we are not supportive of presuming consent when it has not been given, nor do we support overriding the family and the important role they should play. God designed human beings in His image to be relational (Gen 1:26,27, 2:18-25) and the Bible everywhere assumes the significance of the family.

It seems the ‘soft opt-out’ system adopted in Wales has taken these views into consideration.




The turning away

dorian grey

Detail from cover of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

When I tell him that his liver is so badly diseased it may not recover, he turns away and looks into the middle distance. There are no questions. He was expecting this. He has probably known that it would end like this for several years, perhaps a decade. But even this foreknowledge could not change his behaviour. He continued to drink, and now, at the age of 4_, he is approaching the end of his life.


I want to ask him why he couldn’t stop. Naïve I know – but doesn’t the prospect of death outweigh the immediacy of compulsion? After all, he was well supported at home; he had every opportunity to arrest the damage in its tracks and live to a decent age. I would like to know why…what was going on in there? But we are well past that now. Serious complications have set in, and all I can do is treat each one as it develops. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, and I am not comfortable pushing him.


When all the patient really needs is treatment there seems to be little place for such enquiries. The answers will add nothing; the questions will do no more than suggest to the patient that he did this…he had a choice. In contrast to patients who hold our gaze with a combination of anxiety and confusion, and ask ‘Why me?’, the alcoholic has all the information he needs. Whatever the truth, wherever the blame lies, those factors are irrelevant now. That’s why he looks away. There is nothing to say, nothing to explore.


Understanding why patients made certain choices does not allow us to reach into the past and shake them to their senses, or reveal to them a picture of their future selves – debilitated, jaundiced, desperate. A fortunate percentage will survive their first emergency, and with abstinence will see their liver improve. Some may even be judged appropriate to receive a new liver. But what of those who continue to deteriorate, and who in turning away seem determined to keep their personal truth to themselves? Does this aversion to allowing us beneath the surface impair the quality of care that is given?


It might. Doctors are not brilliant at digging into patients’ private lives or hidden histories. If, through an embarrassment of regret, a patient seems unwilling to discuss the behaviour that resulted in this crisis, the path of least resistance may lead doctors to a superficial degree of emotional engagement. Deeper knowledge of the patient is not acquired, the picture remains sketchy, and empathy does not develop. This may translate to a failure of advocacy. Doctors, who spend their days trying to determine if and when to escalate or intensify care, need to know that the patient wants to recover. They are driven, in large part, by the patient’s expressed wishes. If the patient appears determined to survive, and says as much – ‘I don’t want to die doctor, please do your best to get me through this, I want to deal with this…’ – the medical team is more likely to advocate for intensive care or prolonged support. Patients who remain silent and closed may appear uninterested in their own survival.


I worry that those who turn away deprive themselves of the opportunity to be known or understood, and are subsequently less likely to receive the best that medicine has to offer. The challenge, for those of us who receive them on the ward, is to prise away the (un)emotional armour and find out what they are really thinking. It’s not comfortable, it may feel intrusive, but it is probably necessary.



Trialogue: alcoholic, intensivist, advocate.


This imagined series of conversations was inspired by a number of clinical encounters over the last ten years.

We arrive at the bedside of a 34 year old man with deep jaundice. His kidneys are failing, he is slightly confused…early stage encephalopathy – it is all due to alcoholic liver failure. We looked after him before, briefly, when he developed jaundice to a lesser degree and responded to a course of steroids. We arranged a liver biopsy, confirmed the diagnosis of alcoholic cirrhosis, and told him that his liver and his life were on the edge of a precipice. His survival depended on continued abstinence, and the next deterioration would probably be fatal. Now he stares up at me through yellow-tinged eyes. The foetor that he exhales is recognisable to the attuned palate. We, the medical team, look down with resignation.

I examine him, review the blood results, and confer.

“The renal failure is bad. It’s new.”

“Hepatorenal?” asked the SHO

“Undoubtedly.” Failure of the kidneys secondary to failure of the liver; a notoriously lethal condition.

There are things we can do. A relatively new drug to kick start the kidneys (no guarantee of success); another course of steroids to reduce the liver inflammation, nasogastric feeding, judicious intravenous fluids. Tomorrow’s blood tests will tell us if there has been a response. If not, the only hope is admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) for a period of dialysis.

His liver and kidney function deteriorate further.

“Shall I refer him to ICU now?” asks my registrar. Her tone contains little optimism.

“We’ll go together. They will need some persuading.”

“But he’s 34!”

“Biologically he’s 70.”

“He was an accountant wasn’t he? Quite high up. Then he was made redundant…”

“That doesn’t alter the situation. But I agree we should support him, if the numbers continue to go off.”

I go to speak with the patient, alone.

“Andrew, this is very serious.”

“I know, you said yesterday.”

“Is there any point asking why you started drinking again?”

“Not really. I’m here now aren’t I? Can’t change that.”

“Did you go and see the community addiction team.”

“Yes. But it’s always the same. And I was detox’d already after the last admission. They asked me to come in regularly but I didn’t get much out of it.”

“But when you had your first drink again, what did you think? Did you think about the fact that this binge could make your liver fail, that it could kill you?”

“I knew that.”

“But it didn’t stop you.”

“Nothing can stop you.”

He is becoming breathless. The accumulation of acid in his bloodstream is now driving his lungs to rid his body of carbon dioxide. He has little air with which to talk.

I walk to ICU, to broker his admission.

“We’ve seen him, your registrar mentioned him.” The consultant has pre-empted me.

“I think he needs to go on a filter. His pH is 7.2. He’s Kussmaul breathing. Almost anuric.”
“This is his second presentation right?”

“Yes. He first showed up two months ago…”

“But still drinking.”

“He stopped for a bit. Slipped up again two weeks ago. He showed willing actually, but his domestic circumstances are terrible. He shares his flat with a couple of wastrels, they bring booze into the house.”

“You really want him transferred? We’ve spoken about this before…you said it yourself, when the kidneys go it’s curtains more or less. And he’s not a transplant candidate.”

“His age makes a difference. We can’t manage him exactly the same way as a sixty year old. If he survives this episode, remains abstinent and recovers he has thirty plus years to live. We can’t overlook that potential.”

“He’s a recidivist, we already know that. And that’s despite engaging with the addiction services. A pretty hopeless case then.”

“But he did engage, and he will again.”

“Look, I’m not refusing him admission on the basis that he’s unlikely to be cured of alcoholism, I’m basing it on the fact that with renal failure he just can’t survive. “

“Without filtration…”

“Filtration will stop him dying, for a while, but his liver will continue to deteriorate and he’ll die of bleeding or sepsis in three weeks time. I’ve seen it a hundred times. You can’t argue with the data.”

“The data is not the same as it was ten years ago.”

“You think I’m out of date.”


“Right! Well I’m not going to get into a battle of citations, but my experience, and experience is what most doctors base their practise on, is that individuals such as Andrew will die even if they receive organ support.”

“But with respect, I’m not clear what the basis of your refusal is. Is it prognosis? – well I’ve told you that it’s not as poor as you think it is; is it his recidivism? – well in my opinion he sits in a group with a better than average outlook with regard to future abstinence.”

“I will not try to defend myself so specifically. Sorry.”

“I just need to know, so that when I speak to his family I have an answer to their questions. They may well be aware that the most immediate threat to his life is renal failure, and they may be equally aware that we have machines to do the work of his kidneys…”

“There is no family. I asked your registrar. And if there were, they would have been misinformed. The reason he is dying is because his liver is failing, not his kidneys.”

“Point taken. But if his kidneys are supported he will not die.”

“Not this week. But in two or three weeks. “

“You think that is likely, and I don’t argue…but we cannot be certain. Young bodies can surprise us. He may respond to steroids, nutrition, abstinence.”

“May, may…if we accepted every patient who may recover we would need a hundred bedded unit, not an eighteen. We, society, the hospital, cannot commit to entertaining such small chances of recovery.”

“But most of those requests are for patients in their seventh or eighth decade. This man is in his fourth. How many men in their thirties do you close the door to? Only the alcoholics I bet.”

“Not through any sense of prejudice.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“This is getting personal. I can assure you I am not prejudiced. It’s fortunate we know each other, I might take offence.”

I’m not trying to imply a lack of professionalism on your part, of course…but I’m suggesting that there is a bias against alcoholics, a perfectly understandable one. One that stems from the fact that their illness is due to self-harming behaviour.”

“You cannot prove that. We have admitted umpteen alcoholics over the last year, they are not automatically excluded.”

“But they have not done well, and it is that memory, or experience, that is informing the current decision. It is anecdotal, is it not?”

“We have already discussed the place of personal experience. It has a place. Not every medical decision can be based in published evidence, however entrenched that dogma.”

“So what is the reason for refusing to admit him? I’m asking a lot of you, to delve deep into your reasoning. The most solid argument that you can give me is futility…your firm, possibly justified opinion that whatever treatment you arrange for him on ICU will not make a difference. Of course I have challenged that in citing his young age – he lies at the extreme of whatever cohort of patients you refer to.”

“You expect me to admit that I am biased. It’s like asking a policeman if he is racist.”

“A very good point. Has experience of seeing so many self-harming individuals convinced you, at some level, that all alcoholics are the same, that none of them really want to live, or that none have the internal strength to break their habit? It would be perfectly understandable.”

“Well if I don’t you may well accuse me of self-blindness. I can tell you what I think and believe, and as a rationale man I have to say that I am not prejudiced, and that I assess every patient individually. I do. That is my professional duty, and the behaviour that is expected of me by the GMC [General Medical Council], my employer, by society. You are going to tell me otherwise?”

“No. I am the same. But you have revealed a weakness and an type of arrogance. By telling me that your opinion is developed afresh with every patient, you have presumed that your opinion is important.”

“Of course it is. I am the consultant, and it is my opinion that has been requested. What are you getting at?“

“Your medical opinion is important, yes.”

“The medical opinion is holistic. We are trained to take everything into account – background, social set up, habits, addictions…otherwise we are just technicians.”

“I asked you to see my patient yes, but I did not ask you to provide an analysis of character, value or moral responsibility.”

“Then you are too old fashioned. You are
treating me as a technician, someone to come and set up the haemofilter and the ventilator. I’m afraid when you ask for me you get a physician who is capable, and unafraid, of providing a general opinion as to the patients overall condition and prognosis. Including the likelihood of future drinking, drinking which will undo any recovery that we have allowed by supporting him over the next week or two. If I think it is very likely that he will drink again, what point is there in me offering to extend his life?”

“You are not extending his life…that is a dangerous trait. Personalising your own influence I mean.”

“You know what I mean. I haven’t got a God complex.”

“A mild one. That is my point. You still regard your opinion as important…”

“You are being very challenging…”

“I am trying to show you the thought processes I have gone through. I make the same judgements, I put ‘ceilings of care’ on patients all the time, all the time, general medical patients, patients in their eighties and nineties, or those with end-stage disease, heart failure, emphysema…because I know, I am certain that organ support will not bring about recovery. Then I see a liver patient and I fall into the same pattern of behaviour. I think that is dangerous.”

“And why are the alcoholics any different? They have end stage disease too.”

“You presume. But I have told you that the liver can improve with abstinence. I can tell you with confidence that when you see a patient their liver scores can be misleading…”

“They seem pretty reliable to me.”

“No. They dip during acute illness, and give the impression that the patient is further down the line of their disease’s natural history than they actually are. The statistical models don’t necessarily apply.”

“I use clinical judgment rather than equations, and I am not usually that far out. Let me counter…you are trying to argue that liver patients are special, by virtue of their youth, and of the liver’s ability to recover or regenerate. I take that on board. How is it then that every patient I have refused to take has in fact died. None, not one of them, surprised me by recovering…”

“…you see the fallacy in that argument I hope. They may have been denied the chance to recover…”

“I hadn’t finished. How is it, in addition, that most of those I did actually admit to ICU, swayed perhaps by their age, or by the emergent nature of their presentation, most of those died anyway? I’m not seeing this miraculous trend, even in the young. So you see the larger point, that it is in some way arrogant for me to make these decisions and regard myself as justified in ‘denying the chance’ does not make a lot of sense. I am quite good as determining who has a decent chance of recovery in the first place.”

“And you are also skilled in determining who will drink again and who will not.”

“Past behaviour…future behaviour.”

“Then the patient who comes in having failed to remain abstinent is doomed…for you have made that determination. No clean slate.”

“That might be a trifle naïve. You do see that don’t you? It’s almost as if you are being wilfully naï that it? You set yourself up as their advocate, blind to their addictions and their weaknesses. Blind to their fate in fact.”

“No. I set myself up as being the only one who will contemplate giving them one last opportunity of survival…”

“However low the chance of survival is. The service can’t support that. It is an emotional position, not a medical one.”

“But if I and my like-minded colleagues do not do that, who will?”

“No-one. It sounds cruel but it is just reality. They have drunk themselves to death. Their path to death began long before you or I met them. We are
not responsible for their fate, and we can’t, generally, change it.”

“So I might as well not bother to treat them at all, by that argument.”

“That is a rather long extrapolation of my statement, but there may be theoretical merit in it. Of course they need treatment, they are ill and distressed. We are not inhumane. But that treatment has to fall short of life extending organ support unless there is very good evidence that they might survive the illness. Therefore, we admit bleeders, who tend to get better once you guys have sealed of the bleeding vessel. Sepsis, the same. We support, we give you time, you treat the infection, some survive. But not Andrew. His kidneys have gone, his liver has gone. He can’t survive.”

“But he is 34.”


“Isn’t that our role? To provide chances. You admit sicker 34 year olds.”

“But not with end stage organ disease. That’s the point.”

“But there are no other conditions, generally, that cause such severe organ failure in 34 year olds.”

“There are a few. Lung disease in cystic fibrosis.”

“And you take them, every time.”

“But they were born…”

“…with the condition! Yes, precisely. Born with, never asked for it, cursed by their genetic inheritance, unlike the alcoholics who made a choice, were warned, continued to drink. This is moral relativism. And it is flawed. You cannot compare the two…”

“I didn’t. I just highlighted an example of another group of young patients with severe organ damage.”

“But you do compare, by treating them differently…”

“Oh come, ask any sensible person if an alcoholic who has recurrently gone back to drinking should receive the same care as a young woman with heart and lung disease with CF…”

“But we don’t ask the public. They do not set our priorities in healthcare. If that were the case we would not treat prisoners, we would not spend money on heroin addicts, might not even do heart operations on smokers. You cannot sensibly invoke public opinion in this argument. So how are these two young patients different, really? Why one and not the other? Let us say that medically they have the same poor outlook. How can you justify withholding organ support for the alcoholic.”

“There are so many more of them. The unit would be overrun. They tend to stabilise but often, after that, they make no further progress. Two, three, four weeks down the line they are still on the haemofilter, kept alive artificially. Hopes have been raised, the family is optimistic and pleased (if they are present at all), and then we have to explain how the situation is artificially rosy, that at some point the machines have to be turned off, and then the patient will deteriorate because despite everything the liver has not picked up…despite the abstinence, the antibiotics, the feeding…”

“I agree with you there. We are not good at recognising when the attempt has failed. That is something we can do better at. But that is later, after you have provided the chance. The same might occur with the CF patient. You cannot use what might happen afterwards to justify the moral decision that you must make on day one. What is about the two patients, fundamentally, that makes you favour the one with lung disease? Be honest.”

“The whole, the whole package! I will not apologise for it. The neglect, the social chaos, the hopelessness. But primarily it is the medical condition. You cannot press me into admitting that the reason I don’t take a patient is because they are unwashed or addicted. But at some level, like the policeman, I am probably influenced. “

“That is honest. Refreshing too! And I believe it. I am similarly influenced. It is because we are not calculating medical machines, we are citizens aswell. So what do we do about it?”

“About this particular patient?”

“Yes, Andrew. We disagree on the medicine. I have a degree of optimism which I have tried to convince you is not based on a reflexive need to advocate for the patient. You are pretty sure he will die. Surely, in that tie-breaking situation, the benefit of the doubt should be granted.”

“And next time, and the time after that? It will always be one against one, always a tie-break, always the benefit of the doubt.”

“Then you must trust me to request admission only when I really believe there is a chance.”

“We shall see. But in this man’s case…we will admit then. We can agree on what, 5 to 7 days on the filter max.”


I carry my good news back to the patient.

“So, what now?”

“You go to ICU, they will insert a tube in your neck and attach you to a dialysis machine.”

“Does it hurt?”

“It shouldn’t, but ICU is not that pleasant.”

“I don’t get knocked out?”

“No, there’s no need.”

“I’m not sure…”

“What? Without it you will die before the weekend. That is certain.”

“So you think I’d be stupid not too?”

“Well, it depends if you want to live or not. I’ve been assuming that you do. Do you? We won’t make you go through treatment if it’s against your will.”

“You look perplexed. You find it hard to comprehend someone not wanting to live?”


“But you’ve seen what my life is like. After you discharged me last time I slept in my car for five nights. I have no friends, I have family but they don’t want to know me.”

“Those things can improve, if you remain abstinent. Things fall into place.”

“No…no they don’t.”

“So is this a protracted suicide?”

“Probably. Probably, if you asked everyone like me, you would get a similar response.”

“I have. And you’re right. A kind of nonchalance in the face of imminent death.”

“Yet still you want to treat us.”

“We focus on the liver, the body…the physical.”

“Perhaps that is the problem.”

“But you had a taste of spiritual, or at least psychological, support. Yet you started drinking again.”

“Yes, clearly I threw it all back in their faces…”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Let me ask you something doctor. Why do you want me to go to ICU, and survive?”

“It’s my job…”

“Not good enough.”

“No, it’s true. The thing I have been trained to do is make people like you better.”

“So if you don’t you will have failed?”

“It will hardly be a success will it?”

“It will look bad.”

“If you survive it will look good. We will have achieved something. And even if you don’t want it now, in a few months, looking back, you may be pleased that we persevered.”

“And I will go on to live a long and happy, productive life. I know that argument. It is the reason we stop and treat the suicidal, because they know not what they are doing. I’m not sure it fits me though. The thing is you see, I feel very ill and even if I did care about living I’m not sure I could articulate it very well at the moment. So I am depending on you to make the decision for me. You seem to be keen. You have persuaded ICU to take me, and it sounds as though that was not easy. So you really are the most important person in all this. If there is a chance of survival it is you who will make it happen. That’s why I wanted to know why you care.”

“I do care…”

“No, no, no. Not the ‘C’ word please. You cannot convince me you care, personally, about me. It’s too much to believe. You do care about what happens to me, but not emotionally.”

“Accepted. I don’t know you. I’m getting to know you.”

“But if I die you will soon forget. You must. All the patients you’ve treated but lost cannot be haunting you. I don’t buy it in films when ghosts of patients past start looming up out of the road…”

“You’re right.”

“So what is it? Why try? Forgive the histrionics, but I’m worthless, socially, I don’t mean anything to anybody…honestly, even my parents, and I do no good, I lost my job…why try when I can’t even try.”

“I’m not sure. I can give you an answer, but I’m not a hundred percent convinced it’s what I truly believe.”

“Try me.”

“OK. Perhaps it’s because of what you say, there is no-one else on your side.”

“You’re a real saint!”

“I told you, it may sound artificial. Perhaps the fact that without me you have no chance, zero, that motivates me to make something out of nothing. I champion a lost cause, something good happens, I go home knowing that it was me.”

“Life and death in your hands. A lovely feeling. But at least you are honest, or insightful, enough to identify that it is not life itself that energises you, but the good feeling that the process of saving a life creates within you. That I do believe. I’ve seen a lot of doctors, and the Messianic tendency exists I assure you. Is that it?”

“Perhaps I wish to prove others wrong. Everyone assumes you will die, I dissent, and if you survive I have won a small argument.”


“And perhaps there is larger picture…”

“Larger than life itself?”

“…again, one that channels into my sense of well-being, or worth. To make progress in medicine we must not always accept the boundaries that experience has built up around us. We must push them. You are a good example. Experience suggests that you will not survive, even on the filter…sorry, but you are young, and if anyone can break that rule it is you. So I must push the system to accept you and take that chance. If you survive a boundary has been reset. That is perhaps to least self-centred reason that I can think of.”

“Yet it still fulfils a personal need, to be part of something, to be lauded?”

“Doesn’t every action, ultimately? This is not about me Andrew.”

“But as I said, it is…most definitely. “

“So will you go to ICU?”

“If the offer is there, yes.”

I go to see him three days later.

“It’s working, apparently. The kidney machine.”


“You don’t look that pleased.”

“We are still worried about the liver itself. It hasn’t turned around.”

“So what does that mean?”

“It means that your kidneys will not turn back on if we take you off the machine.”

“And you plan to take me off it?”

“We have to at some point.”

“That is the deal you made?”

“There was no deal. But that was the plan, to support the kidneys, to see if the liver began to recover…”

“And it hasn’t. When?”

“When do we take the machine off?”

“Yes, and when do I die after that?”

“I can’t say. It will be days. And there is still a chance things will turn around during that time.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get better. I do feel better though, my head is clearer.”

“I’m sorry too.”

“A complex sort of sorry no doubt. And what did it all prove, this exercise? You haven’t achieved your minor miracle, I haven’t beaten my fate…which was laid out for me years ago I hasten to add.”

“The chance was always small.”

“No doctor. I think it was less than that. I can tell by the look on the face of the intensive care guy who comes around. He is good, but I know that he thinks this was a waste of time. It’s just delayed the inevitable.”

“It was right to try.”

“A waste…of time and money and everything. Did my being here stop someone else coming in?”

“Of course not.”

“But money has been spent. Will you find it harder to get the next one like me in?”

“I might.”

“Yet still you tried. Should I be thankful?”

“I can’t answer that Andrew.”

This article has been published under the title ‘The alcohol dependent person and the advocate’ in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (January 2013).

Editorial: Berry, in a moving clinical narrative, captures the human/treatment needs of a person with late-stage liver disease in the context of ongoing alcohol dependence. This touching narrative captures medical treatment, ethical/professional institutional and societal tensions involved in reaching out to the most needy of our fellow travelers