*Some details have been changed to protect the patient's identity.
The first thing I noticed about Mr Barry as I entered the intensive care unit (ICU) was his left foot: Half of it was black, shriveled, and gangrenous, jutting out from under the white blanket. The soft rays of the morning sun illuminated his gaunt, unshaven, hollow cheeks. Sedated on propofol, with a green endotracheal tube sticking out of his chapped lips, he looked frail. His nurse, Becky, had just cleaned him after he passed tarry, maroon-colored stool. As she turned him over, I saw that the skin over his tailbone was broken. He had a large decubitus ulcer, the edges of which were now dried and black. The Foley bag, hanging next to his bed, was empty; there had been no urine for several hours now.
No one knew much about Mr Barry. I don't mean his current medical status — I mean what he did in life, who he loved, whether he had kids, what he valued. All we knew was that he was 83 years old and lived alone. No prior records in our system. No advanced directives. No information on any family. One of his neighbors called 911 after he was not seen for at least 10 days. Emergency medical services found Mr Barry in bed, nearly lifeless. In the emergency room, he was noted to be in shock, with a dangerously low blood pressure. He was dry as a bone with markedly elevated sodium levels. His laboratory makers for kidney and liver function were deranged. He was admitted to the medical ICU with a diagnosis of hypovolemic shock and/or septic shock with multiorgan dysfunction. With 48 hours of supportive management with IV fluids and antibiotics, he did not improve. Blood cultures were positive for Gram-positive cocci. The doses for medications used to maintain the blood pressure increased steadily. He also developed gastrointestinal bleeding.
Futile vs Potentially Inappropriate
I was called for a cardiology consult because he had transient ST elevation in inferolateral leads on the monitor. Given his clinical scenario, the likelihood of type 1 myocardial infarction from plaque rupture was low; the ST elevations were probably related to vasospasm from increasing pressor requirement. Diagnostic cardiac catheterization showed clean coronary arteries. Continuous renal replacement therapy was soon started. Given Mr Barry's multiorgan dysfunction and extremely poor prognosis, I recommended making all efforts to find his family or surrogate decision-maker to discuss goals of care or having a two-physician sign-off to place a DNR order.
Despite all efforts, we could not trace the family. We physicians vary individually on how we define value as related to life. We also vary on the degree of uncertainty about prognostication that we are comfortable with. This is one of the reasons the term "futility" is controversial and there is a push to use "potentially inappropriate" instead. The primary team had a different threshold for placing a DNR order and did not do it. That night, after I left the hospital, Mr Barry had a PEA (pulseless electrical activity) arrest and was resuscitated after 10 minutes of CPR. The next day, I noticed his bruised chest. He was on multiple medications to support his blood pressure.
My Patient and a Hemingway Protagonist
Whether by coincidence or irony, I started reading Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" the same day that I met Mr Barry. He reminded me of the story's protagonist, Harry, lying on the cot with a gangrenous leg, waiting to die. Harry could sense death approaching. He reminisced about his past. All he wanted was to drink his "whiskey-soda." "Darling, don't drink that. We have to do everything we can," his wife said. "You do it. I am tired," Harry said, and continued to drink his whiskey-soda.
Mr Barry looked tired. Tired of life? I can't say with certainty. However, if I had to guess, the medical team's heroics meant nothing to him. Unfortunately, he was not awake like Harry and could not do what he wished. I wondered what snippets of his life flashed before him as he lay on his bed at home for days. Did he want to have a whiskey-soda before dying? But we are not letting him die. Not easily anyway. We have to do everything we can: medications, coronary angiogram, dialysis, multiple rounds of CPR. Why?
In this country, we need permission to forego CPR. If there are no advanced directives or next of kin available to discuss end-of-life care, performing CPR is the default status for all hospitalized patients, irrespective of the underlying severity of the illness. A unilateral DNR order written by a physician in good conscience (in a medically futile situation), but to which the patient has not consented, is generally invalid in most US states. If health directives are not available, CPR will be administered on the presumption that the patient would want us to "do everything we can." The medicolegal consequences and fear of not administering CPR is more profound than being found wrong and defying a patient's wishes against CPR.
In patients with outside-hospital cardiac arrest, especially if related to ventricular fibrillation, early bystander CPR improves the survival rate. Hence, it makes sense for first responders and paramedics to administer CPR as the default option, focusing on the technique, rather than thinking about its utility based on the patient's underlying comorbidities.
In the inpatient setting, however, physicians have enough information to comprehensively evaluate the patient. In a cohort of 5690 critically ill ICU patients, obtained from a US registry, the rate of survival to discharge after inpatient cardiac arrest is very low at 12.5%. Chronic health conditions, malignancy, end-stage renal disease, multiorgan dysfunction, need for vasopressor support, prior CPR, initial rhythm of asystole, or PEA advanced age were all associated with a less than 10% survival rate after CPR.
Dying is a process. Administering CPR to a dying patient is of little to no value. For Mr Barry, it resulted in a bruised chest and broken ribs. James R. Jude, MD, one of the pioneers of closed chest compression , or modern-day CPR, wrote in 1965 that "Resuscitation of the dying patient with irreparable damage to lungs, heart, kidneys, brain or any other vital system of the body has no medical, ethical or moral justification. The techniques described in this monograph were designed to resuscitate the victim of acute insult, whether be it from drowning, electrical shock, untoward effect of drugs, anesthetic accident, heart block, acute myocardial infarction, or surgery."
Yet, doctors continue to provide futile treatments at end of life for a variety of reasons: concerns about medico-legal risks, discomfort or inexperience with death and dying, uncertainty in prognostication, family requests, and organizational barriers such as lack of palliative services that can help lead end-of-life care discussions. Despite knowing that CPR has little benefit in critically ill patients with terminal illness and multiorgan dysfunction, we often ask the patient and their surrogate decision-makers, "If your heart stops, do you want us to restore your heart by pressing on the chest and giving electric shocks?" The very act of asking the question implies that CPR may be beneficial. We often do not go over the risks or offer an opinion on whether CPR should be performed. We take a neutral stance.
Anoxic brain injury, pain from broken ribs, and low likelihood of survival to discharge with acceptable neurologic recovery are rarely discussed in detail. Laypeople may overestimate the chances of survival after CPR and they may not comprehend that it does not reverse the dying process in patients with a terminal illness. When you ask about CPR, most families hear, "Do you want your loved one to live?" and the answer is nearly always "Yes." We then administer CPR, thinking that we are respecting the patient's autonomy in the medical decision-making process. However, in end-of-life care, elderly patients or surrogates may not fully understand the complexities involved or the outcomes of CPR. So, are we truly respecting their autonomy?
When to Offer CPR?
In 2011, Billings and Krakauer, palliative care specialists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), suggested that we focus on understanding our patient's values and goals of care, and then decide whether to offer CPR, rather than taking a neutral stance. With this approach, we continue to respect the patient's autonomy and also affirm our responsibility in providing care consistent with medical reality. We need to have the humility to accept that death is inevitable. Taking care of the dying to ensure a peaceful and dignified death is as much our moral and ethical responsibility as respecting a patient's autonomy.
It has been 10 years since a group of physicians from Columbia University Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, MGH, and Boston Children's Hospital proposed changes to how we determine resuscitation status. Instead of assuming that CPR is always wanted, they suggested three distinct approaches: (1) consider CPR when the benefits vs risks are uncertain, and the patient is not end-stage; (2) recommend against CPR when there is a low likelihood of benefit and high likelihood of harm (eg, patients with anoxic brain injury, advanced incurable cancer, or end-stage multiorgan dysfunction); (3) do not offer CPR to patients who will die imminently and have no chance of surviving CPR (eg, patients with multiorgan dysfunction, increasing pressor requirements, and those who are actively dying without a single immediately reversible cause). I agree with their proposal.
Mr Barry was actively dying. Unfortunately, we had neither his advanced directives nor access to family members or surrogates to discuss values and goals of care. Given the futility of administering CPR again, and based on our humanitarian principles, a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure a peaceful dying process, I and another ICU attending placed the DNR order. He passed away, peacefully, within a few hours.
That evening, as I was sitting on my porch reading the last page of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," my phone pinged. It was an email asking me to complete the final attestation for the death certificate. I imagined that Mr Barry knew where he was going. He probably had his own special place — something beautiful and majestic, great and tall, dazzlingly white in the hot sun, like the snow-capped mountain of Kilimanjaro that Harry saw at the time of his death.
Jaya Mallidi trained in and practiced interventional cardiology for 5 years and now works as a general cardiologist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, UCSF. An ardent patient advocate, she writes opinion pieces using patient stories as context to highlight problems in the practice of modern-day medicine. In addition, she enjoys digital sketching and playing tennis.
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Cite this: Should We Always Offer CPR? - Medscape - Jan 25, 2022.