Mr. M was an 89- year- old male with congestive heart failure. Over the past few weeks his dyspnea had worsened such that he could no longer lay flat and had to sleep in a chair on 6L of oxygen. He also suffered from a persistent cough that was exacerbated every time he tried to speak.
Mr. M was living at home with his wife of 67 years. They had married at 21 years of age, graduated from college, had six children and built a very successful business which they co-owned and operated for over three decades. Mrs. M faced her own physical limitations, including being primarily wheelchair-bound due to a progressive myositis. Through the challenges of life, including losing two children and the more recent physical limitations of their respective illnesses, they had become inseparable.
Mr. and Mrs. M had a nearly two-decade long relationship with their primary care doctor. He attended to them with care and compassion, even occasionally doing home-visits. On this occasion, the primary care doctor found Mr. M sitting in a chair at rest with severe exertional dyspnea. After a brief physical exam he recommended admitting him to the local community hospital for further evaluation.
While his primary care doctor was focusing on the immediate differential diagnosis—was his congestive heart failure complicated by possible pneumonia? — he did not step back and look at the big picture. Mr. M had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure eight years prior and it was clear that he was nearing the end of life. The American Heart Association has published a Scientific Statement about decision making in advanced heart failure, which includes referral to hospice in patients approaching the end of life who are not deemed eligible for mechanical circulatory support or a transplant.
As Mr. M’s granddaughter, I asked if the primary care doctor would consider hospice instead of a hospitalization. I knew that my grandparents wanted to spend their last days and hours together praying, sharing from their rich stores of memories and holding hands while sleeping. After an open conversation that took into account not just Mr. M’s physical status, but his values and wishes—primarily of which was to be with his wife and surrounded by family—Mr. M was referred to hospice. A week later he passed away peacefully, without distress and surrounded by family members who were able to come to his bedside and share meaningful last words. His last words were instructions to care for his “Queen” and to make sure that she would be given an exquisite bouquet of roses after he died.
In some of our recent work of an analysis of over 1,000 patients with heart failure in hospice, we found that the Palliative Performance Scale was able to provide an accurate prediction of death for patients with heart failure in hospice up to 90 days. This tool and others can be used to support primary care healthcare providers with making a referral to hospice and discussing end-of-life options with patients and families.
We need to shift to allowing patient values to drive the decision making at the end of life. Healthcare providers need to be more open with patients and families about palliative care and hospice services, and patients and families need to be educated to ask.
By: Ruth Masterson Creber, PhD, MSc, RN
For additional information on Palliative Care for Heart Failure patients, please visit American College of Cardiology’s blog post: Palliative Care for Patients with Heart Failure