What Are We Afraid Of?
There are ten minutes remaining on my shift when I hear that a patient is being brought into the critical resuscitation unit. I walk over to the unit and see
Asystole on the monitor. Medications are administered, CPR being performed. She continues to watch, buried in the corner wall, arms crossed as if she is shielding herself from what is happening around her.
I wonder to myself if this is a good thing – to have the wife of the patient watching us attempt to resuscitate her husband. I know the outcome--we see it day after day. The patient is going to die despite our best efforts.
But what does she see? Her naked husband, vulnerable, dying, lying in blood and vomit? My instinct is to have someone take her to the waiting room to spare her any extra pain. It seems like the appropriate thing to do. Why subject her to this? Will the image of her dying husband be a stress on her life?
We are 20 minutes into the resuscitation, still asystole on the monitor. We all look at each other. Blank faces. We’ve done all that we can do. The attending physician walks over to the patient’s wife to tell her that there is nothing more we can do. I see tears running down her face. The wall seems to keep her limp body from crumpling to the ground.
We stop chest compressions. I disconnect the oxygen from the endotracheal tube and solemnly walk away from the patient. The attending walks his wife over to his body. I see her pick up his limp hand, kissing it. She hugs him and buries her head into his chest. I hear her tell him how much she loves him. The room falls silent, bereavement begins.
Later that evening, I spoke with the patient’s wife to obtain information for the death certificate. At this point she was surrounded by family members. As I stood to leave, she said quietly, “I know you did all that you could to save my husband, thank you.”
Was it better for her to witness our attempt to save her husband’s life? Should we have escorted her to the waiting room to spare her the images of struggle? Though we are sometimes uncomfortable having patients’ family members watch, studies show that they prefer it. Being present during the resuscitation often helps patients begin their grieving process—especially if they know that doctors did everything possible to save the patient’s life. Being able to touch the body and say goodbye can facilitate bereavement—especially in sudden deaths. And many patients feel that their presence eases their loved ones’ struggle.
If this is true, then why do doctors feel so uncomfortable having patients’ family members watch? What are we afraid of?
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