On when to let go

My former colleague, Charlie Ornstein over at ProPublica, wrote a thought-provoking, emotional piece on the costs of end-of-life care. As a health care reporter (one of the best in the business; he was a Pulitzer Prize recipient at the LA Times), he has written a lot about how end-of-life care is often prolonged beyond reason – account for as much as 25% of Medicare payments in the last year of a patient’s life. But when his mother was dying, he writes, “none of my years of reporting had prepared me for this moment, this decision.”

My father, sister and I sat in the near-empty Chinese restaurant, picking at our plates, unable to avoid the question that we’d gathered to discuss: When was it time to let Mom die?

It had been a grueling day at the hospital, watching — praying — for any sign that my mother would emerge from her coma. Three days earlier she’d been admitted for nausea; she had a nasty cough and was having trouble keeping food down. But while a nurse tried to insert a nasogastric tube, her heart stopped. She required CPR for nine minutes. Even before I flew into town, a ventilator was breathing for her, and intravenous medication was keeping her blood pressure steady. Hour after hour, my father, my sister and I tried talking to her, playing her favorite songs, encouraging her to squeeze our hands or open her eyes.

You can read the rest of Charlie’s story here.

Charlie’s piece brought to mind an equally powerful but hard-to-read story written by Atul Gawande for the New Yorker, “Letting Go (2010)

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at blog.danwin.com.