I was called to your room in the middle of an overnight shift. There you were, breathing quickly, neck veins bulging and oxygen levels hovering despite the mask on your face. I placed my stethoscope on your back and listened to the cacophony of air struggling to make its way through your worsening pneumonia.
“We’re going to place a tube down your throat to help you breathe,” I told you.
Your eyes were pleading, scared. “We’ll put you to sleep. It’ll help you breathe more comfortably. Okay?”
You nodded. You had already told the doctors who cared for you during the day that if your breathing worsened, you would agree to intubation to allow more time to treat your pneumonia. So I called for the anesthesiologists. Minutes later, you were sedated and intubated, silenced — maybe forever.
I thought about you recently, when I read a poignant Perspective in JAMA Internal Medicine: “Saving a Death When We Cannot Save a Life in the Intensive Care Unit.” In this piece, critical care doctor Michael Wilson relates the story of a woman in the ICU who was electively intubated for a procedure and then died, without ever having had the opportunity for her loved ones to say goodbye.
Fueled by his feelings of regret over this and similar cases, Wilson argues for a different approach to intubation, which he likens to the talk a parent has with a child who is going off to war. Of course, these parents hope their children will come back safely, but they are given the chance to say what they want to say — knowing the conversation might be their last. Wilson suggests that we might build a similar pause into our protocols before intubation, lest we unwittingly deprive our patients of the opportunity for a final exchange with their loved ones. “Stealing the opportunity for meaningful last words is precisely the kind of avoidable complication that ought to be visible to us in the ICU,” Wilson writes. “My intubation checklist now includes this step.” In doing so, Wilson suggests that we might be able to “save a death” even if we are ultimately unable to save a life.
Reading this piece, I’m left with the image of Wilson’s patients — both the one who never had the chance to say goodbye, and another woman he describes who was given the chance to say “I love you” to her husband — and also of my own patients. It is too easy, in the heat of the moment, to forget that this patient before us is a person. How many times have I decided on intubation, ordered the appropriate medications, prepared for complications, but not taken pause to allow my patient to talk to a loved one?
I only took care of you for the night, as the physician on call. Though I remember your face, I do not remember your name and I don’t know what happened to you. Maybe the breathing tube came out in a day or two, and you were able to talk to your family once again. Or maybe it did not. Maybe your pneumonia worsened and you died, there in our ICU. It has been months since that night, and I can’t know. But I do wish, now, that I had paused and given you that chance.