Carmen Miranda
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Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda, she called herself today. She suffered from decades of schizoaffective disorder and now more recently, end–stage renal disease from uncontrolled diabetes. I first met Carmen two weeks prior when she had been brought to the hospital on a 72 hour psychiatric hold for self–harm. She failed to go to dialysis for a week, an act that would kill her if allowed to continue. Now she was here again, for the same reason.

Everyone of competent mind has the right to refuse medical treatment. Unfortunately, Carmen’s mind was not currently grounded in reality. So against her will, our family medicine team admitted her to the hospital and arranged for dialysis early the next morning. None of us liked doing this. Fortunately, when the time came for the dialysis tech to insert the dialysis catheter into her shunt, Carmen agreed peacefully. After her dialysis, we had no right to keep her in the hospital because her life was no longer in danger, at least until the next week. We discharged her to home. However the question remained, what about next time?

To navigate this ethical gray zone, we called an ethics committee meeting. An ethicist, nurses, hospital social workers, the inpatient family medicine resident team, and most importantly, two people who knew her very well—her caseworker and long–term psychiatrist—discussed her case for an [End Page 103] hour. Our medicine team learned that in her last period of clarity two months prior, Carmen made contradictory statements regarding her wishes. Carmen told her caseworker she was tired of dialysis and being sick and stated it was time to let herself go. During the same lucid week she told her psychiatrist that she was grateful she had been forced to complete dialysis against her wishes after a run of non–adherence while suffering psychosis a couple of months prior. Now months later she was in a downward spiral, exacerbated by the deterioration of her mentally ill husband. If she missed a dialysis treatment here and there, it was okay, but when she went on a run missing several treatments, it was slow suicide.

The ethics meeting concluded that Carmen needed to complete an advanced directive and select a power of attorney other than her gravely incompetent husband as soon as she was deemed competent. If she did not become lucid again, her psychiatric team should apply for conservatorship, a legally appointed person who serves as guardian for a gravely disabled mentally ill person. However, conservatorship would take months. In the interim, the ethics committee ruled that our medicine team would continue to provide lifesaving treatment for her, against her wishes if necessary.

The ethics meeting adjourned but our medicine team remained in a gray area. To what length should we go to treat her? If she continued to refuse dialysis would we hold her in the hospital until she became sufficiently docile by inevitable uremia that we could peacefully dialyze her? Possibly. Would we go so far as to put her under anesthesia to complete her dialysis? Personally, I hoped not.

Just three days after the ethics committee meeting, her caseworker found Carmen yelling nonsensical phrases through the front door of her home while her husband held the door shut with his beer belly and good shoulder. After gaining entry later in the day, Carmen’s caseworker found their mutual medication collection strewn in the bathtub and no food in the house. He placed Carmen on a psychiatric hold and transported her to the hospital. The emergency department paged me when Carmen arrived. I braced myself for the possibilities that lay ahead. When I reached Carmen, she was sitting in a room reserved for psychiatric patients and under watch by a friendly police officer accustomed to these situations.

“Hi, Carmen,” I said, one step into her room. She sat on the edge of the gurney, wrapped in three blankets.

“Cold,” she said.

The police officer spoke from behind my shoulder, “She has been requesting cup after cup of ice water, she won’t take anything else.”

“Let’s get you more comfortable.” I returned with a warm blanket and draped it over her...