“Please Help Me”
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“Please Help Me”

Two–year–old Jay was born prematurely at 26 weeks gestation, addicted to opiates. After several months in the Neonatal ICU, he was sent home, ventilator–dependent but with a high likelihood of survival and a low chance of severe, lasting disability. When Jay was 1½, he had a cardiopulmonary arrest at home. The parents of children who are on ventilators at home receive extensive education and training about how to respond to something like an arrest. They are taught that a quick response is often critical to their child’s long–term prognosis. And yet, Jay’s parents took such a long time to respond to his code that Jay now has severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy: his brain was deprived of oxygen for so long that he has no higher cortical function, and will never think, speak, walk, or play.

Currently, Jay is ventilator–dependent and has a very poor prognosis. Jay goes back and forth between a nursing home and the hospital. During one of his many hospitalizations, the ICU team decided to call an ethics consultation, because they felt that continued aggressive intervention was no longer in Jay’s best interests. I was the person on the other end of the line when the medical team called. After having a brief conversation with the attending physician, I left my office and walked to the Pediatric ICU to visit Jay. I arrived at the bedside—really just a large crib—and saw a baby with dark hair lying flat on his back. His tongue was swollen and protruding from his mouth, his eyes were puffy and closed, and his limbs were limp. On his belly was a piece of paper with the words, “BECKY PLEASE HELP ME” typed in huge, bold font. I looked up, into the eyes of the attending physician and said, “Did you type that?” The physician nodded yes. Much could be said about this physician’s behavior. But the bottom line—from a clinical perspective, at least—is that this ICU team was desperate, and that they had significant expectations that I would be able to help them.

I began the work of the consultation. I reviewed the medical record, spoke with members of the treating team, and set up a time to talk to the family. During the family meeting, I learned that Jay’s parents wanted to continue to treat aggressively, and that they believed it was not their place to decide when it was their son’s time to die. That was [End Page 122] God’s decision. They could not fathom removing interventions that were maintaining their son’s life. They acknowledged that his quality of life was not high, but, still, it was life.

The preferences of the treating team were in stark contrast to the parents’ preferences. The neurologists believed Jay did not have the capacity to experience physical pain, but the ICU team believed that continuing to treat Jay was cruel. Although the ICU team acknowledged that Jay was probably not suffering, they noted that we could not know for sure, and that sometimes Jay grimaced and withdrew—signs that are often interpreted as suffering. The ICU team also argued that given all the sick children in the world, and the scarcity of healthcare resources, it didn’t make sense to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into prolonging Jay’s life. Additionally, they discovered that Jay had osteopenia (weak, brittle bones)—which was causing multiple bone fractures. The ICU team anguished over the thought of Jay’s small, soft bones continuing to break despite their best efforts.

The bioethicist in me knows that, as long as the patient isn’t suffering and the parents aren’t demanding futile interventions (they weren’t), our role as providers was not to judge the parents’ value system. I told the ICU team over and over that different people place different value on Jay’s type of life, and that it wasn’t for us to tell them that their value structure was wrong. I talked with other members of the clinical ethics consultation service. Then I brought the case to the entire institutional...