“We Need to Cut the Neck!”: Confronting Psychological and Moral Distress during Emergency Cricothyrotomy
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“We Need to Cut the Neck!”
Confronting Psychological and Moral Distress during Emergency Cricothyrotomy1

Enough

You didn’t die in the ER, but rather, began your inexorable demise. The last, first, and only words I ever heard you utter was the weak mewl “tight, tight” as the blood pressure cuff constricted your left arm. You were 98–years–old, bed–bound, at the end. Your world was already partitioning itself from us, your brain tunneling down the uneven corridors of consciousness. A concretion of otoliths muffled your hearing, and fatigue burdened your ancient heart.

Your name–band encircled your skinny ankle like a bird. Deformed by arthritis, you were caged within yourself, imprisoned by senescence. You could not declare yourself to us. Words disintegrated into moans and your grimace became animal.

When you came back from x–ray—hypotensive with multiple neck fractures confirmed—you could speak no more. Your pulse slowed, your blood pressure plummeted. I jammed a gloved finger against your femoral pulse, faint and tired. [End Page E5]

“What’s her DNR status?” I gravely asked your nurse.

The DNR paperwork for once had arrived with the patient. “No CPR” she said with relief. But then the paperwork went on, forcing me—the waitress of tragedy—to serve up the hash of an impossible menu.

As health care providers, we are all often tasked with performing contradictory actions: the pain of IV insertion followed by the morphine push, drilling deeper into broken bone in order to plate it, the inadvertent cracking of ribs during chest compressions. We sometimes must perform violent action in the hope of sustaining and resurrecting life. We are asked to perform the impossible, the contradictory, the painful. And sometimes the actions we must take catalyze an inexorable chain reaction of actions, which can end in death–prolonging and painful interventions that we did not intend.

Although our culture may imagine that one can choose one’s meal at the end–of–life fast–food franchise of death, such is not the case. You can’t suddenly decide you’re a vegetarian. You can’t order the cheeseburger without the cheese—and we all are getting the burger, in the end. Ordering the heart–squeezing drugs without the CPR to circulate them, or the antibiotics without the fluid to counter dehydration, is like ordering the burger without the bun. Sometimes the possible choices are not necessarily realistic choices. You get served what you get served, and perhaps we should question the assumption that we have the ability to choose at all.

Your DNR form proclaimed no CPR but then said that antibiotics and intubation were okay—the cheeseburger without the cheese. An unfortunate choice for you, me, and the rest of us, as your death menu led to a very unhappy meal.

You were comatose. I stuck a tongue blade deep into your desiccated throat. You did not gag. This means I should have intubated you, but morally, I couldn’t. To what end? You were 98 years old, broken, moribund. If you hadn’t suffered multiple neck fractures, or if you were a vibrant elder who had just walked off Mt. Rainier, maybe the story would have been different. But you? I doubted that you truly had a chance of ever feeling joy again. You were somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. I knew this step would lead to the domino of unstoppable steps. I refused to flog your corpse.

I called your daughter Kay on her cell phone, told her that you were in critical condition and that she should come to the ER immediately. But how to begin to tell a daughter her mother is dying, let alone over a cell phone? Gentle but surreal and impersonal, my voice tried to tell your daughter that the interventions you needed would likely kill you. I have seen enough human suffering to know. To me, the choices were clear: death by nature’s irrefutable course, versus a more painful, protracted, and violent death by what we’d do to you.

Kay arrived in a wheelchair and scooted up to your bedside. Like all daughters, she wasn’t ready for you...


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