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  • Moral Distress for the Physician Assistant
  • Sharyn L. Kurtz

My morning rounds as an inpatient medical oncology physician assistant began as usual. I arrived at the hospital early to receive 7 a.m. sign out from the covering resident. The overnight report began favorably. All patients remained stable. Even my patient, whom I will call Mrs. Walker,* had a quiet night. However, given her tenuous admission presentation, including altered mental status, hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood), atrial fibrillation with rapid ventricular response (irregular, rapid heart function), widespread metastatic lung cancer, and recent neurosurgery to stabilize her spine, I decided to prioritize Mrs. Walker’s morning evaluation.

Examining her medical chart proved reassuring. Her tachycardia (rapid heart rate) had been better controlled over the past two days. Her hypercalcemia had been treated, such that she was no longer somnolent. In fact, she was now arousable, conversant, and able to offer some input regarding her healthcare wishes. However, because she was experiencing intermittent delirium, her husband continued to act as her primary medical decision–maker.

As her health care proxy, Mr. Walker had experienced conflict with the medical team during his wife’s prior hospital admission. However, even though Mr. Walker lived greater than 45 minutes from the hospital and was not able to visit regularly, he and I spoke daily by phone, which allowed me the opportunity to offer regular medical updates. Mr. Walker felt overwhelmed with his wife’s condition, but he was comfortable with the care the medical team had provided thus far. He was encouraged by the small improvements we had noted since her hospital admission five days prior.

Mr. Walker stated on hospital admission that he wished for DNR/I orders to be placed, since this cohered with his wife’s previously stated wishes. However, he still wanted “everything else done” in terms of treating his wife’s medical conditions, including treatment of her atrial fibrillation, pain, and electrolyte anomalies. Most of all, he hoped Mrs. Walker would soon have increased mobility, which he felt would grant his wife the best quality of life possible. He was adamant that “being active” was what Mrs. Walker wished for, and that she had never wanted to be confined to bed.

Mr. Walker’s requests seemed reasonable. Although Mrs. Walker’s lung cancer was widespread, and although many on the medical team felt she would not improve to the point where palliative chemotherapy could be considered, [End Page E13] she had stabilized. Her recent spine surgery had been successful, and she was healing adequately. The neurosurgeons had cleared Mrs. Walker for increased activity out of bed as soon as she could be fitted with a lumbar brace. The pain and palliative care specialists felt that Mrs. Walker’s residual back pain and delirium could be well managed with oral medications.

Prior to my entering Mrs. Walker’s room to begin her physical evaluation, I was met by her seasoned nurse, whom I will call Amy. “Sharyn,” Amy warned, “Mrs. Walker’s heart rate is 150 and she is complaining of chest pain.” I entered Mrs. Walker’s room, and she was notably uncomfortable, grasping her chest. The monitor showed that Mrs. Walker’s heart rate was in fact in the 150’s. She was pale, short of breath, and wheezing. “Mrs. Walker,” I asked, “how severe is your chest pain on a scale from 1 to 10?” Mrs. Walker replied, “Nine.” I asked Amy to obtain an EKG, to provide oxygen, and to administer an IV medication that would slow Mrs. Walker’s heart rate. I stepped out of the room to place the computer orders, and I paged my attending physician to let him know about Mrs. Walker’s change in status. After hearing the update, my attending physician, whom I will call Dr. Clark, stated that he agreed with all of my treatment decisions thus far. He was on his way into the hospital. I planned out my next steps with him on the phone and returned to the patient’s room.

The monitor gave evidence that Mrs. Walker’s heart rate was improving. Mrs. Walker reported that her pain was now “4 out of...


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