Do Everything


A 57–year–old with an incurable cancer suffered an abdominal catastrophe, putting him in the ICU, comatose with no chance of survival. His attending oncologist had only met him once and had no knowledge of his goals of care. Lacking an advance directive the staff turned to his family, who said, “Do everything.” This loaded statement was thought to be a demand for futile care even though it ultimately proved a reflection of their emotional response to a terrible, unanticipated event, not an irrational demand for useless care. A sympathetic exploration of the patient’s goals and expectations with his family using Buckman’s SPIKES format disclosed that their major concern was that he not die on his wife’s birthday. The family agreed to withdraw him from ventilator support the following day. Unraveling a medical conflict requires a sensitive process of shared decision–making based on a transparent process of clinical reasoning that synthesizes patient and family values with medical knowledge and ethical duties. Properly done, the outcome usually is a satisfactory experience for all concerned.