Sandra Livingstone, age 45, was admitted to the hospital with diffuse ischemic encephalopathy – a very significant, global brain injury – secondary to sustaining a massive stroke at home. It is now ten months after her admission. Ms. Livingstone is on an acute internal medicine unit where she has been living since her discharge from the intensive care unit.
She is unable to communicate with others and appears to be in profound distress, spending much of her time screaming and obstructing the attempts of nurses to care for her. She is unable to eat and drink due to neurological damage to her swallowing mechanism. She has just managed to remove her J-tube for the fourth time despite being in arm restraints and having her hands padded on a twenty-four hour basis. Trials of various medications to target her intense agitation have been unsuccessful.
The consultant neurologist, Dr. Bailey, recently reassessed Ms. Livingstone. In his opinion, her neurological status is now stable and the prognosis for further neurological recovery is extremely low. He comments that “this is the way she will always be”.
Ms. Livingstone had not made a personal/ advance directive prior to her stroke. Her statutory decision-maker is her father, Mr. Livingstone, a person of strong religious faith. He believes that his daughter is “still in there” and that she will eventually recover sufficiently to allow him to take her home. He refuses to discuss the possibility of withdrawing life-sustaining treatment, i.e., her J-tube.
The clinical unit’s social worker, Mr. Roberts, has been exploring alternative residency options for Ms. Livingston. Given her current health status and long term, significant care requirements, Ms. Livingstone cannot be formally classified for placement in a continuing care facility. Her local rural hospital has declined to accept her for care through a transfer from the tertiary care centre.
A health lawyer from Legal Services and a clinical ethics consultant are asked to participate in a health care team conference to explore potential ways forward.
- What issues should be discussed at this meeting?
- Which of these issues are ethics issues?
- What decisions need to be made?
- How should the decision-making be prioritized?
- What resource allocation and policy issues in this case have ethical implications?
Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider
- Substitute decision-makers
- Compliance with policy
- Spirituality/ religious beliefs
- Patient-family relationships
- Respect for human dignity
- Quality of life
- Resource allocation