92. Case: Franklin Isn’t Safe at Home

Franklin Pictou is a 68 year old with limited mobility receiving post-surgical follow up care in the home. He wishes to remain in his dwelling, which is not especially clean and poses hazards to him (uneven stairs, loose carpets, wood stove for heat, and mould) and to health care providers (bed bugs).

He chooses to stay at home because, as he says, “he likes it here” and he cannot find an alternative living situation that he can afford in which his large dog would be welcome.

Which factor do you think is most important in Franklin’s choice of where to live?

  • Cost of alternatives
  • Familiarity of home
  • Comfort of home
  • Having his dog with him
  • Feeling in control of the situation
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85. Case: Adam’s Story

Adam Snowdon, a 16 year-old Sydney boy, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) 18 months ago.  The disease has progressed rapidly over the past three months and over this period Adam has quickly begun losing the ability to use his right arm to the point now where it is no longer effectively functional.  He is also beginning to have difficulty standing and walking and is showing early signs of respiratory, swallowing and speech problems.  His doctors speculate that Adam will die within a year and that in the months prior to that he will likely become “locked in” and unable to communicate at all.

Adam has always been a rambunctious boy.  He has had numerous behavioral issues throughout his childhood, proving to be quite a handful for his parents.  He has run away from home several times, has been suspended various times and expelled from two schools. Adam has also been detained by the police on four occasions for possession of alcohol and marijuana.

Adam is currently living at home in Sydney with his mother Nancy Snowdon and older brother David who just turned 17.  Nancy works part time as a school librarian.  She has full-time custody of her two sons.  Nancy has been suffering from clinical depression for several months now.  She has been under emotional strain since Adam became ill.  She is currently taking antidepressant medication and is receiving counseling from a chartered psychologist.  Through this treatment appears to be helping Nancy, she is still struggling to cope.  On a few occasions she has missed appointments with Adam’s doctor, simply feeling unable to face the situation on her “bad days”.  On those occasions Adam missed his appointments altogether as he shows no initiative in attending his medical appointments on his own.

Adam’s health care providers have not been able to establish a trusting relationship with him.  They find it generally difficult to engage him in conversation, and he is especially uncomfortable discussing the ALS.  He refuses to discuss the details of how his disease will progress or his preferences regarding options such as ventilators etc.  He has, however, stated emphatically that he has no intention of allowing them to “put him in the hospital do die”.

Adam’s father, Ted Snowdon, is an engineer in Alberta.  He and Nancy divorced relatively amicably when Adam and David were nine and ten respectively.  Mr. Snowdon has not played much of a role in the lives of both of his sons after the divorce but he visits every summer and they all go camping.  He has remarried to Clarice Snowdon who has shown little interest in the boys.  Since Adam’s diagnosis, Mr. Snowdon has been flying out to Sydney regularly to be involved with decisions around organizing care for Adam. Mr. Snowdon feels strongly that decisions about Adam’s future care need to be made immediately.

Dr. Kerrigan is Adam’s family physician.  She is concerned that Adam’s condition is getting worse very rapidly and is anxious about the decisions that will have to be made about Adam’s care.  In particular, Dr. Kerrigan is worried about the relationships within the family.  She knows that Mr. Snowdon feels strongly that his son should be hospitalized and eventually ventilated.  He has stated that Adam is “too young” to know what he wants and is worried that Nancy is not able to handle keeping Adam at home, even with home care support.  Dr. Kerrigan is concerned that Mr. Snowdon will dominate the decision-making process at the critical time and that Adam’s and his mother’s wishes may be overridden or altogether neglected.  Beyond her concerns about the family dynamics, she is uncertain as to Adam’s decision-making capacity – and Mrs. Snowdon’s for that matter – and is also unclear on the more basic question of who ought to be making decisions about Adam’s care.

Since Adam became ill he has been seeing a neurologist at the local hospital, Dr. Watson, and Dr. Kerrigan are in touch frequently regarding Adam’s care and have discussed Dr. Kerrigan’s concerns around the family dynamics and the decision making that will need to occur in providing end of life care for Adam.  Dr. Watson has requested a consult from the hospital ethics committee.  Mr. Snowdon and his wife have flown in from Calgary just for this meeting.  Adam was asked to participate in the meeting but he flatly refused, saying he wanted to spend time with some of his friends instead.

Participants’ Roles:

Ethics consultant #1 (facilitator)

Ethics consultant #2 (ethics facilitator)

Ethics consultant #3 (recorder)


Nancy Snowdon (Adam’s mother):  Very concerned about her son’s welfare.  Feeling overwhelmed, isn’t sure what to do.

Mr. Ted Snowdon (Adam’s father):  Skeptical of Adam’s decision making capacity and can’t understand why Adam is acting the way he is.

David Snowdon (Adam’s 17 year old brother):  David is scared, angry with both parents, worried about Adam, and worried about his own life. Most of all, he wants peace for Adam.

Dr. Watson (neurologist):  wary of the complex relational issues at stake, as well as the challenges of making decisions for young ALS patients like Adam.  Wants to make decisions as soon as possible before Adam is no longer able to express his own views.  Feels in over his/her head, wants the committee to get this sorted out as much as possible.  Dr. Watson has been developing an interest in bioethics and is considering becoming a member of the ethics committee.

Dr. Kerrigan (family physician):  Concerned about the toll this is taking on Nancy, Adam and David.  Worried that Mr. Snowdon is driving discussions around care.

Jamie Lee (patient services coordinator):  Has been taking a bioethics course and is eager to apply her/his newly developed skills.

60. CASE: Health Care Providers Under Quarantine

My story starts in early April, during a routine day shift in our minor care area. A previously well middle-aged man, recently returned from Hong Kong, presented with fever. Because SARS was already recognized and we’d gone through the recent experience of a crash intubation with our first case at Vancouver General, this patient was isolated at the triage area and we gowned and masked to examine him. Apart from a temperature of 37.8°C, his vital signs were normal and he looked well. He had no other symptoms, and his physical examination, CBC, urinalysis, and chest x-ray were all normal. Although the patient did not fulfill the case definition of SARS then in existence, I kept him in isolation just in case. When I went in to give him discharge instructions, I did not wear a mask and stood just inside the doorway, about two meters from him. Almost predictably, he returned with the full SARS syndrome just over 24 hours later. And wouldn’t you know it, by then, the case definition of SARS had changed!

I briefly wondered if I could pretend I was not in his room unmasked, but the thought of potentially disseminating a lethal virus persuaded me to do my civic duty and tell my boss. Two hours later Public Health phoned to inform me I was officially quarantined. Needless to say, my husband, also a physician, was incredulous and my kids were terrified. I thought it was kind of funny for the first day, like someone was playing a bad joke. Then the reality began to hit home, and I can tell you the reality was difficult to live with. This is what Public Health told me.

  • I must stay inside my house (preferably within my bedroom) 24 hours a day
  • I must not touch anyone in my family
  • I must wear an N95 mask if anyone is in the same room as me
  • I must not prepare uncooked food for my family
  • I must not sleep with my husband
  • I must use a separate bathroom
  • I must not touch anything in the house that the kids might later touch
  • I must not use the family computer or the main phone
  • I cannot have outside visitors
  • I cannot shop for groceries
  • I cannot go for a walk

The quarantine requirements were not voluntary, but were enforced by Public Health, who contacted me daily to gauge my cooperation. If I did not comply, it was clear that I would be legally compelled to do so. All this took place under the shadow of potentially transmitting SARS to my family, the people I love more than anything in the world. My nine days of quarantine were a blur of extreme boredom, some highly emotional episodes, and a re-evaluation of what I do for a living. One of our daughters moved out for the duration. Another celebrated her 16th birthday without a hug, cake or present from her housebound mother. And my son told me daily how much he wanted a snuggle. I felt guilty that my colleagues, all of whom are already overworked, had to pick up extra shifts to cover me during my enforced absence. As if all this were not enough, it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t earning any income, and would have to put in extra shifts after my quarantine was over. I decided I never wanted to see another N95 mask again…

What did I learn from my experience? First, it is very isolating and lonely to be isolated. I hugely appreciated the calls and emails I received from my colleagues while I was off. It helped enormously to know they were thinking of me, and didn’t think this was my fault. Second, I think all emergency physicians should consider the financial implications of a sudden enforced quarantine. None of us have disability insurance that would commence quickly enough. To be under quarantine is difficult enough without the added burden of a financial penalty. Although I suffered an occupational exposure, I was not covered by Workers’ Compensation. I believe we need to negotiate with our hospitals and governments to put financial packages in place. Many hospitals are starting to compensate self-employed health care workers for income missed during quarantine. I would go further and suggest a per diem rate for days confined due to occupational exposures. Although no one can compensate me enough for nine lost days of my life, a token payment certainly wouldn’t hurt. Finally, as emergency physicians we do a far more difficult and noble job than I had ever realized. The consequences of what we do to care for our patients and protect the public are risks that put ourselves and our families in potential danger. This is something we never think about or acknowledge, but maybe we should. And maybe we should celebrate ourselves more than we do. I have huge admiration for my emergency medicine colleagues who had far worse exposures than I did in the early phase of the SARS crisis.

  • What values are involved here and for whom?
  • What ethical considerations have to be balanced in such quarantine situations? How is the most appropriate balance achieved?
  • How would you respond to this physician’s concerns? Do you feel there is any legitimacy to her complaints?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Duty to provide a safe work environment
  • Duty to provide care
  • Respect for individual liberty
  • Community/ public health ethics
  • Consent
  • Disclosure of adverse events
  • Health care provider relationships
  • Risk
  • Patient safety
  • Compliance with policy
  • Disclosure of adverse events
  • Non-maleficence
  • Privacy and confidentiality

54. CASE: Professional Role

While doing a weekday home visit to an elderly patient, a VON nurse in a small community finds the patient’s son at home. The patient has mentioned that her son teaches at the local elementary school, but he has never been present during any of the nurse’s previous visits to the house.

On a weekday visit he appears to be drinking heavily and the patient seems uncomfortable and ill at ease.  During the next few weeks the son is there on several more occasions and appears to be either drunk or “hungover”. The nurse is also a member of the town’s school board.

  • What is this health professional’s responsibility to her patient? To her patient’s son?
  • What should her immediate concerns be?
  • What is her responsibility as a member of the school board?
  • How should she proceed in this situation?
  • Can/should this individual segregate her role as a nurse with her role as a school board member?
  • Should she mention what she knows about the son/teacher to her colleagues at the school board?
  • How are the ethics issues at hand affected by the rural setting?


Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Professional boundaries
  • Duty to provide a safe work environment
  • Living at risk
  • Duty to accommodate
  • Duty to provide care
  • Community and family relationships
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Compliance with policies and procedures
  • Respect for privacy and confidentiality
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Patient safety

5. CASE: Caring for a “Difficult” Patient

A female patient in her mid-forties has been on the GI service for several months now due to severe Crohn’s Disease, which has left her with multiple draining abdominal fistuli. She has recently moved out of the province but her condition could not be treated adequately in the local hospital so she was transferred back to Nova Scotia. She has no GP. She has one sibling, a sister, who lives elsewhere in NS.

The patient does much of her own care, refusing nursing care inconsistently off and on. She is also unpredictably non-compliant in regards to medications and other treatments. Staff members describe her as extremely demanding and emotionally abusive to them, particularly when it comes to nurses and residents. She has a history of depression and anxiety, but has refused psychology support. As a result of her long hospital stay she is now VRE+ and MRSA+ so is being cared for in isolation. She has experienced 2 admissions to ICU during this admission and has had a cardiac pacemaker inserted. Interestingly, her behaviour has showed marked improvement following each of these ICU admissions, i.e., less abusive, more appropriate.

Nursing staff is feeling extremely frustrated, manipulated, and abused. They are asking for this patient to be transferred off the GI unit. The ethics consult requestor (charge nurse) feels GI is the most appropriate service for her to be on given her diagnosis and severity of her chronic illness, but also concerned for staff morale.

  • Is this an appropriate situation for an ethics referral? Why or why not?
  • If yes, what are the ethics issues?
  • Should the health care providers be asking for the transfer? Do they have a duty to provide care?
  • What ethics issues arise around the patient’s mental health and non-compliance issues, and how do they factor into this case?
  • How would you respond to this request?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Duty to provide care
  • Duty to provide a safe work environment
  • Moral distress among health care providers
  • Responsibility for health
  • Respect for autonomy
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Staff morale
  • Organizational culture
  • Responsibility for health