Thoughts On Palliative Sedation

There is widespread agreement that palliative sedation is appropriate for intractable physical pain, extreme nausea and vomiting when other treatments have failed.
There is widespread agreement that palliative sedation is appropriate for intractable physical pain, extreme nausea and vomiting when other treatments have failed.

WASHINGTON — Toward the end, the pain had practically driven Elizabeth Martin mad.

By then, the cancer had spread everywhere, from her colon to her spine, her liver, her adrenal glands and one of her lungs. Eventually, it penetrated her brain. No medication made the pain bearable. A woman who had been generous and good-humored turned into someone hardly recognizable to her loving family: paranoid, snarling, violent.

Sometimes, she would flee into the California night in her bedclothes, “as if she were trying to outrun the pain,” her older sister Anita Freeman recalled.

Ms. Martin fantasized about having her sister drive her into the mountains and leave her with the liquid morphine drops she had surreptitiously collected over three months — medicine that didn’t relieve her pain but might be enough to kill her if she took it all at once. Ms. Freeman couldn’t bring herself to do it, fearing the legal consequences and the possibility that her sister would survive and end up in even worse shape.

California’s aid-in-dying law, authorizing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to certain terminally ill patients, was still two years from going into effect in 2016. But Ms. Martin did have one alternative to the agonizing death she feared: palliative sedation.

Under palliative sedation, a doctor gives a terminally ill patient enough sedatives to induce unconsciousness. The goal is to reduce or eliminate suffering, but in many cases the patient dies without regaining consciousness.

The medical staff at the Long Beach acute care center where Ms. Martin was a patient gave her phenobarbital. Once they calibrated the dosage properly, she never woke up again. She died within a week, not the one or two months her doctors had predicted before the sedation. She was 66.

“At least she got into that coma state versus four to eight weeks of torture,” Ms. Freeman said.

While aid-in-dying, or “death with dignity,” is now legal in seven states and Washington, D.C., medically assisted suicide retains tough opposition. Palliative sedation, though, has been administered since the hospice care movement began in the 1960s and is legal everywhere.

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