Never Too Late To Operate? Surgery Near End Of Life Is Common, Costly

Kaiser Health News, March 1, 2018

Nearly 1 in 3 Medicare patients undergo an operation in their final year of life.

This article first appeared February 28, 2018 on Kaiser Health News.

Dr. Rita Redberg (left), director of women's cardiovascular services at the University of California-San Francisco Division of Cardiology; her mother, Mae Redberg (seated); and her daughter, Anna Larson, pose for a portrait in Mae's apartment in Manhattan in October 2017. Dr. Redberg struggles to stop other doctors from performing too many procedures on Mae, who is 92. (Photo by Yana Paskova for Kaiser Health News)

By Liz Szabo

At 87, Maxine Stanich cared more about improving the quality of her life than prolonging it.

She suffered from a long list of health problems, including heart failure and chronic lung disease that could leave her gasping for breath.

When her time came, she wanted to die a natural death, Stanich told her daughter, and signed a “do not resuscitate” directive, or DNR, ordering doctors not to revive her should her heart stop.

Yet a trip to a San Francisco emergency room for shortness of breath in 2008 led Stanich to get a defibrillator implanted in her chest — a medical device to keep her alive by delivering a powerful shock. At the time, Stanich didn’t fully grasp what she had agreed to, even though she signed a document granting permission for the procedure, said her daughter, Susan Giaquinto.

That clarity came only during a subsequent visit to a different hospital, when a surprised ER doctor saw a defibrillator protruding from the DNR patient’s thin chest. To Stanich’s horror, the ER doctor explained that the device would not allow her to slip away painlessly and that the jolt would be “so strong that it will knock her across the room,” said Giaquinto, who accompanied her mother on both hospital trips.

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


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