- Two days before Christmas, 46 year old Chris Dunn died in the ICU at Houston’s Methodist Hospital. Almost everything you’ve read and heard is a deliberate, political skewing of the facts.
Texas Right to Life turned Mr. Dunn’s imminent death from metastatic pancreatic cancer into a crusade against the Texas Advance Directive Act (TADA or the Act). The Act is invoked by the attending doctor – not the hospital or ethics committee – when family members demand that he or she perform acts that go against the conscience because they are medically inappropriate, causing the patient to suffer without changing his course.
In this case, the mother and father disagreed with one another about the care plan and the patient was unable to make legally binding decisions. The father agreed with Mr. Dunn’s doctors that the treatment was causing suffering, objected to surgery to place a tracheostomy, and wanted hospice and comfort care. The mother wanted dangerous, painful procedures performed that would not change the medical outlook except to possibly hasten death.
And, unless you read the court records, you wouldn’t know that the judge ruled that Chris was not mentally competent to make his own medical decisions, that the hospital never wanted guardianship and had voluntarily promised to continue care until the guardianship could be settled. In fact all the lawyers, including the Texas Right to Life representatives, signed off on an agreement acknowledging this promise on December 4th. ( The official court records are available to view free of charge online at the Harris County District Clerk’s website as protected pdf images. See Family case number 2015- 69681.)
Inflammatory headlines falsely claimed that “the hospital” had imposed a “death sentence,” and was actively trying to kill Mr. Dunn by refusing to diagnose, treat or even give a prognosis. That same blog post mentioned non-standard treatments that some in the family were demanding.
First of all, of course there was a diagnosis. Several, in fact. From the signed affidavit of Mr. Dunn’s attending physician, filed December 2, 2015 in response to the law suit:
“Based on my education, training, experience, as well as my care of Mr. Dunn, I, and members of my team, have advised his family members that Mr. Dunn suffers from end stage liver disease, the presence of a pancreatic mass suspected to be malignant with metastasis to the liver and complications of gastric outlet obstruction secondary to his pancreatic mass. Further, he suffers from hepatic encephalopathy, acute renal failure, sepsis, acute respiratory failure, multi-organ failure, and gastrointestestinal bleed. I have advised members of Mr. Dunn’s family that it is my clinical opinion that Mr. Dunn’s present condition is irreversible and progressively terminal.”
The primary diagnosis was metastatic pancreatic cancer. The cancer was a mass that blocked the ducts and blood vessels coming from the liver as well as the normal function of the intestines. As liver excretions backed up into the liver and the blood pressure in the liver increased, Mr. Dunn suffered a life-threatening gastrointestinal bleed, fluid buildup in the abdomen and lungs, and sepsis (an overwhelming infection). All of these would aggravate respiratory failure, the necessity of a ventilator and lead to the kidney damage. Liver failure often results in hepatic encephalopathy and variable delirium.
There was definitely treatment given, including tube and IV feedings, antibiotics, the ventilator, and periodic removal of the abdominal fluid. Again, this was all publicly documented in Court documents, in the media and even on the Texas Right to Life blog that claimed that “Houston Methodist has invested no time or effort in Chris’s health, instead exerting their energies into trying to kill him instead.” [sic]
The Intensive Care doctors as well as the Biomedical Ethics Committee, met with the parents to explain Mr. Dunn’s condition and his prognosis. The family was given notice before the Committee hearing and met with the (not at all “nameless” or “faceless”) Committee to discuss their (differing) wants. Thirty days’ worth of medical records, a hospital case worker and assistance in finding alternative care were made available to the family.
Then, there’s the complaint about the limits on visitors and videotaping. It is not unusual to limit Intensive Care Unit visits to specific times and to allow only close family, especially when the patient can’t consent and there is contention among family members. It is certainly standard to prohibit filming in the Unit, since patients are visible from one area to the next, in various states of undress and undergoing constant or frequent *intensive* treatments.
(BTW, one of the lawyers in the TRTL ICU video proves the basis for the rules: he is not compliant with the usual isolation procedures. Former Senator Joe Nixon didn’t wear the protective gown at all correctly, risking the introduction of infectious contamination into the room and/or taking germs home with him.)
It’s very unusual for patients on a ventilator to be conscious because of the severe discomfort associated with the foreign body – the breathing tube – that is necessary in the airways. It’s difficult to believe that anyone would complain about sedating Mr. Dunn in order to bypass his gag reflex.
Finally, the standard of care in advanced metastatic pancreatic cancer is pain relief and palliative support. The surgery to remove a pancreas is extremely dangerous for even healthier patients. As Mr. Dunn had already had an episode of bleeding and both liver and kidney failure, it’s likely that even a biopsy of the pancreatic mass or liver, much less surgery, would have caused more life-threatening bleeding. With liver and kidney damage, he wouldn’t have been able to tolerate trials of radiation or chemotherapy, either.
In fact, the doctors and nurses gave excellent treatment all along, as shown by his survival beyond the average for patients who presented in such a precarious state and acknowledged by Mrs. Kelly in her statement after Chris’ death.
The truth is that Methodist never made plans to “kill” Mr. Dunn. Mr. Dunn was never in danger of the hospital “pulling the plug.” The real problem was a disagreement between Mr. Dunn’s divorced parents over who would legally make medical decisions. That rift is bound to have been made worse by TRTL and the lawyers turning Chris’ illness into a public political battle. The accusations about euthanasia, killing and murder may cause other future patients harm, if they are reluctant to seek care because of these stories.