‘Comfort care’ shines light on dying
Barbara Bush’s decision on her terminal illness drawing praise
As she nears death at age 92, former first lady Barbara Bush’s announcement that she is seeking “comfort care” is shining a light — and stirring debate — on what it means to stop trying to fight terminal illness.
Bush, the wife of former president George H.W. Bush, has been suffering from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, says family spokesman Jim McGrath.
In a public statement Sunday, the family announced she has decided “not to seek additional medical treatment and will focus on comfort care.”
The announcement comes amid a national effort to define and document patients’ wishes and consider alternatives before they are placed on what has been described as a “conveyor belt” of costly medical interventions aimed at prolonging life.
Ellen Goodman, co-founder of the Conversation Project, which encourages families to discuss and document their end-of-life preferences, applauded the Bush family announcement.
“It sounds like this forthright, outspoken woman has made her wishes known, and the family is standing by her,” Goodman said.
“It makes perfectly good sense at her age, with her failing health, that she would say at some point, ‘Life’s been good, and while you always want more, it’s enough,’ ” said Joanne Lynn, director of the program to improve elder care at Altarum Institute.
Lynn worked with Barbara Bush years ago when she was a congressional spouse volunteering at the Washington Home for chronically ill patients. Bush helped with the founding of the hospice program there.
“We have so few examples in visible leadership positions” of public figures promoting palliative care, she said.
“It’s a personal decision that she didn’t have to share, but hopefully it will encourage others to think about their choices, talk about their choices, document their choices and have those choices honored,” said Nathan Kottkamp, founder and chair of National Healthcare Decisions Day.
Thousands were expected to focus on their end-of-life preferences Monday, which has been designated as National Health Care Decisions Day since 2008.
Haider Warraich, a fellow in cardiovascular medicine at Duke University Medical Center and author of the book
Modern Death, also applauded the Bush family for putting the phrase “comfort care” into the public sphere so that other people can consider it “a viable option at the end of life.”
But he said the family statement also creates confusion about the meaning of “comfort care,” by suggesting that it entails stopping medical treatment.
“Comfort care” usually refers to palliative care, which focuses on managing patients’ symptoms to keep them comfortable and retain their dignity, he said.
“One of the common myths about palliative care is that they are being denied medical help,” Warraich said.
For heart failure patients, he said, “comfort care” usually means opting not to use a breathing machine or CPR. But patients continue to receive treatment, including morphine to ease shortness of breath and diuretics to remove excess fluid from their lungs, he said.
Heart failure patients, he said, often receive “escalating medical treatments until days before the end of life.”
“By bringing this into the sphere of discussion,” Warraich said, “we can start thinking about comfort and palliation long before they are in the clutches of death.”
Kaiser Health News is part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
“It sounds like this forthright, outspoken woman has made her wishes known, and the family is standing by her.”
Ellen Goodman Co-founder of the Conversation Project
Barbara Bush, the wife of former president George H.W. Bush, has decided “not to seek additional medical treatment,” a spokesman says.