Understanding Life Support
August 7, 2018
Although the term “life support” is actually quite broad, when most people use this term, they are referring to a ventilator, or a machine that helps people breathe by pushing air into the lungs. Other common life support treatments include feeding tubes (devices to provide food and water) and CPR. When a patient is terminally ill, medical interventions such as life support can prolong the life of the patient. It is estimated that 60-70% of seriously ill patients will not be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to accept life support. Therefore family members or caregivers are often left with the complicated decision of whether or not they should accept such treatment on the patient’s behalf. Being proactive can help lighten that burden from your loved ones.
Make Proactive Decisions
The first step is to ask yourself whether or not you would like to receive life support should you have a terminal illness and lose function of vital organs such as your brain, heart, or lungs. All life-support treatments have benefits and disadvantages. While a certain treatment such as a ventilator may sustain breathing, it may also cause the patient discomfort. Quality of life will likely be a major factor in making your decision. When considering life support, you should ask yourself some important questions about the side effects and purpose of each intervention. You may also ask yourself, “Does this treatment usually improve overall health, or does it simply extend life?”.
Once you have decided where you stand on treatments such as ventilators, feeding tubes, and CPR, the next step is to create an Advance Directive or Living Will. In these documents, you will specify the types of life support treatments that you would or would not like to receive at the end of life.
Talk About It
The best way to ensure that your end-of-life wishes are carried out is to talk about them now, while you are still able to speak for yourself. Once you have made your decision, consider having the conversation with your life partner, best friend, or children, so that they can be prepared to fulfill your needs and wishes when you are nearing the end of life. Bringing up such issues may seem daunting. Fortunately, The Conversation Project has excellent free resources for talking with your loved ones and health care professionals about your end-of-life wishes.
Discontinuing Life Support for a Loved One
Should you find yourself in the difficult position of having to choose if/when to discontinue life support for a loved one, and they do not have an Advance Directive, there are some steps you can take to make your decision easier. It is important to gather as much information as possible from the health care team to determine whether life support is increasing the possibility of recovery, or merely prolonging your loved one’s life. It may be helpful to ask yourself, “What would he or she likely want?” It might be “I don’t want anything to prolong this condition" or, “Take me off the machine." It might be “I want all possible treatments that make sense medically.”
Choosing to discontinue life support usually means that your loved one will die within a few hours or days. During that time, doctors will do all they can to keep your loved one comfortable. It is completely normal to feel sadness, guilt, or fear during this complicated time. But remember: your decision is not the cause of your loved one’s death; the disease or injury is.