December 16, 2016
by Sean Philpott-Jones, Chair, Bioethics Program of Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Means to an End
My mother passed away last Wednesday. She was found unresponsive on the floor of her kitchen early Tuesday, in severe septic shock from untreated peritonitis and a perforated intestine. Although she was admitted to the intensive care unit and given aggressive medical treatment, she never regained consciousness. Because of her age and her poor health – exacerbated by the fact that she had ignored the signs and symptoms of sepsis for nearly a month – her body was simply not strong enough to fight the infection. Less than thirty-six hours after she was admitted to the hospital, we let her peacefully and painlessly slip away.
I’m telling you this story not to garner sympathy, but rather to share with you a lesson that I learned. Because my mother was unmarried and because she was unable to consent for treatment, according to the laws of the state in which she lived I was the de facto decision maker about her medical care. This is quite common. Unless otherwise indicated, family members – usually the spouse, adult children, adult siblings and parents, in that order – are assumed to be the surrogate decision makers for a patient who cannot provide consent.
The decisions that I had to make, most of which were made at 2:30 in the morning after chatting briefly with the clinical care team, included the decision to make my mother DNR (‘do not resuscitate’) after her heart stopped for the third time.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.