Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding a Language,
Creating a Space

Pallimed Case Conferences ( is closed to comments and new posts as of April 25, 2013.
This site will stay online as an archived source, but will no longer be updated.
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By David Barnard, Ph.D.
Vol 1, No. 4 - October 2001
(Original PDF*)

Mr. L.O. was an elderly Russian immigrant to Canada, admitted to the Palliative Care Unit of a Canadian hospital with advanced rectal cancer. When L.O. was first presented to the multidisciplinary team, his major problems were identified as persistent rectal pain and anxiety. The initial workup of the pain suggested a neuropathic component, and adjustments were made to L.O.’s medications. His complaints of pain and anxiety persisted over the next several days.

L.O. then began to experience terrifying nightmares. Even during the day, when he was awake, he would have what he called “flashes” of frightening imagery, but the nightmares were the worst. L.O. was so fearful of them that he resisted falling asleep as much as he could. The images were horrific, often violent, with L.O. sometimes being the victim of the violence, sometimes the perpetrator. A CT scan was ordered to investigate the possibility of brain metastases as a contributing factor.

At the same time, the attending palliative care physician had a long interview with L.O., in which they explored the content of the nightmares in depth. L.O. was an amateur artist, and the physician suggested that he might sketch the images in his dreams, or, if not the exact images, some rendering of how they made him feel. L.O. did this. Subsequent conversations revealed that L.O. was estranged from his children; the main reason that he needed to be in the Palliative Care Unit was that none of his children cared enough about him to support him while he lived at home. L.O.’s sketches showed a small figure—himself—cowering at the bottom of a deep pit, with another figure standing far above, looking down.

The physician suggested that L.O., who had become physically well enough for a weekend pass, bring some of his previous paintings back with him to the Palliative Care Unit. Within a few days, the sound of hammering could be heard from L.O’s room. He was hanging his pictures, 15 or 20 in all. Most were landscapes, but there were also a portrait of a lovely young woman, and a winter scene, all in black and silvery white, of a snow- and ice-lined brook leading into a dark woods. The next morning L.O. reported that he had dreamed of eating a chicken dinner.


Two features of this case are striking. The first is the necessity of combining medical and psychosocial approaches to L.O.’s nightmares and overwhelming anxiety. Both the CT scan and several psychoactive medications were appropriate and helpful. But it was the in-depth exploration of the content of the imagery, and even more, the suggestion that L.O. use his art to capture his emotional state in drawings, that appeared to unlock the insights and emotions that lay beneath the anxiety and terror. The physician succeeded in helping L.O. find a language to express himself more effectively and concretely than he had been able to do at a purely verbal level. The physician found a form of expression that “fit” the patient, even though that form was somewhat unconventional.

The second feature concerns the possibility of creating a living space in the Palliative Care Unit where L.O. could work his way to a feeling of peace and safety, despite his estrangement. This use of the inpatient palliative care service would almost certainly be impossible in the United States, with our minimal lengths of stay and our restrictive utilization review requirements. L.O. died in this Canadian palliative care unit many days after his physical and emotional symptoms had been brought firmly under control. But the inpatient environment remained critical to his spiritual well-being. Even though the Canadian health care system faces some of the same economic pressures as that in the U.S., the possibility still exists there for more flexibility to respond to the broadest range of patient or family need, compared to the limits imposed by hospice and palliative care financing in the U.S.


1. Pratt A, Wood M (eds). Art Therapy in Palliative Care. London: Routledge, 1998.

2. Lynn J. Serving patients who may die soon and their families: The role of hospice and other services. JAMA, 2001, 285:925-932. (No open access pdf)

3. Raphael C, Ahrens J, Fowler N. Financing end-of-life care in the USA. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2001, 94:458-461. (Open access PDF avail from Journal and PubMed Central)

(CS: Minor formatting edits for readability)

Thursday, October 16, 2008 by Christian Sinclair ·

Thursday, October 2, 2008

One Man’s Journey Toward Deactivating His Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillator

By Ellen Redinbaugh, Ph.D.
Vol 1, No. 4 - September 2001
(Original PDF*)

Mr. C, a 68 year old widower with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) placed five years previously, was admitted to the hospital after his ICD discharged several times in one day. Each discharge was associated with severe pain, loss of consciousness, and heightened anxiety about experiencing future discharges. Evaluation of the ICD firing confirmed refractory ventricular tachyarrhythmias consistent with Mr. C.’s end-stage heart failure. Trials of anti-arrhythmic medications proved unsuccessful. The frequency of ICD discharges could not be reduced without deactivating the device (which would cause imminent death), yet leaving the ICD active would prolong Mr. C’s suffering.

When his primary medical team informed him about his medical condition and prognosis, Mr. C showed ambivalence about deactivating his ICD. He clearly stated to his health care team that he “did not want to live under these circumstances” and that “shutting off this pacemaker may be the best thing for me.” However, he did not like being left alone for fear his heart would stop and no one would be available to resuscitate him. His primary medical team consulted the Palliative Care Team (PCT) to discuss end-of-life options and goals with the patient and family. The PCT treated Mr. C’s anxiety with clonazepam and relaxation training, “supported” his ambivalence, and assisted with his discharge planning.

As the PCT continued working with Mr. C, it became apparent that Mr. C experienced tremendous remorse for “what I put my family through 20 years ago after my wife died.” Although his family openly stated that all was forgiven, Mr. C could not accept their reassurances – “I wish I could make it up to them.” The PCT initiated an intervention where Mr. C talked about his family members one at a time, and he described his happiest memory, what he appreciated, and what he loved about each one. His thoughts were written down, and the family was trained to continue the exercise until all family members were done. Mr. C was discharged with home hospice, and his family completed the PCT intervention at home. The day after Mr. C finished his individualized sentiments, he requested to have his ICD turned off. A representative from the ICD manufacturer came to Mr. C’s home and deactivated the ICD. Mr. C died two hours later in the comfort of his home and surrounded by his family.


ICDs are used to treat people at risk for sudden death due to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation. They deliver an electrical charge to the myocardium during an arrhythmic event, and the “shock” allows the ventricle to resume a normal rhythm1. ICDs allow many people to enjoy a prolonged life without significant compromise to quality of life, but in cases of end-stage heart disease ICDs can cause significant physical suffering simply by doing their “job” - repeatedly normalizing arrhythmic events. Patient quality of life is further compromised by the severe anxiety associated with the fear of receiving a future shock2.

For patients with end-stage heart disease, deactivating the ICD can be a sound medical, ethical, and legal decision for them - albeit a difficult one. For Mr. C, his ambivalence about turning off his ICD was driven by his need for reconciliation with his family. Once this was achieved he calmly and peacefully made his decision to die. His case suggests that end-of-life decision making can be difficult for patients, and they may need time and guidance in completing their relationships with their loved ones before they can make the medical decision that is best for them.

ICDs can be deactivated in different ways depending on the urgency of the situation. In cases requiring immediate action (e.g., a patient is actively dying of end-stage cancer and his ICD fires causing the patient to go into convulsions), pacemaker magnets placed over the device deactivate it within seconds. In less urgent cases, the manufacturer and/or the electrophysiology service can assist with ICD deactivation. For patients at the end-of-life, turning off an ICD is similar to withdrawing a ventilator: the patient (or surrogate) has elected for comfort measures in lieu of aggressive medical care.


1. Braun, TC, Hagen, NA, Hatfield, RE, Wyse, DG (1999). Cardiac pacemakers and implantable defibrillators in terminal care. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 18, 126-131. (No open access PDF)

2. Dunbar, SB, Warner, CD, Purcell, JA (1993). Internal cardioverter debrillator device discharge: Experiences of patients and family members. Heart Lung, 22, 494-501. (Open access PDF)

3. Quill, TE (1996). A midwife through the dying process: stories of healing and hard choices at the end of life. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thursday, October 2, 2008 by Christian Sinclair ·