Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Palliative Sedation Therapy

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.
For active posts on these cases and new cases go to 

By Susan Hunt, MD
Vol 8, No. 9 - October 2008


You are asked to see Mrs. RT, a 44-year old woman with end-stage COPD. She was admitted to inpatient hospice with increased anxiety, hopelessness, and pain “all over.” She says she is tired of being sick and exhausted, and wants to be “put to sleep.” She has heard about “terminal sedation” and is angry it hasn’t been offered. She lives with her husband and adult children who work full-time and is upset they can’t all stay home with her. She experiences dyspnea with activity, and uses a wheelchair, but can independently transfer to bed and toilet. Your exam reveals she is awake and alert, neither delirious by the confusion assessment score (CAM), nor suicidal. She is cachectic, tachypnic, and has generalized muscle atrophy. She lacks signs of infection or localized pain. You estimate her prognosis in months. She takes medications erratically for symptom control.

What is Palliative Sedation Therapy (PST)?

Patients and families sometimes have heard or been told about “terminal sedation,” but it is a frequently misunderstood term and therapy. The term “terminal sedation” suggests the goal of the therapy is hastening death for terminally ill patients, when in fact the goal is symptom relief. Therefore, the term “palliative sedation therapy (PST)” is much preferred since the goal of PST is relief from intolerable and untreatable symptoms, not shortening a patient’s life. An international panel of palliative care experts recently reviewed the medical literature on PST and published their recommendations for standardizing our understanding of this therapy1. They recommend the following definition: “Palliative sedation therapy is the use of specific sedative medications to relieve intolerable suffering from refractory symptoms by a reduction in patient consciousness.” They emphasize that palliative sedation is distinct from euthanasia while acknowledging lively debate on this issue.

The panel’s position is based on their assertion that hastening a terminally ill patient’s death is not the goal of PST. Other points of difference between PST and euthanasia are the principle of titration to comfort rather than to death, and PST’s reversibility.

What are refractory symptoms?

Refractory symptoms are considered symptoms for which all possible treatments have failed. A patient experiencing refractory symptoms must be differentiated from a patient who has symptoms that are difficult to treat. Refractory symptoms are symptoms that the palliative care physician and team determine cannot safely be relieved by invasive or noninvasive interventions. Expert panel members recommend Cherney’s definition of refractory symptoms: “Refractory symptoms are symptoms for which all possible treatment has failed, or it is estimated that no other therapies exist within the patient’s time-frame or tolerable risk-benefit ratio.”

When is PST considered?

PST is considered for patients with refractory symptoms only after discussions with the patient and/or family, the caregiving team, and the palliative care expert. The most frequent reasons for PST have been refractory delirium or restlessness, dyspnea, pain, and nausea/vomiting. The use of PST or psychological or existential distress is rare, and initiated only under exceptional circumstances. PST is considered only in the last hours to days of life.

Experts recommend a systematic and inclusive process to determine if PST appropriate, which includes the patient, if possible, designated surrogate and caregivers, and addresses the patient’s values, beliefs, and goals. If PST is chosen, then the specific intervention is discussed and reviewed, instituted, and carefully monitored. Decisions about nutrition and hydration are discussed separately from the decision to offer PST.

Medications used for PST include benzodiazepines (usually midazolam), except for delirious patients, phenobarbital, or propofol. Opioids are not recommended for PST because even high doses may not result in sedation.

Since the aim of PST is the relief of refractory symptoms, doses of sedatives are carefully chosen to relieve distress by reducing a patient’s level of consciousness and are not excessive. The degree of sedation can vary from superficial to deep sedation. Initial doses of sedatives should be small enough to allow a patient to communicate periodically.

Refractory symptoms may respond to temporary sedation, since a patient’s ability to tolerate symptoms may be improved following rest provided by sedation. Experts identify three levels of continuous sedation. With mild sedation, the patient is awake, but has a lowered level of consciousness. Moderate sedation results in stupor, so that the patient is asleep, but can be awakened to communicate briefly. With deep PST, the patient is unconscious and unresponsive. PST is frequently monitored and assessed, with attention to the needs and goals of both patient and family.

Back to the Case:

You convene a meeting with the patient, her family, and the palliative care team. After asking open-ended questions and listening to concerns, you offer information about PST but say that you think her symptoms can be treated. You offer medication changes including around the- clock rather than as needed opioids for relief of dyspnea and pain, and a comprehensive treatment plan for her anxiety and depression. Her family finds ways for her to be less isolated, and the hospice team offers additional services and frequent monitoring. Although she is skeptical, she is willing to consider these options as possibly improving the quality of her life.


1. De Graeff A. Dean M: Palliative Sedation Therapy in the Last Weeks of Life: A Literature Review and Recommendation for Standards. Journal of Palliative Medicine 2007; Vol10 (1); 67-84.

2. Cherny NI. Portenoy RK: Sedation in the management of refractory symptoms: guidelines for evaluation and treatment. Journal of Palliative Care 1994;10;31-38.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008 by Christian Sinclair ·

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Trapped Inside a Failing Body

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.
For active posts on these cases and new cases go to 

By Rev. Carol Henley, M.Div
Vol 8, No. 8 - September 2008


JD is a 66-year-old African-American female with cardiomyopathy and pulmonary hypertension who has been in and out of the hospital for the past two years. She had biventricular assist devices placed in August, 2007. Since then, she has experienced numerous setbacks and subsequently has been on and off the heart-lung transplant list. Most recently, she went to the OR to have her current LVAD replaced with a smaller unit. The procedure was aborted.

JD is divorced with no children. Prior to hospital admission, she lived alone, independently, in a one-story home. A supportive brother and sister live nearby. She is very sharp, speaks her mind, and has no patience for what she perceives as incompetence or “stupidity.” She expects staff to communicate with her directly and has no tolerance for ambiguity, mixed messages or superficiality. She has alienated several of the staff who don’t meet her expectations.

Over the past couple years, I have visited JD numerous times. In my first visit, she told me where to sit and told me to read certain passages of Scripture to her. (She has taught adult Bible study and has been very active in her church). I went along with her request (i.e., “order,”) and we actually had a stimulating theological discussion. Our visit ended with prayer. After this first visit, she no longer told me what to do. In subsequent visits, she shared her life story. I found that gently kidding around with her diffused her intensity. We spent many visits with her telling me about her life from childhood on, and we’ve shared much laughter. I enjoyed celebrating with her those memories that gave her joy.

In the last few months, her emotional ups and downs have become more pronounced. She was focused on getting a heart-lung transplant, which turned out not to be an option. She faced a surgery with a questionable predicted outcome, knowing she might die on the operating table. That surgery ended up being aborted. I have seen her at all-time emotional lows as well as in periods of bouncing back. Spiritually, she says she knows that God is with her; she has “no doubts” about that. She also says she must make all decisions, including life and death decisions, on her own – without God’s help.


The anchor in all my visits with her is prayer—prayer for guidance for her in decision making, prayer that lifts all her specific concerns and joys to God. We always hold hands in prayer, which she anticipates and appreciates. The healing aspects of this relationship are consistency and love. In the time we spend together, JD has shared precious, sometimes outrageously funny memories of her life. I have lifted up these memories to God in prayer with her, sometimes in a humorous way. My hope is that rather than compartmentalizing her spirituality she will allow God more and more into her decision making, that she will let God carry the weight of her burdens. This seems to be difficult for her, since she is so fiercely independent.

More and more, she seems now to be dealing with the prospect of her earthly life ending. While she remains trapped in a failing body with future prospects dim, she is now looking at her life with a sense of “well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) which is the ultimate healing.


Addressing quality of life is essential for patients with prolonged hospital stays. Patients on LVADS or BIVADS are physically restricted. While the body may be restrained, the mind is free to roam. Well-being must be viewed holistically, with emotional and spiritual needs being addressed. One researcher found that patient coping strategies include family support, religious convictions, and diversional activities, and that best way to support these patients is to establish a trusting relationship, foster independence and incorporate humor into their care. (Savage)


1. Savage, Laura, RN, MSN (2003) Quality of Life among Patients with a Left Ventricular Assist Device: What is New? AACN Clinical Issues 2003 Feb. 14 (1) pp.64-72.

2. Savage, Laura, RN, MSN (1999) Life With a Left Ventricular Assist Device: The Patient’s Perspective American Journal of Critical Care Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 340-343.
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Thursday, November 13, 2008 by Christian Sinclair ·