Only later did I realize that I never told Pedro how close he now was to dying. His cancer had spread despite two lines of chemotherapy, a previous “debulking” surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, and constant surveillance with CT scans. It had nearly claimed the use of his legs. Most likely, it would claim his life within the next six months.
During our first meeting in the hospital’s cancer ward, Pedro confided to me how happy he was to have a doctor who spoke to him in his native Spanish. “It feels so good to be understood,” he said. “Hopefully, with God’s help, you’ll find a way to help me.” We didn’t only talk about his spinal cord. Every time I checked on him, we chatted about his old life in Guatemala.
A couple of times, Pedro arranged it so that his family visited while I made rounds, so I could talk to them all together about the steps that lay ahead. “I’m sorry, but it looks like the cancer has grown,” I told them. I mentioned the upcoming procedures, the possibility of radiation therapy, how the oncologist was considering a third line of chemotherapy, but I admit I never fully connected the dots for them. Telling him what this all meant, how it was almost certain that he would die sooner than he thought, proved too difficult. Like any good doctor, I know how to keep patients focused on the positives—“your family’s all here,” or “it’s good to see you sitting up”—while respecting reality. But something about Pedro, with his calm smile and earnest pleas for my help, made it more difficult than usual to summon up the courage to deliver bad news.
Pedro’s daughter almost seemed to sense my trepidation. She couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, but that didn’t keep her from staring at me with doctor-suspicious eyes, as if I might be the boss of her father’s fate. Whenever she did this, I smiled at her and turned my attention toward Pedro. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
A couple of days later, I traveled to Chicago to participate in a panel discussion that gathered palliative-care specialists from around the country with patient advocates, ethicists, social workers, and internists (like me), as well as representatives from organizations such as the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the Society of Hospital Medicine. The central question: How can we improve end-of-life care in the hospital? While everyone brought a different perspective, what bound us together, caregivers and the bereaved alike, was how much the experience of a hospital death had impacted us—how impersonal it had become, how mechanized, how inhumane. One of the panelists described losing her 36-year-old husband to metastatic colon cancer. Even though she saw a multitude of doctors every day, when her young husband found himself struggling to breathe near the end, none of them dared to discuss the inevitable. “No one told us anything,” she said.