Ventilator Rationing, Universal DNRs, and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Ventilator Rationing, Universal DNRs, and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

By Nancy Valko, RN

As a nurse myself, it is hard to watch my fellow nurses bravely fighting on the front lines of this pandemic without being able to be there with them.

Nurses are a special breed. In my over 50 years as a nurse, I found that most of us chose nursing because we want to help people and alleviate suffering. We work the long hours on our feet, skip meals, hold hands and listen, cry when our patients die, etc. because we truly do care.

But the healthcare system has been changing. A dark new ethics movement is infecting our system and telling us not only that our patients have a right to choose to end their lives but also that some of our patients even “need” to die and that we can’t care for all of them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worst of all, we are being told that we can now know how to decide which patients are “expendable.”

Ventilator rationing

A 71-year-old man with a heart condition arrives at a hospital is diagnosed with COVID-19. His condition worsens, and he is placed on a ventilator to help him breathe. Then the infection rate spikes in the city, and the hospital is overrun with severely ill patients, many between 20 and 50 years old and otherwise healthy.

The healthcare team is forced to decide which patients should they focus on and care for.

This is the scenario posed in a March 20, 2020, Medpage article “Ethics Consult: Take Elderly COVID-19 Patient Off Ventilator?— You Make the Call” along with an online survey with 3 questions:

  1. Would you prioritize the care of healthier and younger patients and shift the ventilator from the elderly man to patients with a higher probability of recovering? 
  2. Would you change your decision if the elderly patient had been in intensive care for a non-COVID-19-related illness? 
  3. Would you prioritize the older man over college students who had likely been infected during spring break trips?

After almost 4,000 votes, the survey showed 55.65% voting yes on prioritizing the care of the healthier and younger patients, 78.11% voting no on changing their decision about the elderly patient if he didn’t have COVID-19, and 71.12% voting no on prioritizing the elderly man over college students likely to have been infected on a spring break trip.

So while most people fear becoming infected with COVID-19, less well-known ethical dangers may also affect us, especially those of us who are older or debilitated.

Every day, we hear about the shortage of ventilators needed for COVID-19 patients and the overworked and understaffed healthcare professionals providing the care. Now both mainstream media and medical journals are publishing articles about the ethical dilemma of denying CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or a ventilator to older patients or those with a poor prognosis with COVID-19 in a triage situation.

Triage is defined as “a process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment. Triage is used in hospital emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at disaster sites when limited medical resources must be allocated.” (Emphasis added)

But this definition does NOT include deciding how to triage people based on age or “productivity.”

Universal DNRs

A March 25, 2020, Washington Post article “A Framework for Rationing Ventilators and Critical Care Beds During the COVID-19 Pandemic” posed the question: “how to weigh the ‘save at all costs’ approach to resuscitating a dying patient against the real danger of exposing doctors and nurses to the contagion of coronavirus.”

This is not just an academic discussion.

As the article reveals, “Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has been discussing a do-not-resuscitate policy for infected patients, regardless of the wishes of the patient or their family members—a wrenching decision to prioritize the lives of the many over the one.” (Emphasis added) And Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine and a University of Pennsylvania surgeon, described how colleagues at different institutions are sharing draft policies to address their changed reality.

Bioethicist Scott Halpern at the University of Pennsylvania is cited as the author of one widely circulated model guideline being considered by many hospitals. In an interview, he said a universal DNR for COVID-19 patients was too “draconian” and could sacrifice a young person in otherwise good health. He also noted that the reality of healthcare workers with limited protective equipment cannot be ignored. “If we risk their well-being in service of one patient, we detract from the care of future patients, which is unfair,” he said.

The article notes that “Halpern’s document calls for two physicians, the one directly taking care of a patient and one who is not, to sign off on do-not-resuscitate orders. They must document the reason for the decision, and the family must be informed but does not have to agree.” (Emphasis added)

This could not only upend traditional ethics but also the law as “Healthcare providers are bound by oath—and in some states, by law—to do everything they can within the bounds of modern technology to save a patient’s life, absent an order, such as a DNR, to do otherwise.”

Both disability and pro-life groups have condemned such healthcare rationing with COVID-19, especially for older people and people with disabilities.

However, this and more is apparently already happening.

In an April 1, 2020, Wall Street Journal article “What the Nurses See: Bronx Hospital Reels as Coronavirus Swamps New York” a coworker told the nurse interviewed that the nurses were no longer doing chest compressions to resuscitate COVID-19 patients because “it uses lots of protective gear and puts workers at greater risk than chemical resuscitations.” This was corroborated by other nurses who said this has become an “unspoken rule.”

Conclusion

How can we protect ourselves and our loved ones in these circumstances?

At the very least and whether or not we are older or have disabilities, we should consider or reconsider our advance directives.

As the Life Legal Defense Foundation writes in their “SPECIAL MESSAGE ABOUT COVID-19 AND ADVANCE HEALTH CARE DIRECTIVES”:

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, the public is learning about the importance of mechanical ventilators in providing temporary breathing support for many of those infected. Ventilators are saving lives!

A false understanding of respirators and ventilators has become commonplace in recent years. Many people think that these and similar machines’ only role is prolonging the dying process. The widely publicized treatment of COVID-19 patients is helping to dispel that myth. Many patients rely on machines temporarily every day for any number of reasons and go on to make full recoveries.

Unfortunately, many individuals have completed advance health care directives stating or suggesting that they do not wish to receive breathing assistance through mechanical ventilation.

Please take the time to review any advanced medical directives (including POLST forms) signed by you or your loved ones to make sure they are clear that mechanical ventilation is not among the forms of care that are refused. If there is any ambiguity, you may want to consider writing, signing, and dating an addendum specifying that mechanical ventilation is authorized. (Emphasis in original)

I would add that other treatments or care such as DNRs and feeding tubes also not be automatically checked off. I believe it is safer to appoint a trusted person to insist on being given all information concerning risks and benefit before permission is given to withdraw or withhold treatment.

Even as the nation is racing to get more ventilators and staff as we cope with this terrible pandemic, we all must continue to affirm the value of EVERY human life.

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Nancy Valko, RN ALNC, has been an RN for over 50 years and is currently working as a legal nurse consultant and volunteer. She is a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses (nursesforlife.org). She has been speaking, writing, and testifying on pro-life issues for over 35 years, including writing the blog entitled A Nurse’s Perspective on Life, Healthcare, and Ethics (nancyvalko.com). Nancy lives in St. Louis with her husband, Kevin Scannell, and together they have four living children and four living grandchildren.

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at alexschadenberg.blogspot.com/2020/04/ventilator-rationing-universal-dnrs-and.html.