For five weeks, Anita Freeman watched her sister writhe in pain. The colon cancer diagnosed four years earlier became metastatic.
At this tormenting juncture, her 66-year-old sister, Elizabeth Martin, wanted to die comfortably in her sleep. But doctors wouldn’t help fulfill that final wish.
“It haunts me,” Freeman, 74, who lives in Long Beach, California, says in recalling the prolonged agony. Her sister “was breaking out of the house and running in her pajamas down the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Help me. Help me.’ She just went into a total panic.”
Finally, a post-acute care center offered pentobarbital, a sedative that induced a state of unconsciousness, but only after an empathetic palliative care doctor called and insisted on ending the inhumane suffering. “We even had to fight the owners of the facility to get them to agree to the recommendations,” Freeman says, describing it as “the only option we had at that time; I still wouldn’t wish that ending on my worst enemy.”
Her sister died a week later, in 2014. That was two years before California’s medical aid-in-dying law took effect, making doctors less reliant on palliative sedation to peacefully end unbearable suffering for terminally ill patients. Now, Freeman volunteers for Compassion & Choices, a national grassroots organization based in Portland, Oregon, that advocates for expanding end-of-life options.
Palliative sedation involves medicating a terminally ill patient into lowered awareness or unconsciousness in order to relieve otherwise intractable suffering at the end of life. It is not intended to cause death, which occurs due to the patient’s underlying disease.
In contrast, euthanasia involves directly and deliberately ending a patient’s life. Euthanasia is legal only in Canada and some European countries and requires a health care professional to administer the medication. In the United States, laws in seven states and Washington, D.C. give terminally ill patients the option to obtain prescription medication they can take to die peacefully in their sleep, but they must be able to self-adminster it.
Recently, palliative sedation has been gaining more acceptance among medical professionals as an occasional means to relieve suffering, even if it may advance the time of death, as some clinicians believe. However, studies have found no evidence of this claim. Many doctors and bioethicists emphasize that intent is what distinguishes palliative sedation from euthanasia. Others disagree. It’s common for controversy to swirl around when and how to apply this practice.
“Intent is everything in ethics. The rigor and protocols we have around palliative sedation therapy also speaks to it being an intervention directed to ease refractory distress,” says Martha Twaddle, medical director of palliative medicine and supportive care at Northwestern University’s Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Palliative sedation should be considered only when pain, shortness of breath, and other unbearable symptoms don’t respond to conventional treatments. Left to his or her own devices, a patient in this predicament could become restless, Twaddle says, noting that “agitated delirium is a horrible symptom for a family to witness.”
At other times, “we don’t want to be too quick to sedate,” particularly in cases of purely “existential distress”—when a patient experiences anticipatory grief around “saying goodbye” to loved ones, she explains. “We want to be sure we’re applying the right therapy for the problem.”
Encouraging patients to reconcile with their kin may help them find inner peace. Nonmedical interventions worth exploring include quieting the environment and adjusting lighting to simulate day and night, Twaddle says.
Music-thanatology also can have a calming effect. It is live, prescriptive music, mainly employing the harp or voice, tailored to the patient’s physiological needs by tuning into vital signs such as heart rate, respiration, and temperature, according to the Music-Thanatology Association International.
“When we integrated this therapeutic modality in 2003, our need for using palliative sedation therapy dropped 75 percent and has remained low ever since,” Twaddle observes. “We have this as part of our care for treating refractory symptoms.”
Ethical concerns surrounding euthanasia often revolve around the term “terminal sedation,” which “can entail a physician deciding that the patient is a lost cause—incurable medically and in substantial pain that cannot adequately be relieved,” says John Kilner, professor and director of the bioethics programs at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.
By halting sedation at reasonable intervals, the care team can determine whether significant untreatable pain persists. Periodic discontinuation serves as “evidence that the physician is still working to restore the patient rather than merely to usher the patient painlessly into death,” Kilner explains. “Indeed, sometimes after a period of unconsciousness, with the body relieved of unceasing pain, the body can recover enough to make the pain treatable.”
The medications for palliative sedation “are tried and true sedatives that we’ve had for a long time, for many years, so they’re predictable,” says Joe Rotella, chief medical officer at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
Some patients prefer to keep their eyes open and remain conscious to answer by name, while others tell their doctors in advance that they want to be more heavily sedated while receiving medications to manage pain and other symptoms. “We adjust the dosage until the patient is sleeping at a desired level of sedation,” Rotella says.
Sedation is an intrinsic side effect of most medications prescribed to control severe symptoms in terminally ill patients. In general, most people die in a sleepy state, except for instances of sudden, dramatic death resulting from a major heart attack or stroke, says Ryan R. Nash, a palliative medicine physician and director of The Ohio State University Center for Bioethics in Columbus.
“Using those medications to treat pain or shortness of breath is not palliative sedation,” Nash says. In addition, providing supplemental nutrition and hydration in situations where death is imminent—with a prognosis limited to hours or days—generally doesn’t help prolong life. “If palliative sedation is being employed properly with the right patient,” he adds, “it should not hasten death.”
Nonetheless, hospice nurses sometimes feel morally distressed over carrying out palliative sedation. Implementing protocols at health systems would help guide them and alleviate some of their concerns, says Gregg VandeKieft, medical director for palliative care at Providence St. Joseph Health’s Southwest Washington Region in Olympia, Washington. “It creates guardrails by sort of standardizing and normalizing things,” he says.
The concept of proportionality weighs heavily in the process of palliative sedation. But sometimes substantial doses are necessary. For instance, an opioid-tolerant patient recently needed an unusually large amount of medication to control symptoms. She was in a state of illness-induced confusion and pain, says David E. Smith, a palliative medicine physician at Baptist Health Supportive Care in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Still, “we are parsimonious in what we do. We only use as much therapeutic force as necessary to achieve our goals,” Smith says. “Our goal is to restore our patient. It’s never to take their life.”