Monday, October 22, 2007

Tough Calls

How does one make such a decision?

Oct 22, 2007

Weigh options when saving premature baby

I REFER to the article, 'Saving tiny tickers' (ST, Oct 11).

It is indeed heartening that medical advances allow the babies mentioned to enjoy a new lease of life.

Infant mortality has been reduced drastically because of the excellent medical care and services provided by Singapore's health-care workers.

However, we should not use the plain vanilla number of initial infant survivals as the basis of a job well done by health-care professionals.

This holds true, especially for extremely premature babies.

With advances in medical treatment, younger and younger 'premmies' are able to survive.

However, some will have disabilities, from minor to major, because of their early arrival and subsequent damage to their brain and under-developed organs.

If a baby is severely brain-damaged, where his quality of life in future is likely to be almost non-existent, should the doctor go all out to save the baby, just so he is alive for another painful day?

Or should the doctor let the baby die with dignity, through compassionate inaction?

Who should be the one to make such an important judgment call on the treatment (intensive, moderate and just enough to prolong the life, letting go) for the tiny patient?

For parents, this dilemma can be very much be like that of the relatives of a brain-dead patient.

It is therefore important that a clear standard set of rules and guiding principles be provided and adopted for extreme premmies' treatment, as this is a sensitive and grey area where emotions, and personal and religious morals and convictions play a big part.

It is important that the parents have a say in the premmie's treatment and can make informed decisions.

This is because, as parents, their decisions will be based on what is best for the baby.

Doctors should not be biased against their young patients' parents, even when the parents' views and opinions differ greatly from theirs.

Doctors should also respect parents' decision on treatments offered to the baby, even if they disagree with the parents' decision.

At the end of the day, it is the parents, not the doctors, who will have to care for the disabled child.

Thus, treatment options should be scaled towards what the informed parents want.

As a resident working in the NICU, I grappled with such dilemnae almost daily. Why save the premature, especially the severely premature, when the child eventually develops disabling conditions like cerebral palsy, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, ROP, all requiring long term medical care, with questionable quality of life. And the caregivers, having had to deal with the heartbreaking situation, are now saddled with a huge hospital bill, & look forward to a life time of probably repeated hospital stays & visits & seeing their child suffer.

But as a resident, one sworn to save lives, we pretty much did our damnedest to save even the most premature of babies until we knew that there was nothing much else we could do for him. I don't remember any one of the parents trying to stop us from doing so. I sometimes wondered why.

But then I became a parent. I then realized that the love one has for one's child, even unborn, is undescribably all-encompassing. I understand now, why these parents would want the doctors to try their damnedest, no matter how disabled or how much suffering their child might end up with. In a way, it's a selfish kind of love.

In any case, it's a tough call to make. To save or not to save. You tell me.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with the view of the author. I believe all of us (Dr) will make decisions that it best for the premies and we will know when to give up. I have worked in NICU before and I know that that department does not continue a resuscitation if a premie survives to suffer more...

Anonymous said...

i need to add that when there's a chance that a premie can survive to live a meaningful or almost normal life, most regs/cons don't give up and most parents do not expect us to.

Anonymous said...

if we let parents decide the fate of the premies and cast our professional judgement aside, are we now like "Customer Service Officers"? Is it fair for the child then?

aliendoc said...

anon 1:50 - tough call isn't it? We are by no means, God. We practise evidenced-based medicine. So it's easy to say to a parent: your child has a X% chance of having cerebral palsy/being blind/having lung problems for the rest of his life. but for the parent, it's not easy to say : Stop trying. That patient is still her/his baby.

I'm not sure what is fair & what isn't. All I know is that nothing is 100% in Medicine (except death of course!). We never know when "miracles" happen, though as doctors, I know that many of us have become skeptics. But as a parent, you always hope...