Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September 30, 2008 - A Surgeon's Perspective on "Watchful Waiting"

Flying back from Utah the other day, I finished reading Pauline W. Chen’s insightful memoir, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality (Knopf, 2007). Pauline is a liver-transplant surgeon, which means she’s spent her professional life at the edge of high-tech innovation. Sometimes she’s part of the surgical team that helicopters in to harvest organs from the body of a dying accident victim, pops them into an ice-filled cooler and flies them to a distant city. Other times, she’s on the receiving end of those precious deliveries, implanting the harvested liver into an otherwise-dying patient.

This work has given her a unique perspective on life and death. From the brain-dead body of a patient who’s breathing with the aid of machines, she salvages living tissue that just may save another’s life. It’s hard to imagine a more heroic occupation.

Far from celebrating transplant surgery’s technical razzle-dazzle, Pauline appeals for heightened awareness of the emotional side of medicine. She reminds her colleagues that, when the risks of surgery are too great and a patient cannot be saved, the doctor has a continuing responsibility to care for the patient’s emotional needs - rather than abandoning the person to others, out of fear of medical failure.

I was intrigued by this lengthy passage, in which she reflects on how the “watchful waiting” approach to treatment troubles many of her surgical colleagues:

“There is no mistaking the heady exhilaration you feel when you walk into the cool and ordered operating room, pull out all the technical gadgetry and wizardry of the moment, and within a few hours solve the essential problem. Surgery is a specialty defined by action. As a student of mine once said, ‘Surgeons do something about a problem, not just sit around and think about it.’

But surgeons are not alone in this doer’s paradise. While surgery, particularly liver transplantation, represents an extreme, even physicians in specialties with little or no ‘invasive’ procedures feel compelled to do. A patient visits with a problem, and the appointment is incomplete without a prescription for medications or tests or some tangible diagnosis.

Even medicine’s essential framework for approaching clinical problems – the treatment algorithm – presumes physician action. Frequently diagrammed in textbooks and medical journals, these algorithms outline step-by-step therapeutic plans for different diseases. For every point along the algorithm there are several possible outcomes that in turn may have several of their own possible therapeutic options. On no branch of the decision tree, however, is there a box reserved for Do nothing or Hold tight or Sit on your hands. Instead, if no treatment is required, we describe the waiting as an active, not a passive, period. Treat with intravenous antibiotics for six weeks and then reassess may be part of the algorithm. Or we may decide on a course of what is euphemistically termed expectant management or watchful waiting, as if our therapeutic intervention is just being held temporarily at bay. Even in deciding to wait or do nothing, we imbue these periods with action. It is as if we are dynamically managing time and at the end of that time there may be more treatment for us to initiate.

We can confuse these interventions with hope, particularly at the end of life, and equate more treatment with more love. Any decision to hold or even withdraw treatment becomes near impossible, and not treating a patient the moral equivalent of giving up. Moreover, once treatments have started, there is an obligation to the interventions themselves. Having done so much already, doctors – and many patients and families – find it nearly impossible to let all their efforts simply drop.

In an attempt to display competency or undying love, we lose sight of the double-edged nature of our cutting-edge wizardry. We battle away until the last precious hours of life, believing that cure is the only goal. We inflict misguided treatments on not just others but also ourselves. During these final, tortured moments it is as if the promise of the nineteenth century has become the curse of the twenty-first.”
(Pp. 147-148)

Quite naturally, I’ve been inclined to view the soul-numbing tedium of watchful waiting from my own perspective as a patient. Pauline’s book has helped me glimpse it from the viewpoint of my doctors as well. Turns out, we both wish we could do more.

The contemplatives have long taught that intentionally doing nothing – doing it with our whole being – is one of the most difficult of spiritual tasks. This is the point Martin Luther was getting at when he observed how his puppy jumped up on the table, then waited expectantly for a morsel of food dangled from the hand of his master. “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat!” Luther reflected. “All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”

Fully engaged and mindful waiting is my own spiritual challenge these days. There’s something in me that wants to reach relentlessly into the future, fretting about what treatment may await me down the road. Ultimately, this is an abdication of the present discipline of waiting that has been given me.

“Let us then labour for an inward stillness –
An inward stillness and an inward healing;
That perfect silence where the lips and heart
Are still, and we no longer entertain
Our own imperfect thoughts and vain opinions,
But God alone speaks in us, and we wait
In singleness of heart, that we may know
His will, and in the silence of our spirits,
That we may do His will, and do that only.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christus: A Mystery,” in The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vol. 5 (Houghton Mifflin, 1851), pp. 313-314.


Stushie said...

Another enlightening post, Carl. Many thanks for the information and quote.

Ronni Gordon said...

Yes, "watchful waiting" is extremely difficult. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's website has a subject on its discussion boards that you might find interesting. It's called Living With Uncertainty.