Steven Lippmann, M.D., Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Louisville School of Medicine
This past year was difficult and with much lifestyle adjustment. There was an increased infectious disease death rate and considerable COVID-19 social and medical morbidity. Influenza-related mortality declined, but other causes of death continue. Among my family, friends, colleagues, and coworkers, about half a dozen died – none directly from coronavirus infections. Some lingered-long in vegetative states at nursing facilities and were suffering, without hope of recovery. I thought society was unwillingly tormenting them by prolonging their deaths, without facilitating meaningful life. And all that at great financial and social cost. Many of us were uncomfortable witnesses; that prompted me to think about dehydration during terminal illness.
Once the balance of joy with meaningful life versus suffering goes negative for someone with terminal conditions, dehydration emerges as a reasonable comfort care treatment option. Our healthcare system should aim to preserve good life, not extend an uncomfortable demise.
First-of-all, some degree of dehydration can facilitate pain relief by augmenting the efficacy of analgesic medications, shrinking tumors, and diminishing ascites or edema. Being under hydrated can diminish nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; that, in cases of incontinence is a benefit at less bedsores and/or skin breakdown. It could also improve breathing with less coughing, choking, or dyspnea, also adding comfort and mobility.
In addition, many decisional people in such difficult circumstances might voluntarily wish to shorten their lives, but not wanting to commit suicide. That choice should be their own unstigmatized selection, and not coerced by the wishes of others. It is done in consultation with their doctor. Electing to deliberately not eat or drink, will result in dehydration and death, even rather quickly in seriously ill individuals. It becomes a personal choice that can be reversed back-and-forth at their own control, with dignity, and not as suicide. To maintain comfort, some fluid access helps keep a moist mouth.
Families might elect therapeutic dehydration on behalf of no longer decisional relatives, who are suffering at the end of their lives. Electing this form of comfort care requires discussion between patients, family, and physicians and knowing about the life and death wishes of the ill relative. Doctors can initiate such a plan without facilitating suicide. The main benefits are to enhance comfort, diminish suffering, and that it is easily be reversed at any time for any reason.
Everybody can be beneficiaries. Please keep this treatment option in mind.