Column: When CPR is the wrong medicine

Lorraine Bayless, 87, died at a senior living facility in California. A 911 dispatcher asked the staff to do CPR.
Lorraine Bayless, 87, died at a senior living facility in California. A 911 dispatcher asked the staff to do CPR.
Published March 15, 2013

The 911 call last month that led to an emergency dispatcher begging workers at a Bakersfield, Calif., senior living facility to perform CPR on a woman captured the attention of the public. A staff worker told the dispatcher it was against the facility's policy to intervene. The woman, Lorraine Bayless, died.

It is difficult to understand how liability concerns could dissuade anyone from helping a person in distress.

However, this stark event should awaken us to another question: Should we be performing CPR on 87-year-olds in a community setting such as a senior home?

Studies of CPR performed on individuals 85 years and older who suffer cardiac arrest in a community setting show that few — perhaps 4 in 100 — survive to leave the hospital, and the majority of these "survivors" are moderately to severely neurologically compromised.

For the small number of elderly patients who survive the ambulance ride to the hospital and then make it through the emergency room to be admitted to the intensive care unit, treatment is nearly always burdensome, including being attached to life-sustaining machines.

Only rarely does such treatment yield continued life meaningful to the patient.

Because of this, the majority of older people, if properly informed, choose not to receive CPR outside the hospital (or, in most cases, in the hospital either). But here's the rub: Someone needed to talk with Bayless beforehand about what it would mean to receive resuscitation, and her preference needed to be recorded in an advance directive. The retirement facility would have kept the form on file to ensure that Bayless received appropriate treatment.

Many would assume that if a treatment worked only a fraction of the time and yielded bad outcomes more often than good ones, it would not be the default approach. Yet CPR is the default approach. When a 911 operator receives a call that a patient is not breathing or doesn't have a pulse, initiation of an attempt at resuscitation is the rule. This sets off a sequence of events leading, almost always, to death in a hospital.

One might ask whether, for groups of patients unlikely to benefit, it might make the most sense to withhold CPR and allow those who want it to "opt in." But such a global decision would require an open discussion at the societal level.

No human should ever be left without help while others stand by. But the real tragedy is when we mistake medical treatment for care. The care this patient needed was to talk with her physician and her family to ensure that death would happen on her terms, presumably not during the chest compressions of CPR or in an ICU attached to a machine.

If this had been the case, then emergency personnel would not have been called and the 911 operator could have focused on getting aggressive medical treatment to someone who would benefit from it.

Kevin M. Dirksen is an ethics fellow at the UCLA Health System Ethics Center. Neil S. Wenger is the center's director.

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