Monday, March 11, 2013

No Answers - Part 4: In The End

Continued from No Answers - Part 3: Doctors and Death

Another thing that I find disturbing from during the time that my dad was sick is that we never found out what really caused his rapid decline or his death, as I touched on in this post as well.  The medical record from his second and final hospital stay - and his death certificate - list his primary diagnosis as brain cancer ("GBM"), which is of course accurate, but here's the confusing part: his death certificate lists a secondary cause of death as "pancytopenia," or low blood count, while the records kept by the hospice nurses during the final days of his life list only GBM.  Although a low blood count is an expected side effect of some types of chemotherapy, it is not one that is typically seen from the type Dad was getting.

However, for an undermined reason, Dad's blood count was low when he was admitted to the hospital the second time, but that was aggressively treated with transfusions, platelets, and medications and had resolved over the time he was in the hospital.  Still, though, his condition continued to decline, and the host of physicians on the case said over and over that they didn't understand why he wasn't getting better.  Several times towards the end of that last hospital stay, the oncologist said, "On paper, he should be getting better."  Not better from the cancer - although the scan did show that there was less of a blood supply going to (or "feeding") the tumor which was the goal of the treatment with Avastin - but better from the horrible infection which we can only assume he got from a compromised immune system.  The oncologist expressed lots of confusion about why Dad's immunity was so low, too.  I didn't think about it then, but I have many times since: what does lower immunity is steroids, and Dad was on a HUGE dose of them, for an extended period of time.  That was never mentioned by the team of doctors as a possible reason for the infection or the problems he was having; in fact, a severely compromised immune system wasn't ever mentioned to us as a possible side effect of that medication.  We were given reams of paperwork about the possible risks and side effects of the Avastin and the chemo, but nothing on the side effects or the risks of the steroids (or the seizure medication he was on).  Dad hated the steroids, and we did too, because of the side effects they caused that we knew about, like insomnia and blood-sugar level spikes; the oncologist insisted that Dad needed to stay on a very high dose of steroids throughout the course of his illness though because he continued to suffer from severe headaches.  Someone later asked me why the doctors never considered whether or not placing a shunt could have helped with the headaches.  I don't know, and, unfortunately, that's just one of many things that was never discussed with us and that we will never know.

I guess second-guessing like that probably happens a lot when a patient doesn't make it, at least on the part of the family.  I wonder if it happens on the part of the oncologist too, though, or if he just crosses that patient's name off on his list and moves on.  I hope there is a review of some kind, perhaps so that something could be learned that could help the next patient.

I would venture to guess that it's not uncommon that not knowing the actual cause of death is unsettling to those left behind.  

I don't understand why no one was able to explain to my family what was going on medically with my dad; I'm not sure if they didn't care to figure it out because they didn't think it mattered since they felt he was obviously terminal anyway, if they couldn't figure it out due to their inadequacies or problems with the medical testing [one doctor told us that scans like CT's and MRI's "just can't really be trusted," whatever the HELL that means], or if they couldn't figure it out because it was truly a medical mystery.  I realize that all of the problems stemmed from the unpredictable nature of neurological disease, but all of the unknown just exacerbates my emotions - anger, sadness, frustration, all of it - even more because it feels like someone, somewhere, failed - failed to figure things out, failed to fix things, failed my dad and my family.

I've always been a right-brain thinker. I like logic and consistency. I don't mind following rules that make sense.  I like sticky notes (like my dad) and flow charts (unlike my dad - he didn't feel the obsession need to visualize the steps or the details like that).  On the flip side and to the point of this post, I have trouble tolerating things that don't make sense, that don't seem fair or logical, and that haven't been explained.

I know that knowing wouldn't change anything and that it probably wouldn't make me feel one iota better if I knew the answers to the questions with which we've been left, but still somehow not knowing disturbs me.  I guess having it remain a mystery just further adds to the shock of the whole thing having happened in such a relatively sudden manner - the diagnosis in an otherwise very healthy person, the lack of improvement despite following the prescribed course of treatment including surgery, rehab, and participation in a clinical trial, and then the rapid decline from which he could not recover.  I think I will always be stuck questioning why the things that weren't supposed to happen happened and why the things that were supposed to happen didn't.  

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