Sustaining the Costs
Welcome back to another edition of "Artificially Sustaining Life". As a wrap up to the previous discussion over whether or not it is appropriate to keep the terminally ill on permanent life-support, we thought it would be interesting to examine the costs to society and to the families of the patients to keep the patients on life support.
First, the social costs must be analyzed. Patients who are on permanent life support are usually not the priorities of the doctors on staff at a hospital - as a matter of fact, most hospitals will not keep patients who are on permanent life support as they have other patients who are still fighting to live. Fundamentally, Doctors realize that patients on permanent life support do not have much of a chance; they are therefore occupying space in a hospital for a patient that still does have a chance. For this reason, most doctors are against prolonging life support - it usually comes as a part of their training to become a doctor in the first place. Regardless, some patients' families hold on to the slim chance of their loved one to make it out of a horrible situation - such cases are rare, and you usually see them reported in the papers as fantastical news stories, for instance, the man who woke up from a 20 year coma recently.
Familial costs are just as dire as the societal ones. For the family, it goes one of two ways. Either the family wants to wait it out to see if their loved one will make it through the disease alive, or they eventually opt for shutting down the life support and letting the disease take over. The latter case has been the subject of various news stories (like the Terri Schaivo case) and various movies - and while in the movies the character who is afflicted wakes up just in the nick of time (see Just Like Heaven) in the real world, such things are sadly only fantasies.
While it may be cold to consider people in such a systematic way, such is the art of triage for a doctor - deciding whether to try to save a new patient who has a chance or a patient who has been on life support for years and years does not take medical school to figure out. The people who end up suffering the most are ultimately the patients' families who hold on for hope after years and years of waiting only to see their loved one wither away under the influence of a horrible disease.