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Last Days of Life (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Ethical Issues

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Two methods of withdrawal have been described: immediate extubation and terminal weaning.[11] Immediate extubation includes providing parenteral opioids for analgesia and sedating agents such as midazolam, suctioning to remove excess secretions, setting the ventilator to "no assist" and turning off all alarms, and deflating the cuff and removing the endotracheal tube. Gentle suctioning of the oral cavity may be necessary, but aggressive and deep suctioning should be avoided. In some cases, patients may appear to be in significant distress. Analgesics and sedatives should be provided even if the patient is comatose. Family members and others who are present should be warned that some movements may occur after extubation, even in patients who are brain dead. Such movements are probably caused by hypoxia and may include gasping, moving extremities, or sitting up in bed.[12] Immediate extubation is generally chosen when a patient is brain dead, when a patient is comatose and unlikely to experience any suffering, or when a patient prefers a more rapid procedure.

Terminal withdrawal entails a more gradual process. Ventilator rate, oxygen levels, and positive end-expiratory pressure are decreased gradually over a period of 30 minutes to a few hours. A patient who survives may be placed on a T-piece; this may be left in place, or extubation may proceed. There is some evidence that the gradual process in a patient who may experience distress allows clinicians to assess pain and dyspnea and to modify the sedative and analgesic regimen accordingly.[13] In a study of 31 patients undergoing terminal weaning, most patients remained comfortable, as assessed by a variety of physiologic measures, when low doses of opioids and benzodiazepines were administered. The average time to death in this study was 24 hours, although two patients survived to be discharged to hospice.[14]

Paralytic agents have no analgesic or sedative effects, and they can mask patient discomfort. These neuromuscular blockers should be discontinued before extubation. Guidelines suggest that these agents should never be introduced when the ventilator is being withdrawn; in general, when patients have been receiving paralytic agents, these agents should be withdrawn before extubation. The advantage of withdrawal of the neuromuscular blocker is the resultant ability of the health care provider to better assess the patient's comfort level and to allow possible interaction between the patient and loved ones. One notable exception to withdrawal of the paralytic agent is when death is expected to be rapid after the removal of the ventilator and when waiting for the drug to reverse might place an unreasonable burden on the patient and family.[15]

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