Deaths after feeding-tube withdrawal from patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states: A qualitative study of family experience

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Abstract

Background:

Families of patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states are often horrified by the suggestion of withdrawing a feeding tube, even when they believe that their relative would not have wanted to be maintained in their current condition. Very little is known about what it is like to witness such a death.

Aim:

To understand these families’ experience of their relatives’ deaths.

Design:

Qualitative study using in-depth narrative interviews analyzed inductively with thematic analysis.

Participants:

A total of 21 people (from 12 families) whose vegetative or minimally conscious relative died following court-authorized withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration. All had supported treatment withdrawal.

Findings:

Interviewees were usually anxious in advance about the nature of the death and had sometimes confronted resistance from, and been provided with misinformation by, healthcare staff in long-term care settings. However, they overwhelmingly described deaths as peaceful and sometimes even as a “good death.” There was (for some) a significant “burden of witness” associated with the length of time it took the person to die and/or distressing changes in their appearance. Most continued to voice ethical objections to the manner of death while considering it “the least worst” option in the circumstances.

Conclusion:

Staff need to be aware of the distinctive issues around care for this patient group and their families. It is important to challenge misinformation and initiate honest discussions about feeding-tube withdrawal and end-of-life care for these patients. Families (and staff) need better support in managing the “burden of witness” associated with these deaths.

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