Multiple Perspectives of Symptoms and Suffering at End of Life in the NICU

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Abstract

Background:

Despite technological advances in the neonatal intensive care unit, not all infants survive. Limited research has focused on infants' symptoms and suffering at end of life (EOL) from multiple perspectives.

Purpose:

To compare retrospective parent report and electronic medical record (EMR) documentation of symptoms and to examine associations with parent perceptions of infants suffering at EOL.

Methods/Search Strategy:

Bereaved parents of 40 infants (40 mothers and 27 fathers) retrospectively reported on their perceptions of infant symptoms and suffering during the last week of life. EMRs were also reviewed.

Findings/Results:

Parents were asked about their observations of 23 symptoms. Within the 27 parental dyads, mothers reported 6.15 symptoms (standard deviation = 3.75), which was not significantly different from fathers' report of 5.67 symptoms (standard deviation = 5.11). Respiratory distress, agitation, and pain were most common according to mothers and EMR, whereas respiratory distress, agitation, and lethargy were most common according to fathers. Few differences were found between mothers, fathers, and EMRs. However, missing data (range: 0%-20%) indicated that some parents had challenges assessing symptoms. Parents reported that the worst symptom was respiratory distress. In addition, parents reported moderate infant suffering, which was correlated with the total number of symptoms.

Implications for Practice:

Parents demonstrate awareness of their infant's symptoms at EOL, and these observations should be valued as they closely parallel EMR documentation. However, some parents did have difficulty reporting symptoms, highlighting the importance of education.

Implications for Research:

Future larger sample research should prospectively examine parent perceptions of infant symptom burden, suffering, and associations with other infant and parent outcomes (eg, decision making and grief).

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