It was mid-October 2008 when the medics rolled the elderly man through the glass-enclosed lobby.
To his left was a sweeping view of the Long Island Sound and bright orange and crimson trees, but the view was nothing to him.
Before making the 15-minute ride from Yale-New Haven Hospital to Connecticut Hospice, the man was told he had maybe three days before his heart would fail completely. He couldn’t catch his breath. His eyes were wide, his fingertips dusky from lack of oxygen.
His hospice doctor, Joseph Andrews, was desperate to ease the man’s breathlessness. “For patients, that’s more terrifying than pain, paralysis, or the inability to get around,” Andrews said. “It’s the worst thing.”
Another doctor suggested morphine might help.
The drug relaxes the muscle walls of blood vessels, Andrews said, increasing capacity and reducing the lungs’ urgency. Coronary arteries can also more efficiently carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart.
The man’s doctors knew well that too much morphine can stop the lungs completely, so they tried just a tiny amount: one-quarter of a milligram.
Morphine is seen by many physicians and laypeople as a sort of single-purpose, liquified grim reaper, and understandably so: It is dangerous and addictive. Older physicians in particular were typically not trained to use it, Andrews said, and can resist recommendations to use morphine even for cancer patients with severe bone pain, for fear of killing them.
Morphine’s reputation as a killer underscores one of the more persistent myths surrounding hospice care, namely, that it serves as a grey market euthanasia service for the terminally ill, where the drug is given in generous doses to every patient — even those who do not want it.
Talk to any experienced hospice nurse or physician and they’ll tell you that such notions can lead to significant complications: family doctors refusing to prescribe morphine for dying patients who are in extreme pain; relatives refusing to give a dying family member prescribed morphine, or exhorting them to reject hospice care completely and opt for the ICU.
Hospice clinicians get it. People don’t want to risk killing someone, even if it means seeing their loved ones suffer. Clinicians also understand that they share some of the blame, for failing to clearly communicate the methods, goals and expectations of using morphine. Because the medication is often prescribed during a patient’s final decline, family members are sometimes left to wonder if, in agreeing to the treatment plan, they have helped bring about their loved one’s death.
Morphine can have other less lethal side effects that require vigilance, and doctors and nurses are not always clear about those potential complications either. Still, clinicians say, it can be frustrating to encounter people whose misconceptions lead to unnecessary suffering for patients.
The elderly man was tall, slightly heavy-set. He’d been a teacher. He was quiet, loved to read books. His wife was alive but he’d lost her to dementia and a nursing home. His three children were nearby, though, and the grandkids. He was well-loved.
And now his children came in, looking like they were going to a funeral. They asked if they should call people to come say goodbye, and Andrews told them it was probably a good idea.
He asked them to consider morphine. It was worth a try, they said. They made their calls. They braced.
Their dad went to sleep, which was something.
He woke later to smiling faces. His breathing had eased dramatically, his skin color had returned to normal; he was fully alert, wide awake. He chatted with visitors. He told his life story.
He got six more weeks like this.
Andrews said he remembers countless stories about how morphine had helped patients with respiratory distress, as well as patients with severe pain. Most recently, a patient had been immobilized by her cancer pain until she received small doses of morphine. She promptly flew to South America to spend time with family members.
Control and mobility, Andrews said, are among the most important factors in improving a dying patient’s quality of life.
Soon after the man’s breathing eased, he started a new routine. Twice a day he’d ask his children or grandchildren or nurses to bring his cap and his overcoat and they’d wheel him to the waterfront with his oxygen tank.
He’d stay as long as the gathering cold and darkness allowed. He saw the tides flow and the leaves fall and gulls and boats pass. In early December he began sleeping more, and then he slept entire days away, and then he died.
But that November reprieve.
“It was one of the best morphine stories I can remember,” Andrews said. “He had a great run.”