Abandoning Treatment Due to Age Alone - Page 2

At the age of 97, I consulted with her attending physician and specialists to see what the cause of her anemia was and whether it could be possible that the degree of anemia might be compromising not only to her cognitive function but to her cardio-respiratory function. The daughters agreed that after blood transfusion she always seemed better in terms of her cognition and “breathing,” whereas, when the levels began to fall, she would often be short of breath at rest with little in the way of exercise reserve. Despite a number of enquiries, I could not convince any of the other physician specialists to agree to have her referred to a hematologist. Having heard about the possibility of a bone marrow biopsy with a hematologist, the daughters were even reluctant to intervene with an investigation that might cause her discomfort. I explained the procedure (having had a few myself for personal medical problems) and said, if by chance something were found, it might respond to medication that could stimulate the blood-making process of the body. The hematologist referral was eventually accepted with reluctance by the patient and her daughters.

One day a fax came through with a letter from a nephrologist and the hematologist indicating that they would forego an actual bone marrow evaluation to avoid discomfort but felt that the patient’s minor renal impairment combined with her other chronic disease burden might respond to therapy with erythropoietin.

About 8 weeks later, the patient and her daughters came into my clinic, early for the appointment as usual. When I saw them in the waiting area, they waved at me, and I could not help but note that the patient was not huffing and puffing as I had previously seen her—even while sitting. When their turn came and I could see her close-up, I saw that her skin color was more robust than usual, that she indeed was not huffing as she spoke to me, her cognition was at least as good as previously, and, if anything, the content of her speech and language appeared better. The more communicative daughter handed me a sheet of paper on which numbers were written. “You would not have received these yet as they are only from yesterday, so I copied them down for you—unbelievable.”

Indeed the numbers were impressive with a hemoglobin level that had gone up almost 20 points from the previous 6-month average. Her skin color and conjunctival color was close to normal. But most impressive was her breathing pattern and the animation of her speech. The daughters were beside themselves with glee and the patient thanked me—by name—which she was not always able to do.

There is an adage that goes something like “age alone cannot be used to determine the likelihood of usefulness of treatments.” While it should be understood that age is an important component of decision-making, if the investigation and treatments are not onerous by nature, they should not be discarded simply because of the high-age factor. Indeed, nothing should interfere with a thorough analytical review of possible diagnostic and treatment options for each individual a medical provider encounters.

This article was originally published online at