Do Not Resuscitate: The Reality of a DNR

It was March 2010, and my father-in-law was dying of COPD. He had been in an acute care hospital for a week after spending more than a month in the hospital. As my husband, my mother-in-law, and I made the trek down the hall to his room, I began to hear loud beeps and alarms. The closer we got to his room, the louder the sounds issued forth.

As I turned to go in his room, I expected to see doctors and nurses frantically saving him. Instead, I only saw two nurses holding him by his head and hands and my father-in-law struggling to live or struggling to die—I still do not know which it was. We all began to cry and scream. I yelled at the nurses to save him, “Why aren’t you saving him?” They responded with a question, “But he has a DNR doesn’t he?” My mother-in-law slowly answered “yes,” and we watched him leave us forever.

A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) form has become a standard document that is part of all the paperwork that has to be filled out whenever you enter the hospital as a patient. The purpose is to fulfill the wishes of the patient should they arrive at such a state that it is considered impossible to recover their former life. In essence, the patient is signing a release to allow the hospital to let them die rather than try and revive them. It is thought to save the family members the agony of making that decision.

Whenever I thought or heard of a DNR, what came to my mind was someone who was in a coma or brain dead with no hope of recovery. In other words, cases where every effort had been expended to save them and it had become hopeless. Until I watched my father-in-law die, it had never occurred to me that it meant to not save someone who was dying from a chronic disease. As I sit here writing this article, I am wondering about how a DNR is utilized if/when you are on the operating table and your heart stops—do they start CPR or do they walk away? Maybe that is too over-the-top but it does merit consideration and probably needs to be asked of the hospital staff and doctors. 

I am sure that more often than not a DNR works perfectly as intended. But what I encountered that early afternoon in March 2010 was not at all as I had envisioned. We stood there hopelessly watching him and the monitors, screaming, and crying. His heart rate (pulse) briefly elevated to 62 BPM during that time and I believe he heard us and wanted to stay. But shortly thereafter, his pulse dwindled to zero and he was gone. It was one of the worst moments in my life—watching him die and knowing that no one would do anything to stop it.

Even though two years have gone by, I still remember every single second and every detail of that last time with my father-in-law. I wish we had arrived sooner so we could have said goodbye and I wish I had spent the entire day before with him. I hope he knows how much we think of him every day and how much he is missed. 


Health Advocate

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