ER is a medical drama television series.
In the Season 9 Episode “Insurrection,” a late-stage Huntington’s disease (HD) patient is rushed into the Emergency Room (ER) of a hospital. The ER is in chaos during this episode, as doctors and nurses walkout to protest unsafe working conditions. Inside the hospital, the absence of staff makes it easy for the desperate mother of the patient to switch off the ventilator that is supporting her son’s breathing. To her, this action is probably one of mercy, as she knows her son’s Huntington’s disease will only continue to progress.
When Dr. Lewis discovers what the mother has done, she decides not to press murder charges in order to protect the mother from prison.
Background: The ER receives a patient with end stage Huntington’s disease. He fell out of bed and potentially broke his hip.
ER doctor: What do we know?
Later: The patient is having sudden troubles unrelated to his hip. His mother is there. She apologizes to him for the quality of the nursing home and says it was the best she could find. She doesn’t have much money to pay for quality care. The mother keeps pointing out how much her son is suffering and begs the doctors to help him. Later on, he chokes on vomit and they want to put in a tube despite the scars in his pathways from a ventilator a few months ago. The mom asks “That’s it right? When you put that tube in, it’s not coming out, right?”
At one point, tthe patient needs to go to the operating room. The mom asks Dr. Susan Lewis if she knows what it is like to watch someone die for 25 years.
Mother: It’s what I did with his father every day. I loved the man, but I hated what it did to him.
Doctor Susan Lewis: I can refer you to another nursing home. I don’t know what you are paying now.
Mother: He was a singer, didn’t you know? An opera singer, a tenor? When he sang, it was the most beautiful sound in the world. I prayed it would pass him over. When he got to be 29, I thought, my God maybe we got lucky. Then he started having trouble at work. Forget things and when he talked sometimes he was hard to understand. And of course…of course he couldn’t sing anymore. It just takes everything away. Everything.
Next scene: During the walk out in which many of the doctors are protesting unsafe working conditions, the mother turns off her son’s ventilator. Doctor Lewis comes back in and turns on the ventilator to prevent suspicion. She hides the patient’s true cause of death in order to protect the mother.
ER is intended to be a medical drama. In its effort to emotionally influence viewers, ER often neglects to explore the ethical implications of the characters’ actions. In this episode a distraught, desperate mother watches her son suffer as the doctors attempt, not to cure or treat his symptoms, but extend and hopefully improve his quality of life.
The mother has been a caregiver for a long time. She had to care for her husband until he passed away, and her son as well. She expresses the difficulty of watching a loved one lose the ability to do things he or she enjoys like opera singing, in her son’s case. This episode shows the challenges facing caregivers and the emotional burden resulting from decades of caring for those affected by the disease.
This episode highlights end-of-care controversies for HD patients such as death with dignity or assisted death. There are currently only four states that have Death With Dignity Laws–Washington, Vermont, California and Oregon. These laws allow mentally competent, terminally ill adult state residents to hasten death using prescribed euthanasia medication.1 This choice is complicated one for the HD community; Qualifications such as “mentally competent” might be defined in various ways among physicians, patients, and family members as HD does cause cognitive and psychiatric issues.
Suicide or assisted suicide are major issues in the Huntington’s disease community. In fact, suicide is often the leading cause of death among those who have inherited the mutant gene. Because of the gravitas of these actions, it is extremely important that health care providers do all they can to understand the psychological impacts the disease has on the individual as well as family members. In addition to health care providers, caregivers and family members should be well-educated on what to do if their loved one is experiencing suicidal ideation.
Dr. Lewis did not follow proper procedure upon discovering what the mother had done. She altered the cause of death to avoid focusing any suspicion on the mother. Dr. Lewis neglected to follow protocol in order to protect the mother from legal ramifications. While this might be an exception a doctor would make in a TV drama, it is not something that should be expected of any physician. Patients and caregivers should have an open dialogue with primary care doctors to discuss end-of-life options such as “Do not resuscitate” (DNR) or preventing the use of feeding tubes.
The subject matter in this episode of ER is heavy. It highlights the burden on caregivers and why family members might consider options such as assisted suicide. If you are a Huntington’s disease caregiver, you can find resources and support networks by visiting hdsa.org/living-with-huntingtons/family-care/caregivers.html
- “Defend Dignity. Take Action.” Death with Dignity National Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2014.