When is it appropriate to deactivate an ICD (implanted cardioverter-defibrilator)? To give some background: an ICD is a device that is surgically placed in the chest of a person who are at risk of sudden cardiac death due to ventricular fibrillation. Unlike a pacemaker, which uses electrical impulses to control the heart rate, the ICD "shocks" the heart when detecting an abnormal rhythm--just like the paddles used externally. From what I hear and read, the shock is a pretty nasty thing, and can cause pain, anxiety and a loss of consciousness. The issue here, is that when someone is close to death, their heart rhythm can go wacky, resulting in repeated shocks being delivered by the ICD. Turning off an ICD is not a simple matter: it is a process that requires specific skills and equipment. Theoretically, one can deactivate (temporarily) an ICD with the use of a magnet, but it is a stopgap measure--it needs to be taped to the patient's chest to keep it deactivated, and, I've read that sometimes the magnets don't work.
We currently have a patient, end-stage cancer, who also has an ICD. It has been discussed with him at least twice, and he has declined to have his ICD turned off. The problem, is that the other day, he got up unassisted (he's pretty weak) and was shocked by his ICD, causing him to blackout. Since then he has been anxious and afraid to sleep: afraid that he'll be shocked in his sleep. On Friday night, I managed to reduce his anxiety by providing him with an anti-anxiolytic and pain medicine. When I was back on Sunday afternoon, and heard in report that he was again, not sleeping and anxious, I decided to go down and talk over his options. Options seemed pretty limited: continuing to provide support and comfort via medication, conversation and presence, and, as far as I could see, also included offering to tape that big ol' donut shaped magnet onto him. The issues with the latter are multiple:
- He is confused, and I'm not sure about his decision-making ability
- He is fairly withdrawn, and when I attempt to talk with him he pretty much shuts me out
- What are the ethics here? How confused is without capacity to make appropriate decisions? What are the ethics of doing a stop-gap measure that may, or may not work?
But what if he had been more awake and I less busy with another patient who was needing one-on-one care monitoring for delirium? What about the next time we have a patient in this situation? What if he/she clearly does not have decisional capacity, and, like is so often the case, has family members who disagree on the appropriate course?
This problem is not going to go away. Rather, it is most likely to come up more often as time wears on.
I did a quick lit search and found that:
- Deactivating ICDs is in general considered ethical if it is the patient's desire, or the desire of the patient's surrogate.
- The most discussed aspect of deactivating ICDs in the articles I read was the lack of discussion about this issue with patients before it becomes critical with a decision needed now (as in the patient is unconscious, dying and receiving repeated shocks). Sounds like so many of the end-of-life discussions that should, and don't happen (or happen too late).
- Christian Sinclair over at Pallimed has contributed to articles in health care journals about this subject at least twice. And in a bit of synchronicity, Pallimed has a new post up about heart failure and implantable devices.