The Little Things

by Danielle Ofri
New England Journal of Medicine

It was the second time during this frigid December that the elderly Mr. Cheng was found lethargic by his son. Last week, he had injected too much insulin for his diabetes. This week, he’d omitted a dose of his lactulose for the cirrhosis from his advanced liver cancer.

Each time, the EMTs treated Mr. Cheng in the ambulance, so by the time we saw him in the ER, he was already awake and cantankerous, itching to be discharged. He was fretfully anxious to leave immediately so he wouldn’t miss his afternoon dialysis appointment in Chinatown. And, he needed his morning dose of Nepro — the nutritional milkshake for dialysis patients.

“He’s totally independent,” the son told me. “He takes his meds, gets to his appointments, never misses dialysis. The home attendant does cooking and cleaning in the mornings.”

But two admissions in 2 weeks for medication errors was a blazing red flag. A frail, elderly man with complicated illnesses, taking high-risk medications, living alone — it was a recipe for disaster.

“Trust me,” the son said with a tired smile, “he does not want to be in a nursing home.”

Mr. Cheng broke in, shaking his rail-thin arms vehemently. “No nursing home,” he said, in his smattering of English. “I go home!”

The social worker applied for increased home-attendant hours. Although the attendant couldn’t administer meds, she could remind him to take them. It wasn’t ideal, but at least Mr. Cheng was amenable. The catch was that it would take several days for the paperwork to go through, and Mr. Cheng would have to stay in the hospital until then.

“As long as he gets his Nepro,” the son said wearily. “He swears by that stuff.”

“Nepro,” Mr. Cheng echoed, nodding heartily. “Nepro.”

And so Mr. Cheng settled into our ward, even though he wasn’t acutely ill. He was charming, if a bit ornery, shuffling along the halls to the vending machine. He spoke enough English to greet everyone — and to request his daily Nepro shake. For some reason, although the ward always had sufficient supply of other nutritional supplements, there never seemed to be much of the kidney version. Our constant requests for stat doses of Nepro on 17-West became a running joke.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cheng, his hospital stay included Christmas, which slowed the already glacial pace of his paperwork. Every time I had a new patient waiting hours in the ER for a bed, I felt guilty that Mr. Cheng was still in the hospital despite being medically stable. But we were told, “That’s the way the system works.”

Hospitals are, of course, the worst places for elderly patients, and Mr. Cheng duly illustrated that maxim. Three days into his stay, he spiked a fever, raising concern about peritonitis. We stuck a needle in his swollen belly to check the ascites fluid for infection, but that dropped his hematocrit, so we had to get a CT scan to evaluate the bleed. Mr. Cheng, annoyed by all the procedures, refused his lactulose. That caused him to become lethargic, nearly unresponsive, which, in turn, triggered a “rapid response” of the resuscitation team. His cirrhosis caused his blood pressure to fall, which meant he couldn’t get dialysis. Lack of dialysis caused electrolyte chaos.

We finally called a family meeting that Friday morning. Mr. Cheng already knew that his liver cancer  gave him a life expectancy in the range of months. But if he couldn’t get dialysis, he wouldn’t survive more than a week. He signed a DNR form and told us he wanted to go home. Right now.

We protested — the home attendant couldn’t come on the weekend. However, Mr. Cheng was adamant. He didn’t care about home attendants or hospital protocols. But he did want to be sure that we could get his Nepro.

Since he had sufficient decisional capacity, we reluctantly started the discharge process — always a nightmare on a Friday afternoon, especially the one between Christmas and New Year’s. When I handed the social worker the inch-thick stack of forms, she tugged out the Nepro prescription and uttered those four dreaded words: “This needs prior authorization.”

The prior-authorization process required wading through a tortuous phone tree, punching in everything from the patient’s body-mass index to his Zodiac sign, and then begging for clemency from a rep whose medical knowledge likely rivaled Mr. Cheng’s remaining kidney function. I knew when I was beaten.

Just then, a supply cart came wheeling around the corner. There on the bottom rack was a glistening case of Nepro shakes. I looked from the cart to the nurse, social worker, resident and intern. “Maybe I’ll just lift a few of these,” I joked, and everyone chuckled. It would certainly be more efficient than battling Medicaid for prior authorization on the eve of a three-day holiday weekend.

I flashed my most ingratiating smile at the orderly. “Would you mind if I just grabbed one of those Nepro shakes?” The orderly froze me with a granite institutional stare.

“Please,” I said, “it’s for one of our patients.” I didn’t mention that I was planning to abet the patient in smuggling them out of the hospital — a flagrant violation of inpatient–outpatient turf boundaries. The orderly hesitated but then gave a grudging nod. I pulled two cans from the cart and stuffed them into the pockets of my white coat.

Then I thought about the upcoming weekend. Mr. Cheng would be alone, and Nepro seemed to be the only thing that brought him pleasure.  When the orderly turned to stock the supply cabinet, I whisked out two more cans, tucking them under the discharge papers.

Monday was a holiday, too — 3 long days for Mr. Cheng, maybe his final days. I snagged two more cans and rolled them in the medical journal I was carrying.  What if he woke up at night, hungry? I grabbed another two and jammed them under my crossed arms.

When the orderly finally rolled his cart away, I turned toward my team and nodded. “I believe we have Mr. Cheng’s discharge plan in order.”

I went to Mr. Cheng and told him he was going home. “The Nepro?” he asked anxiously. I plopped a bag of the pilfered Nepro at his bedside. His face lit up, his eyes crinkling from the effort of containing his radiant grin. I shook his hand goodbye and wished him well.

Two hours later, the authorization for the ambulette came through. The nurse who’d gone into Mr. Cheng’s room to give him his discharge papers suddenly came dashing out. “He’s . . . he’s passed,” she said, breathlessly. “Mr. Cheng has died.”

We followed her into the room, and there was Mr. Cheng — face calm, body still. We quietly verified the absence of respirations and pulse and then stood in a semicircle around his bed.

By all appearances he’d died peacefully. We were glad for that, but he hadn’t gotten his fervent wish to be at home. At the bedside was his bag of precious Nepro cans — pristine, unopened.

We stood together in a moment of contemplative silence. Then the son grabbed the bag of Nepro and pressed it to me. “We won’t be needing this now,” he said with a rueful smile. I took the bag, and our hands briefly closed over each other’s.

For the next 2 weeks, the bag sat under my desk; I couldn’t bear to return the Nepro. There was something achingly poignant about these little cans that had meant so much to Mr. Cheng.

For patients like Mr. Cheng, we rightly try to focus on the big picture, rather than the nitty gritty of prodding potassium or nudging glucose.  But sometimes, amidst the collapsing dominoes of relentless illness, it’s the little picture that makes the most palpable difference. The assurance that his Nepro would be there appeared to give Mr. Cheng more comfort than anything else we could offer.

Many patients have their own versions of Mr. Cheng’s Nepro—the precise shade of nail polish, the Dr. Brown’s cream soda, the Monday sports section of the newspaper. Although technically they’re the little things, in a sense they’re actually the big things. Indeed, for some patients—when illness is terminal, or even just overwhelming, the little thing may be the only thing that matters.