Signs of Impending Death

The title of this post may sound too medically based, since it seems to focus more on just the signs of death. But having a palliative care doctor assign me this topic to present at our next palliative ward round, I figured it would make for an interesting read.

I was 25 when I witnessed a patient who passed away in front of me. I was still an intern then, and was asked to see the patient in front of many family members. The patient had agonal breathing – periods of deep sighing breathing, followed by long pauses of silence. After a few minutes, the patient stopped breathing at all. Being fairly uncomfortable in such a situation, all I could do at the time was examine the patient, and inform the family that their loved one has passed away.

That was some 3 years ago. I have assessed many more deceased patients since then.

Having used an ebook database, I find out that some of the signs of impending death include:

  • Decreasing cardiac output: increased heart rate, hypotension, cyanosis, mottling, livedo reticularis
  • Renal failure: oliguria, anuria
  • Neurologic dysfunction: decreased level of consciousness, terminal delirium, hypo/hyperactivity
  • Reduced oral intake.

During our palliative ward round, we see a patient who seems to have signs of dying. It was an elderly man who presented due to what appears to be pneumonia. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. He had reduced oral intake. And he looked pale. The man ended up succumbing to his pneumonia, despite IV antibiotics we were giving. Realistically, he didn’t improve after 3 – 4 days of IV antibiotics, and so we had to explain to the 2 daughters that he wasn’t likely to pull through.

I remembered this man from a few weeks back. He was up and talking back then, cracking a few jokes even. I found it hard to believe that he was so well just a few weeks ago.

From what I’ve seen, disease does not discriminate against people. It attacks people of any age.

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