The patient is a young boy with leukemia. We have been treating him for over a year, and his leukemia just won’t go into remission. For the past 3 months he has been in the hospital, first to receive chemotherapy and then to manage the side effects we caused. His bone marrow is nearly empty, but almost 80% of what few cells are present are leukemia cells. His only potential curative therapy is a bone marrow transplant.
Therein lies the problem. Not only does he have refractory leukemia, but his lungs are significantly injured from his previous chemotherapy, functioning at just about 55% of their predicted ability. For my patient, this is a major problem, because sick lungs make a bone marrow transplant very risky. Also, he doesn’t have a matched donor, so we would have to do a highly experimental type of transplant called a “reduced intensity haploidentical transplant.” This means we would give less than the usual amount of chemotherapy (to try to decrease the toxicity), and would use a donor that is only half matched.
I presented this case to the adult BMT group last week. Not one of them thought going through with the transplant was a good idea. They are convinced the patient will do badly, that he will end up dying in the ICU on a ventilator, and would never be cured with this approach anyway. Better to send him home on hospice care.
I polled a number of pediatric colleagues by email. They all said the same thing – better to do hospice care than a transplant that will most likely make the patient sicker before he dies anyway.
Our group has discussed the case extensively. We all agree that the chance of cure for this child is less than 5%. There is a 95% chance he will die faster and in more pain if we go ahead with the transplant than if we send him home on hospice care. So is the more humane choice to not offer the family a transplant, knowing the odds are overwhelmingly against success, knowing that the transplant will most likely make an already tragic situation worse?
Who gets to decide if the 5% chance of a cure is worth the risk? Is this chance of success so small as to qualify as futile?
If I know the father the way I think I do, if I hold out ANY chance of cure, he’ll take it, no matter the cost. That means, if I offer the family the transplant, he will go for it. But is that fair of me? He doesn’t know what it’s like to watch a child die in the ICU. I don’t think I can fully explain to him how awful a death his son may have, especially compared with what it would be like for him to die peacefully at home. Given that, can he truly give informed consent?
On the other hand, if I don’t offer the transplant, I take away even that slim chance of survival. Can I ethically do that? Or is that a decision the parents get to make?