Cold Iron Truth

Helping patients at the end of their lives


My wife thinks I am a little morbid, because I still read the local Sunday newspaper not to catch up on the news, and certainly not for the ads, but mostly to read the obituaries.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

All of us have elderly patients, and I am growing old with many of my older patients. Now after treating many thousands of patients whom I have grown to know well, it is not unusual to see an obituary of someone my office staff and I know in the newspaper on a weekly basis.

We send sympathy cards, sometimes I write a personal note to the spouse or family, and several times a year, some of my staff and I will go to the funeral or memorial ceremony.

I usually ask if they died well, comfortably with family, or better yet, suddenly, dropping dead like a stone. This is the unspoken, though usually unrealized, goal of many of us from the world of medicine.

All physicians who have been surrounded by death, some horrible deaths, want to die well. I think it is difficult to do, although my mother came close.

One day when dropping off her best little friend (my 10-year-old daughter), she said “look here, I’ve got a knot in my belly button.” I felt the blood rushing to my head and before I could stop her, she showed me her Sister Mary Joseph nodule, a sign of metastatic internal malignancy. I sat stunned as she looked at me; her eyes showed she already knew my answer.

She lasted at home for 6 weeks, went into hospice, and died 36 hours later.

The last morning before she died, I took my daughter to see her before school. She woke up and called her “sugar” and had her climb into bed with her and snuggle. I got choked up and tearful and started telling her how much I loved her and how sorry I was and how much we would miss her. She looked over at me, and with anger in her voice, told me to be quiet, and explained that death comes to everyone eventually and just to get over it. In retrospect, I understand now that I was not helping her die well.

I am telling this story to bring up a point about professionalism. A crucial part of professionalism is a responsiveness to patients’ needs that supersedes self interest. As dermatologists who treat skin cancer, this becomes important as the life cycle ends. Aged patients sometimes start blossoming with skin cancers. You must carefully gauge how much “treatment” a patient really needs.

You have a conflict. You get paid to diagnose and treat skin cancers. You must shift roles and become the patient’s protector, and treat the patient as if he or she was your parent. Less, sometimes much less, is often more. Perhaps you only biopsy and treat rapidly growing cancers that endanger crucial structures. You ignore the noninvasive tumors on the trunk and extremities. It is a fine and difficult line to walk.

Patients know they are dying, and at certain stages of grieving will want everything possible done, especially if it is visible. Skin wounds, even from curetting, salves, and cryotherapy, can be painful and sometimes disabling. You must resist unnecessary treatments, temporize if possible, discuss quality time with the patient and the family, and reach a consensus on how aggressive not to be. You must help them die well.

You are not only a healer, but as a master physician you – yes, even you the dermatologist – must also be a helpful guide at the end of life. I am sad to see patients, my old friends, in the newspaper, but feel secretly satisfied if I have spared them unnecessary suffering.

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Write to him at [email protected].

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