Dealing with Patient Death and Dying: Advice for RTs

image of medical professional sitting on empty patient bed

Respiratory therapists go to work every day thinking about how they can save the lives of their patients. But some of those patients will inevitably die, and coping with those situations can be a challenge for clinicians who are educated and trained to keep people breathing.

Stephanie Williams, BS, RRT, is director of community programs for the COPD Foundation and as such works on a daily basis with people who know their disease could hasten their demise. They’ve taught her some important lessons about dealing with death, both from the patient’s perspective and from the clinician’s perspective too.

RTs can help

“I find that people often have an initial reaction of fear or anxiety upon hearing their COPD diagnosis,” she said. She believes RTs can help them put their fears into the proper perspective and realize there are still many things they can do to improve their conditions.

“We need to remember that people have different coping skills and mechanisms for dealing with stressful situations,” Williams said. “If we can help them get plugged into support groups, or pulmonary rehabs, they are better able to manage their new reality.”

RTs can serve as a great resource for those who do want to begin planning for what lies ahead as well.

“Our patients want us to be honest with them,” Williams said. “When asked about who they want to have the end of life discussion with, they say they want it to be with someone they know has their best interest in mind.”

She says patients often look to their RTs because they know their therapists have taken care of other people with similar conditions and can help them understand what to expect as their disease progresses.

“We often have unique perspectives that we can share with them, which can help prepare them for the things they will likely experience as the illness goes on,” Williams said.

Compassion fatigue

Preparing patients to cope with a progressive illness like COPD helps to ease their journey. But therapists need to think about themselves and how their own reaction to death and dying in their patients may be impacting them and the care they are able to provide as well.

It’s called compassion fatigue, and it’s getting more and more attention in the health care arena from groups and initiatives ranging from the National Academy of Medicine to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

Williams believes hospitals should encourage their employees to take advantage of employee health services, so they can have a safe place to discuss the feelings and emotions associated with compassion fatigue.

“The hospital should also encourage nursing supervisors or department supervisors to recognize when an employee has lost a patient close to them and encourage them to talk about their emotions and not keep them inside,” she said. “I think it is important for us to allow ourselves to feel the emotions associated with the loss of patients we care for.”

She says health care professionals were, for too long a time, encouraged to keep those feelings to themselves, but that only contributes to burnout, which is not good for clinicians, patients, or organizations.

“Give yourself permission to be a compassionate human being,” Williams said. “We don’t have to be stoic and strong all the time.”