Fulfilling 'three wishes' helps ICU staff honor dying patients

A woman holds the hand of her mother who is dying from cancer during her final hours at a palliative care hospital. (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Doctors and nurses in a Canadian intensive care unit found that asking dying patients – or their families – to make three simple wishes, and then fulfilling those wishes, helped bring peace to the end-of-life process and ease grief.

Patients and families were invited to participate in the “Three Wishes Project” after a decision was made to withdraw life support, or when the patient’s probability of dying in the unit was believed to be greater than 95 percent.

At St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton in Ontario clinicians asked how to honor patients by eliciting at least three wishes from them or their families. Then, they worked to implement those wishes - such as allowing a pet to visit, facilitating a Skype reunion, hosting a wedding vow renewal, providing Scottish bagpipe music at death or deferring life support withdrawal until after a holiday.

“We are trying to improve the quality of the dying experience in the cold, technological, efficiency-driven intensive care unit,” said Dr. Deborah Cook of McMaster University Health Sciences Center in Hamilton, one of the authors of a report on the Three Wishes Project.

“This is a time when compassion is called for from everybody,” she said.

To study the effects of the project, she and her colleagues enrolled 40 patients, and 159 of their 163 wishes were implemented. The cost ranged from nothing to $200 dollars per patient. Wishes were classified into five categories: humanizing the patient (for example, recreating date night in the ICU), personal tributes (providing a final meal for the family in an ICU conference room), family reconnections (dying with all family members present), rituals and observances (bedside memorial service) and “paying it forward” (organ donation). Continue reading

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