When you think of life support, you likely envision you or your loved one connected to machines via various tubes that perform necessary functions, like breathing, eating, and the excretion of non-necessary fluids. The truth is, life support can be one or all of these – it is dependent on the individual and the nature of their illness.
Usually, being on life support means that the individual is being kept alive with the assistance of a breathing machine, or ventilator.
Common Life Support Methods When Using a Ventilator
Ventilators administer oxygen to patients who are unable to breathe on their own. Tubes are connected from the ventilator to the patient usually by means of an endotracheal.
This tube is normally passed through the mouth, down the throat, and into the airway of the lungs, but it can also be administered through the nose or via an incision into the neck.
If the patient must be entirely relaxed or sedated for a short period of time, a ventilator will be used. The exact reason for choosing ventilation lies in a patient's particular medical condition or status. A patient who has undergone major surgery, sustained a traumatic injury, or that has a severe lung disease may need assistance via a ventilator.
Any method chosen is heavily dependent on the current status of the patient and his or her level of consciousness.
Determining Patient Status
It can be difficult to be confined to the waiting room while your loved one is in this state, but staff members in the Critical Care Department are trained to provide you with an exact status evaluation. If your loved one must be medicated with narcotics, they will likely sleep much of the time and therefore not have an increased consciousness level.
Narcotics are mainly used to decrease anxiety in a patient, but this also decreases their ability to breathe on their own. Thus, the ventilator provides efficient maintenance of the body's oxygen levels. In other words, seeing your loved one hooked to a respirator is not always a cause for alarm – it is simply an assistive device.
Another key indicator when discerning a patient's consciousness level is the illness or injury they have sustained. For instance, a head injury can cause auditory damage meaning the patient may not be able to hear any audible form of communication.
While complications can occur, they are relatively rare. The main types of complications that can occur are infections at tube sites and other issues due to a longer than normal period of immobility. When attempting to answer how long someone can be on life support, there is no clear-cut limit.
How Long Can Someone Be on Life Support?
While every individual and their circumstances are different, there are long-term life support success stories, such as a woman from Guyana who had been on kidney dialysis for forty years, as well as a man in London who finally passed at age 67 after having been in an iron lung since the age of 17.
Other types of life support considered more invasive, such as a heart or a lung bypass, is only sustainable for a few days at most, while artificial heart recipients have lived as long as a year and a half.
When to Finally Pull the Patient from Life Support
While the decision to maintain or stop life support can be in the hands of the family, sometimes it is up to the patient himself in the form of an advanced directive. If end-of-life has never been discussed before, it can be difficult to decide. In all instances, your loved one's doctors will advise when to keep your hopes up – and, unfortunately, when there's no hope remaining for a recovery.
Other factors that are considered include whether the life support option is merely drawing out the dying process and whether the family or their insurance provider can maintain the costs of treatment.
When life support is removed, it means that your loved one will pass away within the next few hours, sometimes days. The length of time left depends on the injuries and what life support treatment was ceased. After a ventilator is removed, the patient will most likely stop breathing, passing shortly thereafter.
In some case, though, patients have been known to begin breathing without the ventilator's assistance. If your loved one has a feeding tube and this is the support that is removed, he may live for a few more days or as long as two more weeks.
This is a trying time for all involved, but you can take comfort in knowing that if removal of life support is chosen, this is not why your loved one will pass away – they will pass due to the injuries sustained and the resulting condition. No matter what, your loved one's doctors will ensure that your loved one remains comfortable.