I lead alot of family meetings for my job. This week, I felt like I was mediating a bunch of toddlers at one such meeting. The sad thing is the fighting had little to do with the actual health of my patient.

The background: Mr Jones, 60’s, came into the hospital with bad emphysema. The woman with him identified herself as his wife. She then became the primary contact for decisions as he got sicker. “Shall we do this surgery Mrs Jones?” and she directed the doctors on what he’d want. It got to a point that he was on the ventilator and required neurosurgery for extra fluid on his brain. At this time, she decided to call the rest of the family who lives out of town to tell them their loved one was in the ICU and critical.

Chaos ensued. A son flew into town. Two sisters drove in. All entering the ICU with steam whistling through their ears. The family was angry. There was no “Mrs. Jones”, they said. This woman had been married to the patient 20 years before for only 4 months. After a restraining order and a loss of a great deal of money they divorced. She arrived at his door a few months ago, needing a place to live, with a certificate showing she was a licensed caregiver, which the patient needed. So she moved in with him.

It was in the fireworks of these two parties meeting that we were asked to intervene. The good news was that the patient was doing better, and able to get off the vent, so I could speak directly to him about his medical decisions. He could also designate who he wanted to be his decision maker in case he got ill again.

The family and ex wife still needed some help and as I met with them, I realized that true issue was not the patient and his wishes but the house he was living in. He was renting it from his out of town sisters. When they arrived in town they found the ex-wife had changed the locks and barred them ,with police force, from entering.  I guess because the patient was renting it, he had to give permission for the “landlords” (his family) to enter, and being on the vent his “wife” had that power.

Sadly for this fake wife, as the patient awoke, he was able to give that permission to his family, and her scheming began to crumble. As she began to realize the situation she emotionally started to unravel, pleading with the patient, newly off the vent and still in the ICU, to change his mind. She hysterically begged me to convince him otherwise as she’d soon be homeless. The family, not helping the situation, antagonized the woman, with threats of calling the police.

I tried, in vain, to help them talk as adults, but as they bickered and threw insults and waved different legal documents in front of each other, I began to see them as two-year-olds struggling to both play with the same toy.  My reasoning doesn’t help with my own two-year-old, so why would it help now.  Like with toddlers I finally said, “Enough! Time for both parties to leave. Your fighting is hindering our care of the patient.”  They did need a bit more coaxing from the hospital security before they finally left.

It’s interesting what brings out the worst in people. In this case it was a house. Never mind our sweet patient who almost died, who will need good care at home once he leaves the hospital, and who emotionally is sickened to find that someone he really loved was trying once again to swindle him

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