Life Support: Important Things You Need to Know

The body is a complex, fragile, fine-tuned machine that ticks over on a constant basis to keep us alive and healthy.

There are a myriad of crucial functions taking place inside the body at any given hour of the day- many of which we are completely oblivious to. Many of these functions keep us alive.

But sometimes, the body is struck down and unable to perform as it should. This is where outside support is needed in the form of life support.

Learn more about what this entails and important decisions to make around life support…

Throwing a Lifeline: Understanding Life Support

Life support is very common in palliative care. When a person is nearing the end of life or struggling with a life-threatening illness, life support is often the lifeline they need to survive through the day. 

Life support keeps the body functioning until it is ready to resume its role again, but sometimes, it just may not be strong enough. 

In this case, if any of the following vital organs stop functioning, life support is necessary: 

  • The lungs: common in cases of severe pneumonia, drug overdose, blood clotting, lung disease or injury, and near-drowning
  • The heart: common in cases of cardiac arrest and heart attack
  • The brain: common in cases of stroke, coma, or severe head trauma 

There are a number of different machines on the market today that perform different life support functions. But in essence, life support machinery supports a failing bodily function that usually keeps you alive. 

The Different Types of Life Support

As mentioned, life support is commonly used when function of the lungs, heart, or brain is diminished. Some of the most common forms of life support used today include: 

1. A Mechanical Ventilator

Symptoms of disease or injury affecting the lungs can make it difficult for a person to breathe on their own. Some of these diseases could include pneumonia, COPD or lung edema. A short-term solution is to use a mechanical ventilator or respirator which mimics lung function.   

Essentially, the ventilator takes over the job of providing oxygen to the body and assisting with gas exchange. This allows the rest of the body to focus on healing.

If you have a loved one in need of palliative care, take a look at this blog on the best oxygen cart options for their needs.   

2. Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)

This is a basic First-Aid technique that is used in emergency situations as a vital form of life support. Usually, CPR is used when a person has stopped breathing and diminished their heart function due to cardiac arrest, suffocation, or drowning. 

3. Defibrillation

This is another common life support technique that is used to stimulate a person’s heartbeat or change their heart rhythm. A defibrillator machine uses intense electric pulses to ”shock” the heart muscle after events such as arrhythmia, cardiac arrest or heart attack

4. Artificial Nutrition

This is a common form of life support in palliative care where the body is nourished via a feeding tube. This is achieved by directly inserting a feeding tube into the stomach, which replaces the act of eating or drinking. 

5. Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)

The LVAD is used in cases of heart failure. It’s a device that assists in the function of the left ventricle of the heart which pumps blood throughout the body. 

An LVAD device is also helpful to those awaiting a heart transplant. It’s not a permanent solution, but it helps the heart to pump until they receive their transplant. 

6. Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)

The ECMO machine offers a dual function. It has the ability to carry out the job of the lungs, or it can function for both the heart and lungs at once. 

This device is commonly used in cases of infants with underdeveloped hearts or lungs due to premature birth or serious disorders. However, adults can also benefit from this form of life support.

Choosing Life Support

Before making a decision about life support, it’s important to gather all the facts about the burden vs. benefits of this treatment. Sometimes a loved one may be unresponsive and you’ll need to make the decision regarding life support for them. 

Consider whether the treatment will help to relieve suffering, restore function or enhance their quality of life. Or whether life support would be considered a burden if it prolongs pain, suffering, or the passage of life. ”

A healthcare professional will gauge whether life support is necessary and begin this treatment immediately. However, they will not do so if you refuse life support outright. They are also restricted from life support treatment if a loved one has left written instructions declining life support. 

A medical power of attorney or closest family member who has been made your proxy can also turn down life support if you so wish.  

When to Stop Life Support

Making this decision can be extremely difficult. But generally, a doctor will advise that life support should no longer be sustained if there is no hope left for recovery. 

If multiple organs are unable to function on their own, life support may only prolong the inevitable passage of life. Which, in itself, could be considered cruel. 

What to Expect When Stopping Life Support

Once you’ve made the decision to end life support, a loved one will usually pass within a few hours or days thereafter. This timeframe depends on the treatment that has been stopped. 

Most people tend to stop breathing immediately after a ventilator is turned off. This means they will pass away very soon after this. 

If a loved one is unconscious or unable to make the decision for themselves, the decision tends to fall on the shoulders of loved ones. If they have not disclosed their end-of-life wishes, it’s encouraged to think about what your loved one would really want at the end of their life.

Ultimately, family members should remember that it’s the underlying condition that has caused death, not the removal of life support. 

Make Your Health a Priority As You Age

Give yourself your own version of life support by making your health a priority- especially as you age. 

Learn more about women’s health, men’s health, senior care, and fitness by exploring the rest of this website for helpful tips and articles.

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