Flight plans and unexpected turbulence

One of my patients recently found out that he has a terminal condition, and he is thunderstruck. He refuses to accept that this is the end. He says to me, "I can't just give up!" He tells me that he is going to beat this thing and win, and that he still has a fighting chance. But he doesn't. And I really want him to come to grips with this, because I want to make the end as pleasant as I can, and not misery.

And that's the problem of thinking of disease like a sporting event or a battle, because ultimately, everyone dies. Even if you win the game, the game is over. This is something you learn to come to terms with in internal medicine. Maybe a pediatrician or a subspecialist can insulate themselves from this reality, but my job is to try to extend longevity as much as can be reasonably done. I don't save any lives. All my patients are going to die, and likely while I am at the helm.

When thinking about life, I always preferred the metaphor of flying a plane. Every plane goes up, and every plane lands, and we want to go as far as we can, as comfortably as possible. And we don't get to choose our plane. We could get a Cessna, or a G6, or a Concorde, or even a 747. There's no choosing. We get the plane we get. But regardless of the plane, we're mostly all are trying to fly as far as we can and as comfortably as possible.

There are factors that we can modify. We can avoid bad weather or change our flight plan or change altitude or throttle. Maybe we know to do these things, because we got an airline transport pilot licence, and then we paid for good fuel, rigorously checked the flight plan, and had the best mechanics look over the plane with a fine tooth comb. Or maybe we never got a pilot licence because it was too expensive. Or we started out in a terrible airport surrounded by terrible weather conditions. Or maybe we didn't have any radar or doppler, and had to trust our gut about the weather. And maybe we didn't even know that these were things to worry about till we were already halfway through our fuel. Or maybe we decided to have some fun and did a whole bunch of air stunts, not realizing that it might cause stress damage. There are so many modifiable factors, and we can try our best to maximize our chances of flying far and smoothly, but in spite of our best planning, we could have a catastrophic failure of some little hydraulic tube that changes all of our plans.

And if something catastrophic happens, then it's not guaranteed that we are doomed. Maybe we can recover and still complete our flight plan. But some catastrophes we know will have no recovery, like if the fuselage gets ripped in half or a wing tears off. We're not going to make it to our destination. We're going to crash.

As a doctor, if I know we're going to crash, then my job changes. I'm no longer trying to help us get to our intended destination, but now I am trying to get us close to a nice landing spot, and help us land as smoothly as possible. Because there are bad crashes where no one walks away, and there are 'good' crashes where the survivors look back and think how lucky this was, given the circumstances. And so I'm pointing out to ease up on the throttle, avoid this weather cell, aim for this strip of highway, radio ATC and let them know of our situation, so there can be resources ready to meet us on the ground: medical personnel, fire crews, police to clear the scene. And I can't do any of those things if the pilot is not ready to concede that yes, this plane is crashing and we have to make the best we can of this terrible situation. No one wants to crash. But if that's your only choice, then I can help.