What Would You Do if You Were Me?

At some point, every nurse is likely to have a family member or loved one ask regarding a patient, “what would you do if you were me?” Should you answer honestly? What should you say?

Adding to the difficulty of this question are the circumstances surrounding it. Nobody would ask if the decision were easy. It typically surfaces with scary decisions, such as “should we make grandma a DNR or do everything to save her?” or “should I have the dangerous surgery or stick with only chemotherapy?” or “is it time for hospice?”

Still, “what would you do” is a natural question. Most people, on being given options, ask for opinions from others; they also perceive healthcare professionals as being qualified to give those opinions. They may shy away from having to make a difficult decision and to take responsibility for it themselves. They may be in an unforeseen or tragic circumstance; they may have been dragged from a deep sleep and feel too frazzled to think clearly.

Whatever answer nurses give to this question should consider all of these factors, in addition to the fact that we cannot give medical advice and may find ourselves in a difficult situation if we do. Often, no matter what decision is made, and by whom, the outcome is unfavorable, and typically humans like to be able to blame someone when things go wrong. I’d rather it not be me if I can avoid it.

I can think of only two situations in my career in which I have answered this question, and even then I dodged it slightly by saying, “if this were my family member, I would consider these factors….” Otherwise I have always said correct but probably totally unhelpful things, such as “I can’t answer that question for you” or “I don’t feel it would be appropriate for me to sway your opinion one way or another, but if you have more questions I’ll be happy to call the physician back to answer them.”

Still, no answer really seems good. In the first place, if I were you, I wouldn’t have to be answering the question. In the second place, no one can ever truly know the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of another. Attempting to honestly answer what I would do in your place will always fail. In the third place, if I choose one way or the other, whether you go with my choice or not, there’s a big chance that I will have been wrong.

I used to think that people didn’t really want me to answer that bare question “what would you do if you were me?” I thought that they were using it as a kind of shorthand to start a discussion about what had just been said and how they felt about it. Now I think they really do want an answer. Should we try to answer it? What moral framework should we use, if so? Is it a cop-out to say we can’t answer?

About Megen Duffy

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Megen Duffy, RN, BA, BSN, CEN, is a practicing nurse, blogger, and contributing editor for the American Journal of Nursing. Megen has practiced in a variety of settings from emergency rooms to prisons.