July 19, 2024

Nancy Neveloff Dubler, a medical ethicist who pioneered using mediation at hospital bedsides to navigate the complex dynamics among headstrong doctors, anguished family members and patients in their last days, died on April 14 at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was 82.

The cause was heart and lung disease, her family said.

A Harvard-educated lawyer who won her college student presidency by campaigning to dissolve the student government, Ms. Dubler was a revolutionary figure in health care who sought, in her words, to “level the playing field” and “amplify nonmedical voices” in knotty medical situations, especially when deciding next steps for the sickest of patients.

In 1978, Ms. Dubler founded the Bioethics Consultation Service at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Among the first such teams in the country, the service employed lawyers, bioethicists and even philosophers who, like doctors on call, carried pagers alerting them to emergency ethical issues.

Bioethics consultants emerged as a medical subspecialty following groundbreaking advances in technology, pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques.

“Our technology now lets us confer several decades of healthy and productive life through procedures like cardiac catheterization or triple bypass surgery,” Ms. Dubler wrote in her book. “Yet it also lets us take a body with a massive brain hemorrhage, hook it up to a machine, and keep it nominally ‘alive,’ functioning organs on a bed, without hope of recovery.”

Such advances can lead to friction among doctors, who have been trained for generations to keep patients alive with whatever tools are available; family members, who might squabble about their often incapacitated loved ones; and hospital administrators, who may fear lawsuits.

The questions Ms. Dubler and her team faced were complex and heart-wrenching.

Should a premature baby who is unlikely to survive be intubated? Should an unconscious patient whose religious beliefs forbid blood transfusions receive one because a family member demands it? Should a teenager be allowed to forgo excruciating treatment for terminal cancer?

“Nancy brought a human face to bioethics that focused on empathy and on inclusivity and really bringing a voice to those who didn’t have that,” Tia Powell, who succeeded Ms. Dubler at Montefiore, said in an interview.

Ms. Dubler’s first tactic in entering these discussions was to sit down with families.

“They’ve been in the hospital for who knows how long,” she said during a presentation at Columbia University in 2018, “and no one’s ever sat down to talk to them” — especially doctors. “They run in and they run out, and they all look pretty much the same in their white coats.”

Oftentimes, Ms. Dubler encountered family members who didn’t want their loved ones to know that they, the patients, were terminally ill.

In an essay for the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., Ms. Dubler recalled a case involving an older man who was gravely ill but breathing independently after being removed from a ventilator.

The man was clearly dying, but his sons didn’t want to include him in discussions with the hospital staff about further life-extending measures.

“I met with the sons and explained that the team felt obligated to have some discussion with their patient about what sort of care he would want in the future,” Ms. Dubler wrote. “The sons exploded, saying this was unacceptable.”

Ms. Dubler — dispassionate, but steely — kept the conversation going.

“After much discussion about the patient and what a terrific person and dad he had been,” she wrote, “I asked how it would be if I opened a discussion with him with three questions: ‘Do you want to discuss your future care with me? Would you want me to talk to your sons about future care? And do you want to have this discussion without your sons being present?’”

The sons were concerned that such a conversation would tip their father off to the fact that he was dying. What he needed, they thought, was hope.

“I described studies that indicated that when family members try to shield the patient from bad news, the patient usually knows the worst, and the silence is often translated into feelings of abandonment,” Ms. Dubler wrote.

That swayed the sons. She approached the man’s bedside.

“The patient was clearly very weak and tired,” Ms. Dubler wrote. “I asked the patient whether, since he had recently been extubated, he would agree to be intubated again if the doctors thought he needed to be. He said, ‘I would think about it.’ The sons said they, too, would think about it.”

The process worked.

“Full-blown conflict regarding whether to ‘tell Dad’ receded,” she wrote. “Mediation in this case worked with the sons to craft an approach to their father that they could tolerate, if not embrace.”

Nancy Ann Neveloff was born on Nov. 28, 1941, in Bayport, N.Y., on the South Shore of Long Island. Her parents, Aaron and Bess (Molinoff) Neveloff, owned a pharmacy below their home.

As a student at Barnard College, she studied religion with a focus on Sanskrit. While there, she ran for campus president as a one-issue candidate.

“She won by a landslide, and she really did dissolve the student government,” her classmate, Nancy Piore, said in an interview. (It was eventually reinstated.)

Ms. Piore recalled once seeing Ms. Dubler reading a James Bond novel in her academic robes. “She was a character,” she said, “and she was a real force.”

After graduating in 1964, she studied law at Harvard, where she met Walter Dubler, a recent Ph.D. graduate in English, at a New Year’s Eve party. They married in 1967, the year she graduated, and moved to New York City, where she worked as a lawyer for prisoners, delinquent children and alcoholics.

“If Nancy and I were going to do something after work, I would meet her at the men’s shelter,” Mr. Dubler said in an interview. “But after one meeting there, I told her I was too squeamish and I would meet her somewhere else. But she was very into that kind of thing.”

She joined Montefiore in 1975 to work on legal and ethics issues and formed the Bioethics Consultation Service three years later.

Outside of her hospital work, Ms. Dubler advocated for equal access to medical care for prisoners. She also served on committees devising ethical procedures for stem cell research and the allocation of ventilators in case of shortages.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Ariela Dubler; a son, Josh Dubler; and five grandchildren.

Ms. Dubler’s colleagues suggested that her greatest legacy was the creation of a certificate program at Montefiore to train doctors, nurses and hospital staff in bioethics.

One of the program’s graduates, a doctor, was at Ms. Dubler’s hospital bedside when, in her final months, she gathered her medical team and family around her to declare that she was going home and would not return.

“He was clearly sort of in awe of her,” Ms. Dubler’s son-in-law, Jesse Furman, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, said of the doctor. “He saw how, even in her diminished state, she was able to be in control of her own treatment and death.”

The doctor told her he was honored to be there for her.

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