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What is a do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order is a type of advance directive which indicates that a patient should not be offered CPR or other lifesaving measures in the event of cardiac arrest or other medical emergencies. Typically, a DNR is requested by or for a patient who is terminally ill, to avoid potentially painful and invasive procedures. Very elderly patients or patients in other circumstances may also request a DNR.

There are a number of types of DNR order, and it is helpful to know the difference between them, especially if you are considering a DNR request for yourself. While most people associate a DNR with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), other lifesaving measures including the administration of IV drugs, intubation to secure an airway, and use of defibrillator paddles may also be used in a hospital environment. Some of these measures are traumatic and invasive, and they may not always be effective, if a patient is seriously ill.

Under a basic DNR order, none of these measures will be provided to a patient who is in respiratory or cardiac arrest. However, hospital staff and nurses will still work to make the patient comfortable through the administration of oxygen, movement of the patient, and hydration with intravenous fluids. The intention of a DNR is not to kill a patient, but to keep him or her comfortable when death approaches.

Ideally, a patient should request a DNR with his or her doctor, setting up what is known as a “DNR specific.” This type of DNR is much more extensive, indicating specific desires for certain conditions. For example, a patient may request a DNR if he or she ends up in a coma, but not if he or she experiences a heart attack while awake. By being specific in an advanced directive, the patient can be sure that his or her wishes are followed in the event of a major medical catastrophe.

In a patient cannot make medical decisions and an advanced directive has not been dictated, someone else must take responsibility, such as a close relative or somehow in whom the parent has invested the power of attorney. People who are put in this position should think carefully about the wishes of the patient, especially if he or she is experiencing multiple organ failure or brain death. It may be helpful to remember than brain dead patients can potentially donate their organs, thereby saving lives even if they are no longer able to enjoy life.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon988115 — On Feb 08, 2015

Yes, a DNR can be lifted at any time by the family.

By anon323286 — On Mar 04, 2013

My mom died this week. I will never have peace with this as I have deep reservations over whether she was killed or suffered. Granted she was old, but her family lived well into their 90's and some to over 100. She had respiratory issues but only secondary to common issues in elderly. Her last hospitalization was due to a gastric-infection which had cleared. Over and over this hospital badgered her to sign a DNR. She said she had a living will and did not sign, and repeatedly saying she wanted to be intubated if needed.

It was not a simple issue of saying no. Nurses sat and told her how easy it would be, how morphine would ease her anxiety as she struggled for air. Doctors chided her about cracking her ribs if they needed to do CPR. We persevered in rejecting it because seven years previous we had the same sales pitch.

Mom recovered and was moved to a rehab/home for short term therapy to strengthen her legs. Within six hours, we received a call saying she was dead, that she had "difficulty breathing" and the home had ambulated her back to the hospital, where they say she "willingly had signed a DNR.”

We had no recourse. She died as we knew she didn't want to -- in an ER, with people who didn't care, alone with strangers, with no call or opportunity to hold her during her last moments. Their need to not resuscitate overruled our need to comfort her in her final hour.

It is sad to see the medical field desensitizing elderly death. It reminds me of the movie "Logan's Run".

By anon291310 — On Sep 13, 2012

At one hospital, my Dad was full code. His liver was having problems and the doctor recommended changing his code to DNR. I refused. The doc sighed and said that she'd try to reduce his medication and see what happened. After reduction, my Dad's liver bounced back. So, I agree that the DNR is "sometimes" (too often!) used as an excuse to let the patient die.

By anon272043 — On May 29, 2012

Some of you people obviously do not understand the trauma that some people go through when we as medical professionals are performing life saving measures on someone who is going to die anyway.

It is everyone's personal decision whether or not they want life saving measures or not. Why would I want my 80 year old mother put through the trauma of chest compressions (which in the elderly can cause rib fractures quite easily) or having a breathing tube shoved down their throat?

I think in some cases, it is more important for the person to be comfortable and go with dignity than it is for the family to be selfish and want to keep them alive on machines.

By anon254725 — On Mar 14, 2012

People should never want to have a dnr. They are a convenient way for nasty medical staff to get rid of a person who they do not want to treat. It is absolutely no help for a patient.

By anon222612 — On Oct 16, 2011

DNRs are so bad and should be banned. That is how we lost our relative. They tried to kill her with drug over doses to try to get her to go into cardiac arrest but since she had a DNR, she was not allowed to get cpr. That did not work since she was so strong and healthy but they gave her a curable fungal skin infection when she was in the hospital getting a minor surgery (which was not necessary it just was done to improve her lifestyle). She was never treated for the curable hospital skin infection that they gave her.

She went into sepsis shock while in sepsis shock they purposely gave her the wrong medicine for the fungal infection which only got worse. As she was dying from this curable infection they refused to give her oxygen. They just made her and her family suffer by killing her. The family will continue to suffer from this DNR murder.

DNRs and euthanasia just need to be banned forever. Both very deadly and horrible.

By anon108770 — On Sep 04, 2010

Laws are different in different in every state. however, the general rule is that only a doctor can order a DNR with consent of patient, spouse, then majority of consent of children. If you have proof that a DNR was ordered and you didn't sign it, that in itself is a problem. if you ask for notes and you have something missing, consult an attorney.

By anon99460 — On Jul 26, 2010

my son who is 34 years old had a DNR put on him by one doctor because my son had lung damage. we as a family didn't want this but as my son was in a coma the hospital gave us no choice. my son would have wanted a DNR on him, but my son did live. he has lung damage but he's alive.

A top consultant told us that the doctor had no rights to put a DNR on our son and he said the doctor was in the wrong but my son's notes are now missing. how can we prove this?

By serenity9now — On Apr 17, 2008

How does the Good Samaritan Law affect people who knowingly performs CPR on a person with a doctor's order for a DNR for example someone who is terminally ill and receiving hospice services.

By anon10101 — On Mar 19, 2008

Does the coma have to last a certain time and must it be absolute that the patient die as apposed to the possibility it given some might come out of the coma?zpue

By anon9465 — On Mar 06, 2008

Can a DNR be lifted?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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