Shared decision-making at the bedside is now a regular feature of medical practice. When disagreements arise between a patient and family members caregivers sometimes find themselves caught in a complex tangle of human relationships that strains monochrome ethical thinking. The patient's expressed wishes are often compromised for the sake of the family's needs. Conversely, a unilateral appeal for patient autonomy may prove insensitive to the hurt and the needs of the family. We describe a relatively unsuccessful attempt by a patient's caregivers to buy time to maximize the interests of the patient and her family and discuss the way in which the family dynamics militated against the rather obvious solution of promoting the patient's right to refuse treatment. The purpose of this article is not to evoke sympathy for health care professionals in dealing with such conflicts but rather to heighten awareness of the issues at stake and to stimulate thinking about ways and means to bring about a more favourable outcome than the one described here.