Most people today have strong feelings about how they want to be cared for when the end of life is near. Some dread the thought of being kept alive by artificial means when there is no hope for a cure or a reasonable quality of life; others want every available life-sustaining measure to be used, without regard to quality of life, until the very end.
No matter how you view the issue, one thing is certain: the only way to ensure your wishes are honored is to record them in a Living Will or Advance Directive.
The Terry Schiavo Story – A National Tragedy
When Terry Schiavo died in a Pinellas Park, Florida hospice in 2005, the world was watching. Prior to her death, Terry had been in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” for years, her life dependent on round-the-clock nursing care and a feeding tube that provided hydration and nourishment.
In 1998, eight years after Terry suffered the cardiac arrest that began her decline, her husband, Michael, petitioned the courts to remove her feeding tube, citing conversations with Terry in which she indicated that she would never want to be kept alive by artificial means.
Terry’s parents disagreed, claiming Terry was “a devout Roman Catholic who would not wish to violate the Church’s teachings on euthanasia by refusing nutrition and hydration,” according to court documents.
The ensuing seven-year battle tore apart a family and divided the nation. The courts, various government agencies, the U.S. Congress, and even the President of the United States weighed in on the controversy. Good, sincere people on both sides of the issue were passionate in their beliefs. One side argued that Terry should be allowed to die peacefully; the other side insisted that feeding should be continued to sustain Terry’s life. In the months leading to Terry’s death, her story dominated talk radio and water-cooler conversations, and the legal battle became a media circus.
Finally, on March 24, 2005, with all appeals exhausted, Terry’s feeding tube was removed by order of the court. Seven days later, Terry died.
Life-or-Death Decisions Left to Chance
No one will ever know with absolute certainty whether the course of action ordered by the court – the removal of Terry’s feeding tube – is what Terry would have chosen for herself. And sadly, Terry’s story is not unique. Although most cases fly below the radar of media scrutiny, families across the country face life-or-death decisions on behalf of a loved one every single day. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that all the uncertainty, heartbreak, and turmoil surrounding those decisions could easily be avoided if only the loved one had a living will.
What Is a Living Will?
A living will, also known as an advance directive, is the term used for a legal document through which you communicate, in advance, your desires regarding your end-of-life medical care. In a living will, you provide a specific, detailed statement of measures you want or do not want to be used to prolong your life. The use of artificial life support, pain medications, and nourishment are some of the issues you may wish to address in your living will.
With or without a living will, you may elect to have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order. A DNR is another type of advance directive that instructs emergency personnel they should not start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to revive you if your heart stops beating. At home you can make your own DNR to keep nearby in case emergency personnel are called to assist you. In the hospital, only your doctor can add a DNR order to your medical chart.
Keep in mind that a living will takes effect only when you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Until you become incapacitated, you can revoke or revise your living will at any time.
Two Reasons to Make a Living Will
- Your peace of mind. No matter how you feel about end-of-life care, the only way to ensure that your wishes are known and carried out is to make a living will. Discussing your wishes with your family is important, but talking is not enough.
- Your final act of love. Deciding whether or not to continue life-prolonging measures is a heavy burden to place on a family. When the end of your life is near, your grief-stricken family will need to focus their attention on caring for you and supporting each other. Your clear and explicit instructions will relieve your family and let them know how much you love them.
So, do you need a living will? If you want to ensure that your wishes for end-of-life care are honored, no matter what those wishes are, the answer is yes.
Start the Discussion
Have you made your end-of life wishes known to your family? Have you recorded them in a living will? Or have you had to make crucial decisions for someone in your family who died without a living will? We invite you to share your experience here to help others who may be confronting their own end-of-life choices.