From Tragedy, An Important Lesson

The tragedy of Terri Schiavo’s long dying touched many of us. We say, “I would never want to live like that” or “I would never want to put my family through that” or, even, “If something happens to me, bring on the technology. I want it ALL.” Fleetingly, we realize that to insure these wishes—whatever they are—they must be memorialized in some way. We vow, once again, to prepare the advance directives that can add the clarity of our own voice to a situation that may be a medically murky and highly emotional for our friends and family.

I’m pleased to be a new board member of New Jersey Health Decisions (NJHD), an organization committed to helping people make good decisions, appropriate for them, about their care.

National and NJHD surveys indicate that less than 20 percent of Americans, including New Jerseyans, have advance directives that can come into play if their medical situation prevents them from speaking for themselves. Most people who have advance directives are elderly; yet, many of the most tragic and perplexing cases have involved young people. Nancy Cruzan was irremediably injured in an automobile accident; Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan collapsed completely unexpectedly.

“Advance directives” are of two main types:

  • A living will gives information about the kind of medical care you want in certain situations (unfortunately, when these actual situations arise, they often are very complicated, and what seemed clear is not)
  • A durable power of attorney (or health care proxy) names a trusted person to make decisions for you, if you cannot

Neither of these directives is as useful as it might be in assuring you get the kind of care you want or in protecting your family from agonizing decisions unless everyone involved takes one more step: talk about your wishes. Let your family know what you want, let your closest friends know, let your doctor know. Then if tragedy does strike, they understand the sense behind the words on paper, and there is less likely to be serious conflict.

Making life-or-death decisions for another person is one of the hardest things we are ever called upon to do, but if we can make these decisions believing we are doing what that person would want, it greatly eases the emotional burden at that time and into the future.

You don’t need a lawyer to prepare either of the types of advance directive noted above. You can obtain the forms through New Jersey Health Decisions: www.njhealthdecisions.org, an organization with a distinguished history in New Jersey on whose board I am proud to serve.

A very popular advance directive, which combines the living will and durable power of attorney, called Five Wishes, addresses personal, emotional, and spiritual issues, not just medical technology. Five Wishes is available from Aging with Dignity, www.agingwithdignity.org and is the only document needed in most states. A few states also require their own form, in which case Five Wishes can be a useful attachment. I’ve seen this organization grow from an idea to one what has distributed more than 4 million advance directives to individuals, health care institutions, and workplaces.

Take care of this small bit of paperwork, talk with your family and doctor, then get back to enjoying life!
--Vicki Weisfeld, Co-Principal, NEW Associates