David Cox | End-of-life football
Too often, as a pastor, I’ve seen the scene: Called to a hospital waiting room, I meet a family in terrible distress. Someone they love lies in critical care, at death’s door. Prognoses are grim. Tests give little hope or, worse, reveal that the brain has ceased to function.
What’s a family to do?
They want, of course, to do the “right” thing; and one crucial piece of knowledge is what their loved one would want. They try to remember conversations or comments the person made while in good health. But if the crisis results, say, from an accident, and/or if the person is young, chances are good that these conversations never occurred precisely because such a dire possibility seemed so remote.
So they wonder: What should we do? Do we keep the person on machines which are keeping him/her alive, or, in the vernacular, “pull the plug”? What would our beloved want?
Believe me, few quandaries are more excruciating.
Which is why advance directives are so vitally important: “Living wills,” which are written, legal documents specifying medical treatments and live-sustaining measures one does or does not want; a “medical power of attorney” which legally designates an individual to make medical decisions if one cannot make them for him/herself; and, depending on circumstances, a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order that declines CPR if one’s heart stops. These involve serious issues which, in my opinion, everyone over the age of 18 should consider. The older one gets, the more important they become.
They are, among other things, a priceless gift to one’s family if the unthinkable occurs. Again, I’ve been there: I’ve seen the incredibly painful decisions that families must make guided and eased by knowing clearly the wishes of the patient they love.
How pathetic, then, that national debates over changes in health care have debased what is so vital to something so partisan—and misleading, and just plain wrong. “A plan for euthanasia” and “a plot to kill off the elderly,” some have called it, imagining governmental “death panels” to decide who lives and who dies. Last week, senators knocked out a provision that would let Medicare cover costs of doctors discussing with their patients what those patients’ final wishes might be, over the ridiculous fear that, somehow, the “government will pull the plug on Grandma.” Making such an important issue a political football disserves us all.
Come on, folks: This isn’t about government; it’s about you and me having the freedom to choose what’s right for each of us concerning some of the most difficult decisions that you and I have the liberty to make. Deciding now, and recording those decisions, can rank among the greatest gifts you and I can offer to those we love. These decisions can also protect you and me by delegating authority, not to doctors or government, but to those we love and trust to do what is best for you and me if we cannot make those calls ourselves.
Yes, what we decide now might have huge financial repercussions later. If I clearly state I don’t want to be kept alive by machines alone, then I’d save boatloads of dough for hospitals, insurance companies, government, and/or my family.
But vastly greater is the savings in human anxiety. What a gigantic human toll the case of Terri Schiavo extracted—medical and legal costs aside—as she lay in a vegetative state year upon year upon family and friends while they, and doctors and lawyers and even politicians, tried to figure out what her condition and her intentions really were. How merciful on thousands had she written down, rather than just spoken, what she allegedly wanted.
You may wish all measures to be taken to keep you alive. Fine. Talk to your doctor and family, and write it down. It may be you want some but not others, or only to a point: Fine. Talk to your doctor and family, and write it down. Maybe you wish none: Ditto. Since you cannot anticipate everything, entrusting a “medical power of attorney” matters all the more. Write that down too. For help, see a website like www.caringinfo.org/stateaddownload, and be sure to talk with your family, lawyer, and doctor.
But do something! It’s your life, and your family’s, and God’s, even to its earthly end.
This David Cox column origially appeared in the Rockbridge Weekly.