Schiavo case instructs us to plan ahead |

Schiavo case instructs us to plan ahead

In the midst of the daily coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, we must ask ourselves what we learned from this tragic situation. The pictures of Terri and her family were heart-wrenching; reflecting only pain on all sides.

While we viewed daily the arguments surrounding the ethics of this situation, we are now compelled to ask how and why does something like this occur. What can be learned to avoid such a situation in our own families?

I am not writing to defend a “right to live” or a “right to die,” but to recognize that there is a solution that will avoid the heartbreak that can be associated with these situations. I believe the answer is at our fingertips and has been for a long time. We have heard in the press that a “living will” (also known as “advance health care directive”) resolves the questions of what we would like to have done if and when we are unable to make our own medical choices.

While we listened to each side of the Schiavo case talk about what they want or what Terri would want, we are left with nothing concrete that provides guidance for Terri’s care. If an advance directive had been completed, the family would have known Terri’s wishes and they could have been carried out with the assurance that she had received the medical care that she wanted.

The real tragedy of the Schiavo situation is that an advance health care directive was not completed to guide Terri’s loved ones. The need for one has never been demonstrated more strongly than in this case. It is made even more poignant by the fact that Terri was a relatively young person, thus exemplifying the fact that advance directives are not just for seniors.

In my 15 years of working in the field of end-of-life care, I have observed a gradual change in perception about death and dying. We are beginning to be able to realize that death really is just a natural end to the cycle of life. And with that change, there is evolving a sensitivity about what kind of care we prefer at life’s end.

While some people would like to have all that medicine can offer, others only want to remain comfortable and free from pain. Whatever we prefer, we should have some reasonable expectations about it being fulfilled. Unfortunately, without committing your preferences to writing, there will only be confusion, and more than likely pain, for your loved ones.

We are a society of people that feels strongly about personal freedom and rights. It has always struck me as odd that we so often give them away at the end of life. I cannot understand why anyone would not do whatever possible to assure that their wishes would be carried out at the time they are unable to make their own decision, especially where the process is not only simple but so easily within our individual control. There is no bureaucracy to interfere and no law to restrict us. By simply completing a document and discussing your wishes with a trusted loved one or friend, you provide a document to assist them in ensuring that your wishes will be fulfilled. A good document will suggest differing scenarios that allow you to decide what you would want done if you were unable to make your own decisions. In the event you have an estate planner, an advance directive should be a part of your estate- planning document.

The document titled “Five Wishes” is an excellent tool for stating your desires for medical care and is recognized in over 30 states, including California. I am hoping it will soon be recognized in all 50 states.

I urge everyone to become proactive about your right to care by completing a “Five Wishes” (or other advance health care directive). After completing your document, you should discuss it and your desires about care with your physician so that he/she will be aware of your wishes for treatment. Be sure that a copy is left at your physician’s office and at the hospital.

Copies of “Five Wishes” are available by calling (888) 594-7437. The address is Dying With Dignity, P. O. Box 1661, Tallahassee, Fla., 32302-1661. The Web site is HYPERLINK “”

Hospice of the Foothills also retains copies of this document for anyone who is unable to get one elsewhere, and they are available by calling 272-5739.


Dennis Fournier is the executive director for Hospice of the Foothills. Call hospice at 272-5739 for more information about hospice services and eligibility requirements.

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