For many weeks, the plight of Terri Schiavo was in the headlines, causing much pain to all members of her family. Her death, as well as the circumstances of her life, saddened everyone. The simple, unfortunate truth is that this controversy may have been avoided if Terri had taken the simple step of letting her desires be known to her family and physician while she was still able to make those decisions.
Every state in the United States has laws governing a person’s right to decide, ahead of time, what steps should or should not be taken in the event that they are in a “persistent vegetative state*,” or otherwise unable to answer questions or make decisions affecting their health care. This document is sometimes called a Living Will. In Massachusetts, this legal directive is called the Health Care Proxy. The Health Care Proxy, also referred to as an advance directive, provides an opportunity for patients to plan for future medical care in the event that they become unable to make decisions. Advance directives allow patients to explore, discuss, and articulate preferences regarding medical care, including life-sustaining treatments. The document not only serves the purpose of allowing a loved one to make end of life decisions, but it also is useful in the event that the patient is temporarily unable to make decisions regarding treatment options that may be designed to save the patient’s life.
Eighty percent of those Americans who are in a persistent vegetative state are between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. It is estimated that 14,000 to 35,000 people are in such a state in this country. The unfortunate reality is that no one thinks this will ever happen to them.
If you haven’t done so already, there is really no reason for you to put off this simple step to avoid what could potentially be a difficult experience for you and members of your family. Speak to your healthcare provider to get more information about how to protect your wishes and your rights by completing a health care proxy. Also, Advance Directive packets are available, free of charge, at Baystate Health facilities from our community health information centers, or our patient registration staff.
Because the Baystate Health staff strongly believes in the importance of making your wishes known in the event of an unforeseen circumstance, volunteers and hospital representatives are available to visit your civic, church or business group to explain this important Massachusetts legal document. For more information, please call Cheryl May, RN at 413-773-2736 (for Baystate Franklin Medical Center) and Baystate Health Link at 1-800-377-HEALTH for all other locations.
*Persistent vegetative state – patients who have lost their thinking abilities and awareness of their surroundings, but retain non-cognitive function and normal sleep patterns. Even though those in a persistent vegetative state lose their higher brain functions, other key functions such as breathing and circulation remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur, and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli. They may even occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. Although individuals in a persistent vegetative state may appear somewhat normal, they do not speak and they are unable to respond to commands. – National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke