For some 40 years now I’ve been aware of the many new ideas related to end-of-life issues. One of the pioneers of the Hospice movement, Dr. Edwin Dobihal of Yale University, came to Roanoke to tell the then-influential clergy group about it. Later a better-known pioneer, the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, visited our community and gave an informal address on a church lawn one summer morning.
From these beginnings has gradually developed spreading interest in getting the most out of life when it is known that death is not far away.
And as our culture has changed, medical science has permitted people to grow older but not always to have a better quality of life. Today, March 30, marks the ninth anniversary of my newsman husband’s death at 84 from a massive stroke brought on by pulmonary fibrosis, a yet-uncontrollable lung condition.
We were prepared, at least to the extent that we had several years previously had Advance Directives stating that we did not wish to be kept alive if our doctors thought our condition was terminal. We had also taken steps to donate our eyes/organs where they might help someone else.
Our planning paid off, for when my husband was taken unconscious to the hospital following his night stroke, I could tell the emergency room physicians that with his terminal lung condition, no surgery was to be performed. He died 30 hours later. The organ donation representatives followed up in the card in his billfold; even at his age tissues and bones can be used, they said.
So, when Dr. Mark G. Swope, director of medical ethics teaching at the Virginia Tech-Carilion Clinic, spoke earlier this month to about 25 senior-age folk, much that he said was familiar to me. Briefly, the medical teacher said:
“Get an Advance Directive-NOW”
To make sure everyone at the meeting had no excuses, the speaker provided all present with a simple form. It’s best filled out in the presence of a good friend or family member and it must be witnessed, but a lawyer isn’t necessary. Many people active in a church keep their Advance Directive in a file there. When you visit a hospital these days, you’ll be asked if you have an Advance Directive or what may be called “a Living Will”
Whatever the name, the point of such a document is to let your loved ones know if you wish to die without special measures to keep you alive or if your medical providers should hook you up to tubes for artificial feeding or breathing. If that’s done, you may live for as long as 14 years, as a friend of mine did after her body and mind were greatly weakened when she went unattended after a heart attack at 60.
The expense of fruitless medical care is enough to give anyone serious thoughts about this matter. As Swope pointed out, accidents can and do take the lives of many young people. He advised that Advance Directives be a part of the records of anyone 18 and older.
Though a simple directive, like the papers the speaker distributed, is far better than nothing, the issue of “death with dignity” can become complex. Many will feel more comfortable consulting a lawyer. The choice of the person who is to serve as a Medical Power of Attorney needs careful consideration, and this person may or may not also serve as the Power of Attorney for legal matters, Swope explained.
I’m the Medical Power of Attorney for a long-time widowed friend currently in a local retirement home. Last summer, while on an errand, she tripped on steps and broke a hip. Quickly I was notified of her accident by the home and was kept informed of her progress over several months. It was another lesson in how important it is to “Have the talk,” as one well-known hospice advocates.
The hour-long talk was one in a series sponsored by Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries held each Third Monday night at 6 at College Lutheran Church in Salem. They are free to the public.