Everyone knows what a privilege it is to live in this country. No other nation in the world offers its citizens the abundance of individual rights we so enjoy...and so often take for granted. One of those rights is the ability to make our own healthcare decisions. But who thinks about that until it is often too late? Who wants to upset the family with such an unpleasant discussion? It’s one of those uncomfortable topics we assume is best swept under the rug until another time. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is, the time to talk about it is sooner rather than later. Just as preparing a will is optimal when we are of “sound mind and body,” preparing future healthcare needs when we can think clearly is just as important. There is no doubt that deciding what type of treatment we want in the future is difficult at best. Making decisions for others is decidedly even more complicated, especially when that person – someone beloved – can no longer speak for him or herself.
With the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990, Congress affirmed the right of every citizen to set forth future healthcare wishes in a document known as an advance directive. An advance directive can be as simple as a two-page Living Will or as lengthy as the Five Wishes, a detailed-yet-user-friendly booklet. In Florida, an advance directive requires neither an attorney nor a notary—just the writer’s signature and that of two witnesses. Despite the simplicity of securing such a document, it is estimated that only about 25% of all Americans have done so. Because advance directives can be created without a lawyer for free and are easy to fill out, this figure is astonishingly low.
Each of us has the responsibility to guide our physicians and our loved ones regarding what we would want in the event of a catastrophic event—whether it’s a chronic terminal illness or the result of an unexpected accident. Regardless of age or health status, we owe it to those we love to have the courage to discuss our wishes and follow through with a written advance directive. Be assured that living wills are revocable at any time. There are no wrong answers when determining healthcare choices. Advance directives are recognized by hospitals and the courts, but they must be in the hands of our physician and easily accessible to family members. The worst place to keep it is in the bank safety deposit box; keep it instead in a top drawer where everyone knows its location. Some documents also come with a handy wallet card. By following these simple steps, we, not the courts, make our own decisions.
It wasn’t so long ago that another Floridian, a 35-year-old St. Petersburg housewife, collapsed and never regained consciousness. Terri Schiavo’s situation vividly demonstrates how having an advance directive could have prevented the anguishing seven years that followed. Her parents and husband, bitterly divided over what each side believed Terri would have wanted, ultimately became entangled in countless court battles ending at Congress’s doorstep. There were certainly no winners in this case.
With so many things in life today out of our hands, we should take comfort in the fact that we can control something very important to us and to those who are near and dear: how we are treated should a serious illness or unforeseen accident occur. National Healthcare Decisions Day strives to provide the community with this much-needed information to reduce the number of tragedies that occur when a person’s wishes are unknown. In addition, healthcare facilities and providers can offer informed and thoughtful guidance about advance planning to their patients. With healthcare, our decisions matter. This is one area where we can have it our way.