Life-and-death Decisions More Informed Under New Law

January 03, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Elizabeth Sosnowski had heard about living wills, but the 56-year-old Severna Park woman didn't decide to look into one until her husbandwas rushed to the hospital Dec. 11 for an apparent heart attack.

After her husband was transferred from the emergency room to the intensive care unit -- it turned out he had heart problems but had not had a heart attack -- he was presented a pamphlet titled, "Exercise Your Right: Put Your Health Care Decisions in Writing."

Distributing the pamphlet is the way the Harbor Hospital Center in South Baltimore is complying with a new federal law. The Patient Self-Determination Act, which went into effect Dec. 1, requires that patients entering hospitals and other health-care facilities be informed of their rights to refuse medical treatment.

The act also requires hospitals to tell patients about the rights their state provides for drawing up "advance directives," such as living wills.

Jackie Breeden, public relations director for the Harbor Hospital Center, said patients seem to appreciate the information -- once they get past the idea of talking about death when they may be coming in for a routine procedure.

"In the admitting area, you can imagine the reaction," Breeden said. "When it is brought up they are quite confused. 'What is it my doctor isn't telling me?' "

Most patients also become confused after hearing the word "will," Breeden said. The pamphlet attempts to explain that "advance directives" are different than an estate will.

The pamphlet includes copies of suggested language for a living will and for a "durable power of attorney." The forms need only be witnessed, and a lawyer's help is not necessary unless you have questions about the forms.

A living will is a legal form, approvedby state law, in which a person can say he or she does not want life-sustaining treatment in a terminal condition. It goes into effect when two doctors conclude a person is terminal and unable to decide matters for himself.

A durable power of attorney is a legal form thatallows a person to name another to make health-care decisions. It isnot limited to terminal conditions.

Finally, a person's decisionson the use of life-sustaining treatment may be documented in discussions with a physician.

The Harbor Hospital Center is going a step beyond the requirements of the act and is making available speakers to address groups and answer questions about advance directives.

Breeden said anyone interested in arranging for a speaker should call 347-3445.

To Elizabeth Sosnowski, the program is a great idea. "I believe everyone should make a choice." Her 66-year-old husband, Andrew Sosnowski, is out of the hospital and back at work at his medical practice in Brooklyn Park. She says he did not complete an advance directive form, but she will complete a durable power of attorney form.

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