Solace when illness hits Legal documents protect your wishes

April 21, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

A few years ago, after a Carroll County woman suffered a stroke at a local senior citizens center, her friends were shocked when they visited her in the hospital and found her attached to feeding tubes, said Betty Bates, a legal assistant with the Legal Aid Bureau.

Ms. Bates said, "Many people asked, 'She didn't want tubes. How come she's on food and water tubes?' "

Ms. Bates said the incident caused "an onslaught" of the woman's friends coming to Legal Aid to ask for help preparing "living wills."

A living will is a legal document that sets out a person's wishes about lifesaving treatment, should the person become terminally ill and unable to express his or her wishes.

What this woman's friends didn't realize, Ms. Bates said, was that the woman who collapsed had a living will -- it just didn't protect her the way she thought it would.

Living wills often leave loopholes that may mean a person's wishes aren't adhered to, Ms. Bates said.

Before people sign living wills, she said, "They should really know what it says and what it means."

The woman who collapsed wasn't protected by her living will because, technically, a living will takes effect only in the event of a terminal illness. A coma caused by a stroke is not considered a terminal illness.

Another common problem, Ms. Bates said, is that people often think the document will prevent the use of food or water tubes, when it may not.

"When you're in a coma, you can go 10 years or longer strictly on the food and water tubes," Ms. Bates said.

Lorna Rice, director of social services at Carroll County General Hospital, said people can personalize a living will by adding a sentence that expressly says food and water tubes are not desired.

Ms. Bates said another type of document, called a "durable power of attorney for health care," is better than a living will.

A durable power of attorney for health care is a legal document that allows a person to designate another person to make medical decisions for her if she is unable to do so.

This document applies when a person can't make decisions, regardless of whether the person's condition is considered terminal.

Ms. Bates said that if someone entering a hospital or nursing home doesn't understand a living will or similar document, it is better not to sign it. Instead, the person should explain to the doctor what life-sustaining measures she doesn't want.

If the doctor takes notes and records the patient's wishes on the medical record, Ms. Bates said, "That's clear and convincing evidence for the courts" of the person's wishes.

Ms. Rice said patients who register at Carroll County General Hospital are given information on health care choices, including a sample of both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. She said the hospital has given out about 15,000 of the packets over the past year.

"I do think the living will is a good document," she said, because it lets the family know a person's wishes. Its drawback, she said, is that it is limited to terminal illnesses.

"It is usually best to have both" a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care, Ms. Rice said. "They really kind of support each other."

Anyone who wants to discuss options for letting people know about medical care wishes should call Ms. Bates at 848-4049, 876-3363 or 875-3342. There is no charge for speaking with Ms. Bates.

She can refer seniors to a lawyer who offers services at a reduced rate.

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