During the holiday season, we often think of giving in terms of tangible, often costly items.
There is, however, an extremely valuable gift that we can offer at any time of year, and which costs virtually nothing. It’s something all of us can offer to our family and loved ones. It’s the knowledge and understanding of what we would want done at the time of a health emergency, when we cannot make decisions for ourselves.
An advance directive, when properly completed, is a legal document that stipulates who should make decisions at a time when an individual no longer can. It also allows you to specify your wishes for medical treatment and just how aggressive medical personnel should be with your care.
At a minimum, an advance directive should name the primary person you trust most to make major health care decisions about your welfare. This person is called your “agent” for health care decisions. You may also name an alternate in case your first choice is unavailable for any reason.
An advance directive can be completed by any adult and is made legal by the signature of a notary public or the signatures of two qualified witnesses. Of course, as we grow older, a directive becomes more and more important, since the incidence of health care emergencies increases as we age.
Many critically ill patients and families who I have met in the hospital have never sat down and actually talked about their wishes before such a tragedy occurs. We all tend to avoid these discussions, but after a stroke, a heart attack or life-threatening event, your loved one may not be able to talk at all or understand these issues.
Would you want to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (chest compressions, shocking, intubation) if you are found without blood pressure or pulse? What if you had advanced cancer and were not expected to survive more than months or perhaps a year? Would CPR still be your wish? What if you were on a ventilator (the breathing machine) and doctors could not wean you off after many days? Would you want to be fed by a tube through your abdominal wall into your stomach when you could no longer eat normally?
These detailed answers do not necessarily have to be recorded in the advance directive, but it is wise to have the conversation with your agent and family about these issues.
There is also a new form for people who have complicated, chronic illnesses. It spells out a person’s exact wishes with regard to CPR, intensity of treatment and artificial nutrition. This is called a POLST form, which stands for Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. All medical personnel must honor this document and follow your wishes.
We’ll talk more about the POLST form next month. In the meantime, your health care provider can assist you to set up an advance directive and POLST, if appropriate, and answer further questions about completing these forms.
Our service, NorthBay Bridges – a supportive care service of NorthBay HealthCare – is also available for general questions at 646-4216.
Dr. Terrell B. Van Aken is medical director for NorthBay Bridges, a supportive care service of NorthBay Healthcare.