GREENEVILLE – Terri Schiavo didn’t have a living will. But because of her, thousands of other people won’t make that same mistake.
Schiavo was only 26 when her heart stopped beating because of a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder, leaving her severely brain damaged for the past 15 years.
Her husband and two of his family members maintained that Schiavo said she would never want to be kept alive artificially, after watching a TV program about an end-of-life story and also witnessing a relative endure a difficult death.
Schiavo’s parents, however, adamantly insisted their daughter wouldn’t want to die.
The result was a bitter court battle for the past several years, while Schiavo lay in her hospice bed.
Schiavo died last month, nearly two weeks after a judge ruled that Schiavo’s feeding tube should be removed.
Schiavo would have had the last word on her fate, had she filled out a living will, according to Cindy Luttrell, director of social services at Takoma Adventist Hospital
“A living will speaks for someone when they can’t,” Luttrell said. “It keeps the burden from shifting to the family, if there’s a question about life-sustaining issues.”
Since the judge’s ruling in the Schiavo case, Luttrell has been inundated with questions about living wills and requests for forms.
Living wills are now actually called an “advance care plan,” according to the new Health Care Decisions Act, Luttrell said. The form for a medical power of attorney is now called an “appointment of health care agent,” she noted.
“As of July 1, 2004, a new law went into effect that made several changes to the forms we used to use,” Luttrell noted. “The new forms are written in clear, easy to understand language and make it an easier process to complete.”
The new “advance care plan” serves as a living will, while the “appointment of a healthcare agent” replaces the former “power of attorney” form. Once the forms are filled out they can be either witnessed by two individuals that meet the qualifications listed on the forms or simply notarized. “Then, you should save a copy for yourself, and give a copy to your doctor and to your local hospital,” Luttrell said.
An advance care plan is a document that lets you determine what quality of life is unacceptable to you and what treatments you do or do not want under those circumstances, she said. An appointment of health care agent form is another type of advance directive that allows you to name a person to make health care decisions for you if you are too sick to make healthcare decisions for yourself. In this case, your doctor will follow your written requests as specified on the form.
Advanced directive forms are available through Takoma, or may be downloaded at www.state.tn.us/health.
“There’s just less hassle if these forms are already in place,” Luttrell said.
Although these forms are a good idea for everyone, they are especially needed for older patients who have a large family; younger patients with a life-threatening illness; patients with no living relatives; and for patients who want someone other than a relative – such as a boyfriend or girlfriend -- to decide their healthcare issues.
Luttrell pointed out that all of the forms are amendable at any time. “You can just revoke a living will and power of attorney for healthcare, usually by word of mouth and in writing,” she said.
For more information, please call Cindy Luttrell at Takoma Hospital at 636-2391.