Saturday, February 13, 2010

Don't Sign Your Life Away - Problems with Five Wishes

Please be careful when you sign any kind of health care instruction, proxy or living will.  Father Basil Cole, O.P.  has written a good article about problems with a document that is floating around these days, called "Five Wishes".  Five Wishes is an end of life planning tool that is put out by a group called Aging with Dignity.  This group was founded by Jim Towey, a Catholic who had been on President Bush's staff and who, according to the group's website, was legal counsel to Mother Teresa for 12 years.  Father Basil's concerns with the document include the following:
The document says, “If I am close to death,” I can choose to leave it in the hands of my doctor to continue “support treatment,” or I can simply say I do not want any life support.  What is support treatment?  It can mean any device or medicine to keep me alive, such as oxygen, feeding and hydration through a tube, CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a major surgery, blood transfusions, dialysis or antibiotics. The Church teaches that one is not obliged to extraordinary or disproportionate treatment or burdensome treatment, but one is obliged to ordinary treatment unless the ordinary treatment turns out to be very burdensome.  Each individual is different and so this issue needs a prudential judgment on a case by case basis.  Hence the need exists for a good healthcare agent or someone with durable power of attorney. Feeding and hydration is not medical treatment. 
 As an attorney who deals with this issue on an almost daily basis, it has been my experience that very, very few people are able to clearly articulate what medical treatment they would want in the future for a particular condition.   Frankly, the vast majority of people who come into my office state that they "don't want to be kept alive by machines."  Now, when you think through this statement, it covers a lot of ground, and when the various possibilities of machines that are quite necessary for even minor procedures are discussed, the person usually realizes that their language must be much more precise.

Father Basil hits the nail on the head when he writes about the section in the Five Wishes document that asks the person to indicate what life supporting treatment should be avoided, "The problem with this request is that most of us are not good doctors to be able to give such directives.  As a result, it would be possible for us to die based on poor care that we authorized in the first place. "   And, I would add, most lawyers are not doctors and are not equipped to provide guidance on these directives.

In New York, we are fortunate to have a health care proxy statute where you are able to select a person whom you trust to make health care decisions on your behalf  in the case of your incapacity . You do not need to write out specific medical decisions in advance, but can discuss your religious beliefs and general desire to receive adequate and appropriate care with your proxy ahead of time.  And, if you live in a state that requires you to fill out a form with specific wishes, Father Basil has some sage advice:

Now, if you must sign some kind of document to be admitted to a hospital with these and other ambiguous questions about your future care in case you are in jeopardy of some kind, then you must qualify each sentence with “as the Catholic Church teaches, and my healthcare agent consents if I am unable to consent.”  Otherwise, you could put yourself in great peril and die before it’s time.
We can't avoid suffering in this life.  Don't fall for the illusion that a health care directive or living will can short circuit your cross.  The unforeseen consequence can be a lack of adequate care at the time you need it the most.

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Men of The Catholic Jedi Academy are also Men Of Saint Joseph!

Men of The Catholic Jedi Academy are also Men Of Saint Joseph!
Take a moment and visit the MOSJ website.