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Talk About a Delicate Topiccomment (0)

January 9, 2014

By Bob Terry

Talk About a Delicate Topic

May I talk to you about something most people consider a delicate topic, an important end-of-life issue? 

No, I do not want to talk with you about estate planning even though that is important. Ninety percent of one’s net worth is usually transferred through one’s estate. Using the inevitable event of passing assets to the next generation is an important part of Christian stewardship. That is why The Alabama Baptist partnered with The Baptist Foundation of Alabama in 2011 to do an in-depth presentation of the steps involved in estate planning. That booklet, “A Practical Guide to Estate Planning From a Christian Perspective,” can still be ordered from us for a nominal fee (www.thealabamabaptist.org/alabama-baptist-shopping-cart.php). 

The topic I want to talk with you about relates to end-of-life medical decisions sometimes called advanced health care directives. In the 24-page estate planning booklet, it received only six brief paragraphs. It deserves much more attention than that because in these directives you outline your choices related to medical care in case you become too sick or hurt to talk or make decisions. 

“That won’t happen to me,” most people believe. I used to think that too. But after my late wife Eleanor went into a coma following an automobile accident in Durban, South Africa, where we were doing a missions project, I know differently. Accidents can happen to anyone. Disease, illness, injury — they do not announce themselves before striking. They come suddenly and unexpectedly just like Jesus will one day come in glory and power. 

The midst of a crisis is not the time to make momentous decisions. If you are too sick or injured to talk or make decisions then questions about your health care will have to be made by a loved one. Do you want to add that burden to the shock and sorrow already felt by what has happened to you? 

Eleanor and I had talked about our wishes in case the worse happened. We had met with an attorney who had drafted a living will for each of us including a health care power of attorney designation. We had talked with our children individually and as a family. When the neurosurgeon at UAB Hospital asked if we had such documents we could answer yes. We could all tell him the same thing and both children knew where the documents were kept. 

Decisions made during a time when we were all healthy, when the idea of ever needing them was improbable, helped us get through the most difficult experience of life — watching a loved one die. Eleanor could not speak for herself during those terrible days. I never got to talk with her after the accident except for a few moments in the emergency room of St. Elizabeth Hospital when we regained consciousness at the same time. But because we had advanced health care directives in place, I knew and the children knew what decisions she wanted made, and that is what we did. Fifteen minutes after removing her from a ventilator Eleanor officially died. 

As a pastor I have seen a family come to blows in a hospital arguing over how to care for a loved one. I know couples who have been ripped apart because parents could not agree on treatment for their child. Blame, mixed with grief, was their undoing. I have worked with families who permanently splintered because siblings could not agree on how to care for an aged parent. 

Such events only compound the tragedy
of serious illness, injury and loss. They can be prevented with advanced health care directives. 

In Alabama it is not necessary to have an attorney draft these documents. Anyone 19 years of age or older can make one, and sample copies of the documents are available from the Alabama Hospital Association website. Frequently the documents involve two parts. The first is called a living will. Here you outline in broad terms what is to be done in case of terminal illness or injury. Do you want “heroic” efforts to sustain physical life, or do you want medicines and treatments that ease pain and keep you comfortable, for example. Often times a living will designates a medical proxy. This is a person you designate to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to speak for yourself. A proxy is sometimes named instead of having a health care power of attorney as we did. 

Advanced health care directives can be revoked or replaced at any time, and they do not go into effect until you are unable to speak for yourself. 

Preparing these documents does not force a course of action on you. You choose what you want. There are no right and wrong decisions. A November 2013 study by Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life found great diversity in responses of Americans regarding end-of-life decisions and equal diversity among religious groups. The majority of some groups wanted to do everything possible to save life. Others opted not to prolong the dying process. 

The important issue is that it is your decision and your wishes that are being carried out and that can only be done by preparing advanced health care directives. Talk with your doctor about the decisions. Talk with your family members so they know and understand your wishes. You may want to talk to your attorney. Make sure your medical proxy or the one with health care power of attorney knows what you want. 

Remember drafting these documents does not mean you are working against the will of God for your life. It simply means that your wishes will be listened to, your desires will be respected and you will be treated as the unique person that you are if the situation ever happens that you are too sick or hurt to speak for yourself. 

I hope I never need such documents, but I have them if I do. Let me encourage you to have them too.  

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