Life and death choices: easing the burden

Want to make a huge and positive impact on the world and your loved ones? You can – by making a living will and appointing a health care proxy.

Assuming you won’t be the first person to live forever, these actions may free your family from a lot of unnecessary heartache if you’re unable to make healthcare choices due to illness.

Stories about families burdened by having to make healthcare decisions on behalf of loved ones are commonplace.

The tragic case of Marlise Munoz, a pregnant 33-year-old woman is a case in point. A day after she collapsed at home, Munoz was declared brain dead by doctors.

However, against her family’s wishes, physicians kept her body on ventilators because they said they had a legal duty of care to her unborn 14-week old baby.

Last year, teenager Jahi McMath was declared brain dead following complications during what should have been a routine tonsillectomy.

Authorities at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland wanted to turn off the 13-year-old’s artificial life support, but her family resisted this action and transferred her to another facility where her body was maintained by mechanical respirator.

These cases have renewed continuing expert and public debate and controversy about defining death, including brain death.

They also highlight the catastrophic cost of prolonging life (and death), despite a host of emotional and financial impacts upon families, health carers and health insurers.

Indeed, it’s estimated that 30 per cent of all healthcare dollars are spent on medical efforts to prolong life. About 80 per cent of that money is spent during the final month of life, often on mechanical ventilators, resuscitation and other life-sustaining care.

Much of this effort and expenditure occurs because most of us haven’t made a living will and told someone about it.

Now’s your opportunity to speak up and make a choice in advance about what you want and don’t want.

Some people want the full treatment, no expense spared, intervention at all costs. Others prefer a quiet dignity that spares them and their family prolonged pain and trauma.

The Internet makes it easy to create and register a living will (also called an advance health care directive) and to appoint a health care proxy.

If each of us took this action and talked to our family about our choices, we could lighten the load for everyone, not least ourselves, but especially our loved ones.