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R.I.P.
A Cautionary Tale
by Frank Kaiser

She seems to look out at us, half-smiling, mouth agape, voiceless. Her eyes are wide open, but her thoughts and words were frozen the hour her heart stopped beating 131,500 hours ago.

In 1990, a heart attack caused by a potassium deficiency felled beautiful, 25-year-old Terri Schiavo. Her empty shell continues to function due to a feeding tube inserted shortly after the attack.

While most examining physicians agree that Mrs. Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, and that any physical responses are reflexive, circumstances have trapped Terri in a purgatory of the living dead.

Like most things American, money plays a part in this tragedy.

When Terri's husband, Michael, won a million-dollar award for the malpractice that robbed him of his wife, Terri's parents wanted a share. Refusing, Michael spent the money for Terri's care. She couldn't swallow and lacked cognitive function, but there was hope.

Isn't there always hope?

Sometimes, no, there is not. Besides, according to Michael, Terri would never have wanted to be kept alive by artificial means. She told him so. As she told his brother and sister-in-law.

But Terri’s parents — with love, I’m sure — turned the case into a conservative cause célèbre. When, in 2003, legal wrangling finally allowed Michael to remove the tube, Florida's Governor Jeb Bush quickly passed a law forcing caregivers to reinsert it. That law, Terri's Law, was eventually found to be unconstitutional.

Now representatives in Washington who pander to the same vocal minority that pushed Jeb's bill are stepping in to delay the removal of the feeding tube.

Meanwhile here in Florida, there is a rush to craft new legislation that would retroactively allowing anyone, even a stranger, to seek a court order requiring a feeding tube to remain in a person of persistent vegetative state. Previous verbal declarations would be insufficient to avoid this arrogant invasion of privacy in time of death.

In the current circus atmosphere of posturing politicians, familial press conferences and legions of marchers against what is now dubbed “a culture of death,” the real loser is Terri Schiavo.

And, of course, the rest of us.

Twenty-five years ago I watched in horror as a nursing home fought for and won the right to keep my Uncle Herb alive, long after he had gone. When I saw him last, his flesh rotted while bedsores ate to the bone. Then as now, there was no principle involved but profit.

This is a cautionary tale for us all.

Ask most seniors and you will hear that we fear not death, but dying. We crave dignity - in death as in life. Twice citizens in Oregon voted in favor of a Death with Dignity law involving assisted suicide if necessary. Better to take a pill than die a slow death by starvation and dehydration. But with the same disregard for voters' wishes as my state and federal legislators, ass-kissing politicians like John Ashcroft have all but overturned Oregonians' wishes.

Of course, it's relatively easy to avoid this ultimate intrusion: Sign a living will. Clarify your wishes into writing. An advance directive will preserve your dignity and protect your financial legacy. Yet very few of us have executed this document.

As there is no better time, do it now!

Call your lawyer today. Or download the living will form at http://www.suddenlysenior.com/freedownloads.html. Although it's written to fit Florida law, I'm told that it will do in any state to legally determine your wishes.

Fill it out. Be sure it is witnessed and notarized. (Uncle Herb went through his ordeal because his living will had been signed but not notarized!) Then make copies, giving them to your physician, members of your family, your lawyer, your neighbor, your preacher, to anyone who may be around when they attempt to hook you up with “life-prolonging” machines and procedures.

It's your life. Make certain it's your death as well.

© 2005 — Frank Kaiser


LIVING WILL FORMS AND REGISTRATION

Documents, which vary by state, also can be obtained online and from various organizations:

  • Partnership for Caring provides specific advance directive forms for each state at www.partnershipforcaring.org.

  • Aging With Dignity offers details about getting its "Five Wishes" document ($5 for one, less for multiple copies) toll-free at (888) 594-7437 or on the Web at www.agingwithdignity.org. The document, which is valid in 35 states, including Florida, is easier for most people to understand than the state documents. It is more personal, offering in layman's terms the opportunity, to specify how comfortable you want to be, how you define life support, even how you want to be treated: Would you like visitors from church? Music in the room? Your bedside surrounded by pictures?

  • To ensure that medical care providers anywhere can gain access to the document, Health Directives (www.healthdirectives.org or (866) 633-9474) of Washington Crossing, Pa., will scan it and give you several wallet-sized cards specifying how medical providers and loved ones can obtain your document from the Website. For an annual fee, mostly paid by hospitals that share in revenues, the company will make sure the living wills are kept up to date and signed each year. The older the document, the less likely it is to hold sway in a debate, says Health Directives founder Peter Heisen.

  • The U.S. Living Will Registry (www.uslivingwillregistry.com) offers a similar service. Both companies provide links to basic state forms and where to get information, but will accept and scan into their computer whatever documents are provided.

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Have a great weekend, everyone!

Frank

Frank Kaiser frank@suddenlysenior.com

http://www.suddenlysenior.com/

The nationally syndicated column seen by more than one and a half million Americans over 50 who've become senior before their time.

           
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