Health: Express your wishes through a living will

07/13/2015 5:00 AM |

In January, Bobbi Kristina Brown, the daughter of the late Whitney Houston, was found unconscious and facedown in a bathtub. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors determined she had irreversible brain damage and would almost certainly never recover.

Despite the grim prognosis, Ms. Brown’s family understandably seemed to be holding out hope for a miracle. They decided to keep the 22-year-old alive artificially for five months before ultimately removing her from life support.

If Ms. Brown, who at presstime had been moved to hospice care, had filled out a living will, or advanced medical directive, before she lost consciousness, this end-of-life legal document would have provided instructions about the kind of medical treatment she did or did not want if she became unable to make decisions herself. She wouldn’t have been kept alive artificially following her accident — unless that’s what she had previously specified in writing was what she wanted.

When you consider her age, it’s not surprising that Ms. Brown didn’t have a living will. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have had one. In fact, everyone over the age of 18 should, said Mattituck attorney William Goggins, who I recently spoke with about the subject.

Not having a living will could be “financially devastating and emotionally devastating for your family,” Mr. Goggins said. “Imagine your daughter being in an incapacitated state at age 21, never to come out of it. She’s being kept alive and you have to see her every day. It must be painful.”

According to Harvard Health Publications, only a quarter or less of Americans have filled out living wills, which are available at attorneys’ offices. Basic forms can even be found online at websites like legalzoom.com.

The document, which Mr. Goggins said costs around $200, usually comes pre-formatted and covers a variety of health care measures, including resuscitation, tube feeding and mechanical ventilation.

“Some people say [in their living wills], ‘I don’t want extraordinary means.’ They’ll put in ‘I don’t want cardiac resuscitation’ or ‘I don’t want a feeding tube’ — whatever it is,” Mr. Goggins said. “Some say ‘I don’t want any antibiotics.’ Most attorneys have a set format for it. But the person can do whatever they feel necessary.”

In addition to a living will, Mr. Goggins said, it’s important for individuals to also fill out a health care proxy, last will and testament, power of attorney and HIPAA disclosure. A health care proxy appoints someone to legally make health care decisions on behalf of someone if they become unable to. A last will and testament dictates what happens to your possessions once you die; power of attorney gives somebody else the authority to act for another person in all legal or financial matters. A HIPAA disclosure permits a covered health care provider to use or disclose protected health information for treatment purposes.

“People should really be getting these kinds of planning documents, especially once you’re married and having children,” Mr. Goggins said. “It’s really important.”

Have a health column idea for Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected]

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