Many people in Texas remember the 2011 George Clooney film ‘The Descendants’ in which a husband and father of two girls must make the difficult decision of following his wife’s medical wishes or keeping her on life support. But as much as we’d like to think that this scenario was a construct of Hollywood, situations like this happen every day in hospitals across the nation.
In most cases, a patient has already discussed their medical wishes with their family and friends, even authorizing a medical proxy in the event that they are no longer capable of making decisions for themselves. But it’s often times surprising to know how many people do not either designate someone as their proxy or tell their proxy about their wishes before the unthinkable happens.
Let’s take, for example, the story of an elderly Massachusetts couple. As the wife’s lung disease worsened, she was having considerably more trouble breathing on her own. But as she told her nurse, she had taken numerous trips to the hospital and been placed on ventilators in the past; these were situations she never wanted to be in again.
Though she had explained this to her hospice nurse on multiple occasions, it was a conversation she had failed to have with her husband who she had recently designated as her healthcare proxy. Although he was considered her healthcare power of attorney on paper and responsible for making important medical decisions, because she hadn’t discussed this with him he unknowingly had her placed on a ventilator after she suddenly couldn’t catch her breath one day. It wasn’t until after speaking with the nurse that the wife’s intentions were discovered.
Although it’s a difficult conversation to have with your loved ones, planning for situations like this ahead of time-preferably before the onset of an illness-can ensure that all of your wishes are being carried out to your exact specifications. Doctors and hospitals rely on the instructions given to them by patients in order to give the exact care that a patient wants to receive; if that person is unable to make those decisions for themselves, doctors look to family members. Making medical decisions for someone else can be incredibly stressful and -as George Clooney’s character demonstrated -difficult to make as well without proper guidance.
Source: The Boston Globe, “Doctors have a duty to encourage patients to discuss end-of-life wishes,” Kiran Gupta, Feb. 20, 2013