A living will and durable power of attorney can save you and your family lots of pain and aggravation when disaster strikes.
I like to read about how the other Professions deal with the central questions of their practice. Late last year, Dr. Ken Murray, MD, wrote this essay about how doctors choose to die. Not in the assisted-suicide sense, but in the choices they make about the treatment of terminal illness and end-of-life care. It stands to reason that no one understands how people die like a doctor.
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.
If you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, you have time to make choices for yourself. But if you are rushed to the hospital, unconscious, lots of decisions can and will be made for you. For my clients who want to have a say in their treatment, I advise they create a living will and durable power of attorney. These documents can be as simple or complex as they like, but they make two things clear: your wishes, and who makes decisions if you cannot. Make sure your family knows your wishes. Discuss how you would want to be treated with your doctor, and have him or her document it in your file.
In modern America, we shy away from discussing death and dying. We shouldn’t. It is part of the natural order of things. The responsible thing to do is to plan for it.