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Living, dying and wills

The sad case of Terri Schiavo in Florida, the much-anticipated death of Pope John Paul II, and even the death of Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon in 2003 following a massive stroke have all emphasized the importance of a ‘living will.’ A living will is a legal document that you can sign in front of witnesses while you are still mentally able to make sound decisions about the kind of medical treatment you prefer when you are approaching death.
As just about everyone in the world now knows, Terri Schiavo was judged by doctors to be in a permanent, non-reversible vegetative state with massive brain damage. She was in a coma-like state of unconsciousness for almost 15 years. Schiavo’s husband finally said enough was enough and decided to allow her to die peacefully and comfortably in a Hospice facility. She had not prepared a living will, but her husband insisted that she had told him that she did not want her life to be artificially sustained if there was no hope for a decent life.
Her parents objected. They wanted their daughter to live because they never lost hope that she might miraculously recover. It’s hard to fault them for that. However, many other people and organizations who were not involved in this family tragedy eagerly jumped into the debate, disregarding what various judges had previously decided, because they felt the husband was committing murder. (As far as we know, none of the zealots volunteered to care for Terri Schiavo for the rest of her life, if it were to be artificially sustained or miraculously revived.)
The media circus that followed was astonishing and appalling. Politicians felt compelled to enter the debate, including President Bush, his brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, who produced his own expert neurology witness, and even that pillar of morality, Congressman Tom DeLay.
If Schiavo had had a living will, her wishes for her medical treatment in her last days almost certainly would have been followed, or at least everyone would have known what those wishes were. She would not have been kept alive in a vapid state for 15 years, the excruciating battle between her husband (her legal guardian) and her parents would not have taken place, and the polarizing media circus would not have happened.
Everyone should have a living will. My stepmother, the Rev. Frances West, a cancer patient, died peacefully March 15 at St. Vincent Hospice in Indianapolis. At 93, she chose not to have more medical treatment, and she didn’t want to be kept alive. She had made out a living will, and it seems like she gave me a copy just about every year for 10 years. As her executor, I have been spared much anguish. Her living will told us exactly what she wanted, even down to the exact Scripture to be read at her memorial service. Making out a living will in detail was one of the best acts of love she could have shown to her grieving family and circle of friends.
Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon of Corydon had a living will. He did not want his life prolonged unnecessarily if he were judged by doctors to be in a hopeless condition, and he said so in a living will. By having expressed that, he spared his wife, family, friends and the entire state of Indiana much agony and turmoil.
Pope John Paul II also had a living will. For a time, church officials did not know exactly where he wanted to be buried, in Rome with all the other Popes, or in Poland, his home country, but his will indicated what to do.
We’re not trying to drum up business for our lawyer friends Pat Thompson and Ron Simpson, who work upstairs, above our newsroom, but they are going to have a Living Will Clinic at Harrison County Hospital in Corydon on Thursday evening, April 21, from 5 until 9. (Interestingly, due to O’Bannon’s death, they had started planning this clinic with hospital officials weeks ago, before the Schiavo affair started.)
To get Thompson and Simpson’s free advice on the necessity of a living will, what all the legalese means, and how to fill one out, all you have to do is make a reservation for an appointment by calling 738-7869.
And while you’re thinking about these things, why not consider an organ or tissue donation, too?