National Healthcare Decisions Day: Make plans before a crisis happens

National Healthcare Decisions Day, which is on Saturday, April 16, is a day of education and reflection regarding advance directives. Beginning in Virginia in 2006, the goal of the day is that all competent adults will know what an advance directive is, and that they will have one completed before a medical emergency or crisis happens.

What is an advance directive? An advance directive, also known as a living will, is a form that can be used to tell others your medical wishes if you are unable to talk. Why is it important enough to have a national day dedicated to it? The topic is important because the use of an advance directive can ease painful medical decision-making for family members and medical staff when a patient is unable to speak for him or herself.

The topic of advance directives is not new. If you watch the news, you have heard national news coverage of tragic medical cases where someone experiences a medical emergency or has a horrific accident, only to become permanently impaired. In these situations, medical staff members turn to family to make difficult treatment decisions. Often, the burden of decision making creates confusion and conflict among family members because the loved one is not able to speak and has not created an advance directive.

A tragic and well-publicized example is the case of Terri Schiavo, who experienced sudden cardiac arrest in her home. Paramedics found her lifeless. Schiavo’s heart was started again. She was initially placed on a ventilator and given artificial nutrition and I.V. fluids. She had not completed an advance directive to document her wishes of what to do if something like this happened. She was able to be removed from the ventilator, but according to reports, she was never herself again. Doctors called her condition a persistent vegetative state and felt like she had no hope of recovery. She remained on artificial nutrition through a feeding tube. According to news reports, her husband and parents argued because her husband said she would not want to live that way. Her parents disagreed and sought assistance from the court system to keep the husband from removing the feeding tube.

National Healthcare Decisions Day is a national day to educate people about making health care plans and advance directives, or living wills, before a crisis happens. In support of these initiatives, Blount Memorial Hospice and Palliative Care will have free appointments for individuals who are interested in talking about, obtaining and/or completing the State of Tennessee advance directive form on Friday, April 15 and Monday, April 18. Appointments to assist with the designation of a health care agent, or medical power of attorney, using the state form also are available. There is no cost to complete these state forms. You can schedule your 30-minute appointment by calling 865-981-2322. For more information about National Healthcare Decisions Day, you can visit www.nhdd.org. To find the State of Tennessee forms online, visit http://health.state.tn.us/advancedirectives/index.htm.

Carrie Denkinger is a licensed clinical social worker for Blount Memorial Hospice and Palliative Care.

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