Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Grandma Wants to Pull the Plug

By Richard P. Holm MD

“We will all be dead one day, we should not pretend that it won’t happen, and we should all prepare for the experience rather than ignore it.” Recently I was asked to give a talk about the value of the Living Will, and I remember that it became very quiet after those words.
I spoke to a room full of mostly retired people, some of them quite elderly, and I explained that, too often, I have watched helplessly while desperate, fruitless, excessive, and painful health care was provided to a person certainly dying. Put it down as one more paradox in medicine. The fear of death and not facing the reality of dying can be responsible for much of the suffering that can occur at the end of life.

A Living Will, also called an Advanced Directive, is simply a tool to communicate about how you would like to die. It is not about a legal document, it is all about talking to your family. We know there is a time to intervene with fancy medical care and there is a time to let go. My final talking point: the Living Will makes it easier for families to allow a natural and comfortable death when the time is right.

After the presentation one guy told me his wife purposefully avoided coming because she didn’t want to think about such gloomy things. He said wryly, “We are all going to die. Why shouldn’t we talk about it?”

Another asked, “I still don’t know the definition of a Living Will. Does it have anything to do with death squads pulling the plug on Grandma?” I responded, “No, just the opposite. It is all about Grandma telling us when not to put tubes in, so no one has to pull a plug.”
I can’t say it was my happiest audience, and I’m afraid I may have offended some of them by being so blunt. But in this age of external chest massage, shocking paddles, breathing machines, feeding tubes, and the potential for years of vegetative bedridden life, there is hardly a more important message.

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