One of the most important questions you should ask your loved ones

One of the most important questions you should ask your loved ones

“What would you want me to do if you were not able to make your wishes known?”

Sally* was going out with her husband to celebrate. They had been married for 42 years, and even though she was not feeling well, they went to dinner. When her husband requested that “their song” be played by the band at the small pub where they ate, she got up to dance with him, but never finished the dance.

I met Sally when I was a respiratory therapist, and she was a ventilator patient. She had suffered a serious heart attack, and her husband wanted “everything done.” Every time we suctioned her or changed her bed, she would shake her head violently back and forth, crying. We tried to wean her from life support, but her heart was too weak. She stayed in the intensive care unit for 143 days, her hospital bill eclipsing the $1 million mark at the 67th day. Every time she stopped breathing or her heart stopped beating, her husband kept insisting that “everything” be done. But he later learned this was not what she wanted.

When patients have a breathing tube inserted, they cannot speak, and their hands are tied down to prevent them from pulling out the tube. This poor woman sat in the ICU bed for 141 days without being able to voice her feelings. When we finally placed a computer-assisted communication device in front of her and taught her how to use it, she wrote “Why is my husband torturing me?”

Guilt can cause people to act in their own self-interest. They want a chance to make amends, or they want a chance to say the things they need to say. And so they tell physicians to “do everything,” when a better direction might be “keep her comfortable.”

We were never privy to the conversation Sally had with her husband. They sat at the computer-assisted communication device for over two hours alternately hugging and crying. When the husband emerged, his eyes ringed in red, he said “please just keep her comfortable.” He later admitted that they had never talked about what might happen, and what each other might want, in such a situation.

When I became a lawyer after 13 years as a therapist, I promised myself that I would never let a client go down that same road as Sally and her husband. Whenever possible, I speak to clients about what might happen in the future, and why it is necessary to plan for those days no one wants to think about.

After Sally died, her husband had to take bankruptcy, his health insurance having been maxed out during her hospital stay. He lost his home, his car and most of his assets because he had never planned.

There is never a good day to say, “Honey, what would you want me to do if you were not able to make your wishes known?” But that’s the most important reason to ask the question. Following up with a health care power of attorney and an advance directive, both of which can be obtained free of charge from the Missouri Bar, is the best thing you can do for the persons you love. Make your wishes known, and save your loved ones the pain of not knowing what you would want.

*name changed for patient privacy

Anthony L. DeWitt, RRT, FAARC, is an attorney with Bartimus, Frickleton and Robertson, PC, in Jefferson City. He is a member of the Elder Law Committee of the Missouri Bar and focuses primarily on appellate advocacy.

Saturday, April 16, 2016, marks the Ninth Annual National Healthcare Decisions Day. In recognition, lawyers across the state will volunteer to aid anyone interested in the completion of an advance directive. Additionally, The Missouri Bar has developed a free “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and Health Care Directive” form for the general public. It is available here and may be downloaded and/or copied as needed.


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