• Troyer & Good, PC

COVID-19 Should Change How We Talk About Dying

End-of-life discussions are essential yet sometimes uncomfortable topics to broach. Although it can be difficult to face your own mortality, it is better to be prepared than put off the inevitable. Planning can do so much to help your family and loved ones.

With COVID-19 sweeping across the world, over 735,000 people have died. Some may have had existing health problems but many died unexpectedly due to COVID-19. Even worse, the family is often unable to be in the hospital with their loved one as they near the end.

Not being able to see their loved one makes it hard to believe that he or she is nearing end of life. It is common for families to express disbelief, making end-of-life decisions that much more difficult and stressful. Often times, these incredibly important decisions must be made over the phone instead of in the hospital with the doctors and loved one.

In one sad case, an elderly woman was diagnosed with severe COVID-19 and even the most advanced interventions would not help her. The physician called the family and recommended that they focus on preserving her comfort during her end-of-life. However, the news was difficult to believe so the family asked that they do everything to save her.

The physician, Dr. Joel Rowe, says, "We placed a tube in her throat to connect her to a ventilator, inserted catheters in her veins to administer medications that would sustain her heart, and performed chest compressions to temporarily supply blood to her vital organs. Our team tried for 45 minutes to resuscitate the patient as her lungs and heart gave out."

Naturally, we all want to do what we can to preserve our loved one's life. In some cases, though, the patient may prefer to be comfortable than prolong the inevitable. When we have end-of-life planning in place, the burden is removed from our family. You can make your wishes clear so your family doesn't have to make a difficult decision during a high-stress time.

In any situation, COVID-19 or otherwise, you can be prepared in advance if you take the time to do some planning. Advance Directives for Health Care are one type of planning documents you should have in place. Advance Directives allow you to appoint someone as your health care power of attorney. They also include a Living Will, where you can clarify your wishes for life-prolonging procedures in an end-of-life situation. Some people may choose to have these life-prolonging procedures in place, while many others choose to die naturally.

Few people have Advance Directives in place. However, it is an important document to have and the process is easy. Simply schedule an appointment with an experienced estate planning attorney to draw up your documents. Dr. Rowe, quoted earlier, had to confront these issues in his personal life when his mother suffered a massive stroke. Although he understood her dire condition, he still wondered, "As her only child and legal next of kin, was I to allow her to die when there was even an infinitesimal chance that things could be different?" The uncertainty is understandable, and the decision is heart-wrenching. Dr. Rowe didn't have to make the decision alone. He says, "My mom had prepared me for the worst day of my life. I was equipped with her advance directive, stating that after a short trial of invasive measures, she did not wish to remain on life support... For the rest of my life, I’ll live in gratitude for her last, invaluable gift—readying us both for her death before it happened."

Without Advance Directives in place, physicians will do all they can to save a person's life because it is their ethical and legal responsibility. Unfortunately, taking these measures can be invasive and painful. For example, effective chest compressions often break ribs. While some patients may choose this route, others prefer to die naturally with comfortable measures in place.

When you take the time to do end-of-life planning and have the difficult conversation that accompanies it, you can die with dignity in whatever manner you choose. You can make your wishes clear for your family so they don't need to guess at a highly stressful time. By having Advance Directives in place, you can give your family peace of mind in knowing they are honoring your wishes. It is a gift to your loved ones during one of the most challenging times in their life.

Source: The Pandemic Should Change the Way We Talk About Dying by Dr. Joel Rowe

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