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Florida Case Spotlights the Need for Advance Directives

Living Wills
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April 24, 2001 (Washington) -- The intense legal battle over the care of a 37-year-old Florida woman in a coma for 11 years may have ended on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case.

Michael Schiavo has been arguing that the feeding tube sustaining his wife, Terri, should be removed and that she should be allowed to die. However, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, say that Terri does respond to them and that she might recover.

Her recovery could be decades off -- if it comes at all. But the Schindlers say that's preferable to removing her life support system and allowing Terri to starve to death. She's been in a coma ever since she had a heart attack in 1990.

The quandary is that Michael claims Terri didn't want to be kept alive by heroic means, but she didn't prepare a document known as a living will or an advance directive that would have advised medical and legal officials how to proceed in a situation like this one. Complicating the case is Terri's medical trust fund of $700,000, which Michael stands to inherit.

Michael Williams, MD, a neurologist and co-chairman of the ethics committee at Johns Hopkins Hospital, works hard to avoid this kind of tragic conflict.

"I always expect that it's going to take more than one conversation, and the main reason for that is, because when I go in, and I have to break bad news to the family, there's naturally going to be an emotional response to that. ... I don't consider that an impediment to my job. I actually see that as a necessary part," says Williams. So far, he's never had a case get to court, although some have been brought to the hospital's ethics committee.

Actually, a federal statute enacted in 1990 requires hospitals to provide patients with general information about how they want to handle end-of-life care issues. In addition, every state has set standards for how these documents should be prepared.

"I view the advance directive not as a document written in stone. I view it as an invitation to a conversation. It's a place to start. ... I think talking about [a patient's wishes] is probably the most important thing. In particular, talking about it with physicians," says Williams, who works in the neurological intensive care unit. He says these life and death discussions come up virtually everyday.

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