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Schiavo Case Puts Living Wills in Spotlight

Living Wills Make Life-or-Death Decisions Clearer

WebMD Health News

March 18, 2005 - The Terri Schiavo case is tragic whether or not you believe her feeding tube should be removed. But much of the fighting could have been avoided if she had a living will.

There is a lesson here for everyone. If you want a clear mandate on what should happen to you if you end up in Schiavo's condition, enact a living will.

Here is how to go about it.

What are advance directives?

Advance directives are legal documents in which patients express their wishes about the kind of health care they want to receive should they become unable to make their own treatment decisions. There are two types of advance directives: the living will and the power of attorney for health care. Check with an attorney to find out what is available in your state.

What is a living will?

A living will is a legal document. It states in advance a person's desire to receive, or to withhold, life-support procedures. This is put into use if someone becomes permanently unconscious or terminally ill and unable to make decisions.

When does it apply?

The living will applies only when two doctors determine that the patient is either in an irreversible coma or is suffering from a terminal illness and is unable to make decisions for him/herself. As long as a patient is able to make health care decisions, the living will cannot be used.

What treatments are covered?

The living will permits the withholding or withdrawal of any treatment that might be considered life-prolonging or that artificially extends the dying process. Some states have special provisions that allow artificial nutrition and hydration to be withheld or withdrawn when patients are in an irreversible coma.

Who can complete a living will?

Anyone over the age of 18 years who is of sound mind can complete a living will. To be legal, it must be witnessed by two adults or can be notarized.

Can a living will be revoked?

A living will can be revoked by the patient at any time and in any manner, with the patient simply tearing up the living will document, expressing orally to witnesses the desire to revoke the document, or in writing. Health care professionals who witness such revocations will document them in the medical record.

What is a durable power of attorney for health care?

The durable power of attorney for health care is a document that allows patients to specify in advance who should make health care decisions for them should they become unable to make their own health care decisions.

When does a durable power of attorney for health care take effect?

The durable power of attorney for health care takes effect anytime the patient loses the ability to make his or her own health care decisions. Unlike the living will, the patient does not need to be terminally ill or suffering from an irreversible coma.

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