Learning About Living Wills - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

10/22/03

Learning About Living Wills

Terri Schivo's is a story that's grabbed the attention of people across the country. A young woman has a heart attack and winds up in a vegetative state. Her husband says she wouldn't want to live like that, but her parents say she responds to them. It's a bitter legal battle dividing the family.

They moved her from a Florida hospice to a hospital. Her husband won the fight in court to have doctors disconnect her feeding tube. But yesterday, Florida lawmakers passed a bill to Gov. Jeb Bush, giving him the authority to order doctors to put her back on life support. They did in the hospital, but now her husband won't let Schiavo's family see her.

Part of the problem behind all this is that Terri Sciavo never signed a living will. They let you exercise your right to die if you're incapacitated. Many people don't have one, so when something happens to them, it often means families are forced to make difficult choices. We spoke with Douglas Andrews, a Savannah attorney, about what you need to know.

No matter where you stand on the issue, a living will lets you specify how you want your life to be handled at a time when you cannot speak for yourself. It's a simple piece of paper that can make the difference between life and death. "Many people don't understand that they can make these choices," said Andrews.

A living will allows you to decide whether or not you want to be kept alive through life support, if you're terminally ill. "There's usually a medical decision made that there isn't anything else to do and this would kick in when that decision was made, that it's not reasonable to pursue extraordinary life-sustaining measures," said Andrews.

A study by the American Association of Retired People found that 75 percent of Americans favor living wills, but only 30 to 35 percent have one. Attorneys say a living will could have made all the difference for the family of Terry Schiavo, who's been in a vegetative state at for 13 years.

"That would spare them the agony and the grief of one side feeling we haven't done enough and the other side feeling, no, we've done enough, let her die peacefully," said Andrews.

In addition to a living will is the durable power of attorney, a document that allows you to designate a friend or family member to make medical decisions for you, if you become mentally incapable of making them yourself. "It's so much more thoughtful to go through the pain of making those decisions now, so you can spare your loved ones the pain of making that decision and guessing what you want, later," said Andrews.

Most lawyers will charge a nominal fee to sit down and make up a living will with you. You can also find the forms in office supplies stores or online from a variety of vendors.

Reported by: Liz Flynn, lflynn@wtoc.com

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