Today’s advanced medical technology may result in the possibility of being subjected to various invasive medical procedures, particularly life support systems, which may serve no purpose other than to prolong the process of dying.  There are two effective ways to make your wishes known as to how you want to be treated when faced with this possibility.

A Living Will is a legal document in which you, as an adult who is now competent, can state your wishes regarding your future health care.

Your instructions are usually intended to apply if you are in any of the following states: (a) in a terminal condition; (b) permanent unconsciousness (persistent vegetative state); or, (c) conscious but with irreversible brain damage such that you will never regain the ability to make decisions and/or express your wishes.  In addition, a Living Will can be used to provide for any expression of your wishes as to your future health care and treatment.

As a general rule, the law allows each person the right of self-determination, including the right to accept or decline medical treatment.   The law, also, usually requires that your wishes be established by “clear and convincing proof” such that your instructions are clear and unequivocal.  A Living Will is the ideal document to express your wishes.   It is important to be as specific as possible, particularly regarding such issues as cardiac resuscitation, mechanical respiration, antibiotics, pain medicines, and artificial nutrition and hydration.   You should also discuss these issues with your family and physicians to further make sure your wishes are known and understood.

A Health Care Proxy is a document which allows you, as a competent adult, to appoint another person as “agent” or “attorney in fact” to make decisions for you regarding your health care in the event you lose your decision making capacity and are no longer able to decide for yourself.

The agent’s authority to make health care decisions for you is activated only upon a determination by your attending physician that you have sustained the loss of your capacity to make health care decisions.   In some cases, a second opinion will be required before your agent can act on your behalf.   Your agent would make sure that your wishes, as expressed in your Living Will, are carried out; however, even absent instructions in a Living Will, your agent can still make decisions based on your wishes, including your religious and moral beliefs, if known to your agent, or, if your agent does not know your views, then in accordance with your best interests.

Having both a Living Will and a Health Care Proxy provides you with the best defense from unwanted health care and treatment.

It is recommended that you discuss these issues with an attorney, your family, and your physician.