A colleague told me about receiving the middle-of-the-night call no parent wants to get – her daughter at college had been rushed to the hospital and was unconscious.

Desperate to know what had happened, she called the emergency room but no one would give her any information. You see, her daughter was over 18 and had no health care power of attorney. Concern over privacy rules kept the hospital workers from giving the mother any information.

The daughter recovered but not before costing her mother many frantic hours. Mom felt sheepish. “As an elder law attorney, I should have thought to have her prepare an advance health care directive,” she said.

An advance health care directive typically has two parts. The first part is a health care power of attorney, which names an agent to make health care decisions for you when you can’t. A sentence or two giving your agent the right to receive your medical information helps your agent get the knowledge they need from doctors and nurses.

The second part is typically a “living will,” which gives instructions on what to do if you’re in an end-stage medical condition (an illness, injury or condition in an advanced state that is likely to result in death despite medical treatment), a state of permanent unconsciousness, or similar situation.

Why would a girl of 18 need instructions about an end-stage medical condition? Consider this: several of the most highly publicized or landmark cases on this topic involved women who were in their twenties when they fell into a permanently unconscious condition: Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terry Schiavo. At that age, they each had the constitution to remain alive for years while their court cases dragged on.

In cases like those, a written living will would have clarified what the patient wanted.

With high school commencement season approaching, consider an off-beat but highly practical graduation gift: the graduate’s very own advance health care directive.


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