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Things you can do to take control of life-and-death decisions

If you think a "health-care agent" sets up speaking engagements for medical people or helps hospitals get news media publicity, then this quick FAQ guide to end-of-life decisions is must reading.

When the Terri Schiavo case was making headlines, many people resolved to avoid situations in which relatives and courts battle over whether to continue life-sustaining treatments.

Naming an agent is one step that may help get your own wishes carried out.

What is a health-care agent?

A person you pick in advance to make health-care decisions if a serious illness or accident leaves you unable to communicate or decide. Agents also are called health-care surrogates, health-care proxies or attorneys-in-fact.

What decisions can an agent make?

Your agent can refuse to have you placed on life-support machines, ask that life support be continued or stopped, and give or refuse consent for surgery, tube feeding, antibiotics and other treatments.

How should I pick an agent?

Choose someone who knows you well, a person you trust to carry out your wishes - a spouse, an adult child, a valued friend. The person should be able to understand medical options, cope with the stress and be assertive enough to ask medical people questions and request that they carry out your wishes.

What should I tell my agent?

Don't assume that a spouse, child or friend knows your wishes. Discuss what's an acceptable quality of life. You may dread the prospect of being helpless, kept on a respirator and fed by a tube. Likewise, you may think that where there's life there's hope, that miracles do occur, and you want all possible treatments to stay alive no matter what.

Should I write down my wishes?

Some people do, in a document called an "advance directive" or a "living will."

How do I appoint a health-care agent?

By completing a form, called a "medical power of attorney" or a "durable power of attorney for health care."

Do I need a lawyer?

No. Free forms can be downloaded from the Internet. One well-regarded source is a nonprofit organization called the Last Acts Partnership. It also offers forms, called a "medical power of attorney" for appointing a health-care agent and educational materials.

Who should I tell when I write a directive and appoint an agent? Don't keep it secret or lock the documents away in a safe deposit box. Leave copies where they can be found easily. Tell family members and other people who might be involved with your medical care. Ask the doctor to keep copies with your medical records.

Where can I get more information?

Search the Internet for terms such as "picking health-care agent," "advance directive" and "living will." If you do not have a computer or use the Internet, ask a friend or family member, or try the public library.

Living Will


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