On living wills
One thing we should all learn from the totally bizarre and wildly political spectacle regarding Terri Schiavo’s right to live or die, is to make out a living will and have a sit-down with your decision-making family members to ensure that there will be no misunderstanding or 15-year squabbles while you’re lying there like a turnip.Not (the ultimate irony) that you’ll notice, but to spare everyone having to get into the act to decide for you.This is not to say that you should jump on this without considerable forethought. Seeing footage of Terri Schiavo writhing on her bed making gutteral sounds might elicit the primal reaction, “Don’t ever let that happen to me,” but reality is more nuanced.For instance, if I had put it in writing and had on file with my doctor the statement that I never wanted to be put on a respirator/ventilator under any circumstances, I would not be writing this column today. All respirator interventions are not created equal, as the Pope and I can attest. The ventilator can be used to keep you alive when you are, for all practical purposes, dead, but it can be used to give your body a respite to get a grip on itself, with the possibility of recovery. So you don’t want to be too hasty to state, “no respirators!”I was on one for 10 days and it saved my life, but if it were only being used to keep me breathing when I’d clearly never regain my wholeness, I’d say, “Pull the plug!”Same for feeding tubes, the issue in the Schiavo case. Will this get you over the hump or condemn you to a limbo from which you can only escape by dying of old age?A year after I was felled by my lung condition, I had a little heart attack that put me back in the intensive care unit at Aspen Valley Hospital. It was a teeny-tiny heart attack that ultimately required no intervention – no angioplasty, stents or bypasses were indicated.But that night in the ICU, before the definitive angiogram in Grand Junction the next day, I was pretty much freaked out and wishing I’d kept my mouth shut about those funny heartburn sensations. The ICU nurse asked, in the course of all the required information-gathering questions, “If you go into cardiac arrest do you want me to revive you?”Now that’s when it comes down to it. If I had been sitting healthy in a lawyer’s office with a living will before me, I might have said, “Hell, no, let me go!” In the ICU, I wanted to hedge my bets. What I wanted was, “If it’s going to save my life and I’ll be OK afterwards, go for it. If I’m going to end up a rutabaga, forget it.” But that’s the fine line: They don’t know, can’t know, exactly what the outcome will be.On the other hand, there is no such ambiguity for my 98-year-old mother, who is pretty much hanging by a thin thread and whose room is plastered with DO NOT RESUSCITATE signs, reinforced by a plastic bracelet bearing the same message. If she could have it tattooed on her body, she would. She is unwavering in her determination never to go to the hospital again, no one is ever to call 911 no matter WHAT happens, and we and her caretakers all know it and respect it.Su Lum is a longtime local who hopes she’ll be struck by lightening. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.
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