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Don't let health care decisions be made for you; make plans now

ESSENTIA HEALTH ST. MARY'S Chaplains Tim Cook and Lanny Sweeney will be giving two free seminars this Tuesday and Thursday about the importance of having health care directives -- also known as living wills -- in place no matter what your age.

Terri Schiavo. Karen Ann Quinlan. These are names that have become synonymous with the "right to die" movement in the United States, certainly.

But these women have also become symbols of the importance of having a living will, or health care directive -- a legal document detailing a person's wishes with regard to their health care.

If unable to make those decisions for yourself, or if a specific situation is not spelled out in the document, the health care directive can also name an agent to act on your behalf -- to make those decisions for you.

"That document used to be called a durable power of attorney for health care," says Tim Cook, chaplain for Essentia Health-St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes. "The forms were long and complicated."

In order to simplify the process and make it easier for a person to designate a health care agent, the form was simplified and combined with the Minnesota Health Care Directive form, Cook added.

Today, the process of filing a health care directive has been simplified to the point where even a child might be able to fill it out -- though a directive filled out by anyone under the age of 18 is not legally enforceable. (Health care decisions for minors are legally still made by their parents.)

The simplified form includes a checklist where a person can simply check off their health care wishes from a pre-determined list of options.

When a person becomes unable to communicate those desires themselves -- as was the case with both Schiavo and Quinlan -- a health care directive or living will can speak for them.

But if such a legal document does not exist, those decisions are, in effect, taken out of your hands.

"You could end up with someone making those decisions that doesn't have your best interests at heart, or doesn't know what you want," Cook said.

This can often lead to family disputes and legal battles that could not only have a steep financial cost, but a personal cost to the family you leave behind.

"The Schiavo case radically demonstrated the importance of having a directive," Cook said.

"It would have been less emotionally trying, and there would have been less public outcry, if Terry Schiavo had a written document stating her health care wishes," added fellow EHSM chaplain Lanny Sweeney.

Both chaplains at the hospital have frequently been asked to help patients at St. Mary's with filling out the health directive forms -- but they would like to reach even more people, Sweeney noted.

What many people don't realize is that a health care directive doesn't have to be prepared by an attorney -- it just needs to be notarized or witnessed by two people, she added.

"Once a new directive has been notarized or witnessed by two people, it becomes a legal document," Sweeney said.

"And it can be changed at any time," Cook added.

National Healthcare Decisions Day was created as a means of increasing awareness of the importance of health care directives and ensuring that all adults with decision-making capacity have the information -- and opportunity -- to communicate and document those decisions with regard to their own healthcare.

Though the actual date of the nationwide NHDD is April 16th of each year, Essentia Health-St. Mary's has planned two 50-minute workshops in the week leading up to that date as a means of simplifying the process of making a health care directive.

Cook and Sweeney will lead both workshops, which are set for Tuesday, April 12 at the Detroit Lakes Library conference room and Thursday, April 14 at EHSM hospital conference rooms A and B.

The library workshop will run from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., while the hospital workshop runs from noon to 1 p.m. A light lunch will also be included at the hospital workshop, so those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to 218-847-5611, ext. 1109, so the hospital can get an accurate head count for the lunch.

If you are unable to attend one of the workshops, however, you can also contact either Tim Cook or Lanny Sweeney at the above-listed number for more information.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454