Decisions of Life and Death

In February of 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed in her home and was rushed to the hospital. This was the beginning of what has become a very public story that has brought world attention and inspired the Vatican, the Governor of Florida and the President of the United States to weigh in on the heated debate.  Even the cause of her illness is being questioned.  One side suggests her collapse was the result of bulimia while the other side suggests that physical abuse by her husband Michael was the cause.  Ultimately, this story is about who has the right to decide about life or death.  Her husband Michael has testified that Terri told him she would never want to be maintained on life support. On the other hand, her parents suggest that Terri never said this and she should therefore continue to receive nourishment in hopes that one day she will recover. 

Is it appropriate for the Vatican, the Governor of Florida, Congress and the President of the United States to intervene in this case?  I think not.  I discussed the case with a neurosurgeon friend of mine this past week and he reinforced that this same scenario plays out hundreds of times every day in hospitals across America.  What makes this case unusual is the very public fight between the family members.  Why are the politicians so eager to get involved in this particular case?  In a word, well two words, ‘high profile’.  Stick a microphone or TV camera in a politician’s face and he or she is going to say something even if it’s only a personal rendition of the Sound of Music!

Have you weighed in on this debate?  If you find yourself asking the question, "Should they continue to maintain Terri’s life by reinserting a feeding tube?", you should recognize that you are asking the wrong question.  What you should be asking is, "What would I want done for me if I was in a similar situation?"  Once you have your answer, your next question should be, "What can I do about it?"  You see, the problem with the Terri Schiavo case is that Terri should have taken steps to ensure that her wishes were well documented.  You can do this by completing a Living Will or Advance Healthcare Directive.  This is a straightforward document in which you indicate the level of medical care you would want under various severe circumstances.  It also allows you to appoint an individual as your ‘agent’ for healthcare decisions.  Most state legislatures have adopted a sample document for your use, making this an easy task for you to accomplish.  To download Alabama’s Healthcare Directive, go to, click on ‘Cool Links’ at the bottom of the Home Page, then click on Healthcare Directive. 

It’s likely that most of you don’t have a will, or if you do have one, it is out of date.  You should meet with an attorney to have your will drawn, reviewed, or updated as appropriate.  A companion document that you should consider is a Power of Attorney.  With this document, you appoint an individual to act as your agent for financial matters if you are unable to do so. 

The Terri Schiavo case points out the importance of getting your financial house in order.  Let’s not get caught up in the misery surrounding this case and lose sight of the deficiencies in our own financial plan.  If you will use this high profile case as a lighting-rod for action, it will have served a worthy purpose.