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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Value of a living will

If there's a positive side to the national debate in the case of Terri Schiavo, it is that many Americans now are tuning into the importance of legal documents to help ensure that they don't end up in the middle of a similar family fight.

So-called "living wills" and "advanced medical directives" are among the steps legal experts recommend to head off disputes about the treatment of a person left in all manner of egregious medical maladies including a coma, brain death, or - in the case of Ms. Schiavo - a persistent vegetative state.

Having such documents drawn up is not an absolute guarantee of avoiding a court battle, the experts say, but written instructions certainly help. Especially crucial is appointment of a "health care proxy," a trusted individual to carry out the wishes of a person unable to speak for himself.

Almost as important as putting those desires on paper is voicing them openly, to friends as well as to family members, so as to leave no doubt what you want done.

Ms. Schiavo reportedly told her husband and friends years ago that she would not want to be left on life support, but she did not have a living will. Though she has been in a vegetative state for 15 years, her parents want to keep her alive indefinitely via a feeding tube, and her cause has rallied millions of like-minded people.

Discussing the prospect of death and dying is uncomfortable for many people, but it is important to note that a living will or medical directive does not by any means constitute a death wish.

On the contrary, such a document allows a person to state specifically what medical treatment should be carried out under certain circumstances. Just as one person may wish the plug to be pulled, someone else in a similar plight might leave instructions to be kept on life support indefinitely.

Only 20 percent of Americans already have living wills. But that number undoubtedly will grow as millions of Americans ponder what happened to Terri Schiavo without one.

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