In 1975 Karen Ann Quinlan was a 21-year-old college student. At a party she took a combination of drugs and alcohol and she became ill and stopped breathing. By the time help arrived, she was still alive but due to a lack of oxygen, her brain was severely damaged and the medical experts determined that she was in a “persistent vegetative state,” meaning that her organs were functioning but that she could not live without being on a life support system.
Quinlan was kept alive on life support, which included feeding tubes and a respirator. When her condition did not improve, her parents requested that the medical personnel remove her from life support so that she could pass away in peace. The doctors refused to do so claiming that the medical standards applicable at that time indicated that Quinlan could not be declared dead and thus they could not remove life support. The state of New Jersey also said that it would criminally prosecute any doctor who helped end Quinlan’s life.
Quinlan’s family filed a lawsuit requesting that they be allowed to “pull the plug” and let her die They lost in the trial court but on appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial court and allowed the family to terminate life support. A terrible emotional toll was taken on the Quinlan family, not to mention the medical and legal expenses.
Partly as a result of this tragic experience, legal and medical communities and governments began to recognize a person’s right to die and established documents that could be prepared stating a person’s wishes should they face a similar circumstance as Quinlan. This simple document is called a Living Will. Had the Quinlan family had such a document, the doctors would have been legally bound to abide by her wishes.
The Utah Legislature created its version of a “Living Will” in the 1970s. Many people also prepared a “Health Care Power Of Attorney” that existed under Utah law. These two documents were widely used in Utah until Jan. 1, 2008, when the new Advance Health Care Directive Act found in the Utah Code at Sections 75-2a-101 to 125 went into effect. This Act created a new document called an Advance Health Care Directive to replace the former “Living Will” and the former “Health Care Power Of Attorney.” This new Act did not, however, negate those living wills and health care powers of attorney prepared before January of 2008.
This new Advance Health Care Directive has four parts:
• Part One of the directive makes it possible for you to designate someone as your “Agent.” This part replaces the former “Health Care Power of Attorney.” Your agent is given authority to act in your behalf in medical issues if you are not able to do so for yourself. You choose how much or how little authority you give your agent in dealing with non-, end-of-life issues.
For example, you can decide if your agent should be allowed to obtain your medical records, admit you to a health care facility, hire and fire your health care providers, ask for a second opinion and consent, refuse, or withdraw any health care. The form also allows you to nominate a guardian should one be needed, consent to participate in medical research or consent to the donation of your organs for the purpose of organ transplantation.
• Part Two of the directive constitutes and replaces what was formerly known as a “Living Will.” Here you are given the opportunity to make choices regarding your end-of-life wishes. You are allowed to choose whether you want medical personnel to try to keep you alive, even on life support, or to forgo those efforts if death appears to be inevitable.
• Part Three informs you how the directive can be revoked or changed. A revocation may be in writing or orally. Preparing a new directive will also invalidate the previous one.
• Part Four of the directive makes the document legal by having you sign the directive and having your signature witnessed. It is not necessary that your signature be notarized. Only one witness is required but there are restrictions as to who can sign as a witness. Among other conditions, the witness cannot be a relative, a beneficiary of life insurance or someone responsible for the person’s medical bills.
Preparing this simple form while you are able can prevent a similar situation as the Quinlan family from happening to your family. No one likes to think of these tragedies happening to them or their family, but why take the chance? Having a directive in place can ensure that your wishes are carried out and make health care decisions easier for you and your family. This new health care form is just one part of a well prepared estate plan.
Printed instruction booklets and Advance Health Care Directive forms are generally available at senior citizens centers, doctor’s offices, hospitals, and estate planning attorneys.