Avoiding the Anguish
An Open Letter from Ed
Long, H.E.L.P. Executive Director
[posted July 24, 2001]
Robert Wendland, age 49,
suffered severe brain damage in a car accident in 1993. On July 17, 2001,
eight years after his accident, he died while his family's painful and
extended court battle continued at the California Supreme Court. A focus
of the battle had become "What would Robert want?"
Go back ten years. Nancy Cruzan, age 32, suffered severe brain damage
in a car accident in 1983. In December 1990, eight years after her
accident, she died. She died after her family completed a painful and
extended court battle through the Missouri courts and the United States
Supreme Court. The focus of the battle became "What would Nancy want?"
Two and one-half million Americans die each year. The vast majority
are older adults. For many, the months or days preceding death involve
incapacity and a loss of control over decisions about their care. Families
make decisions for them. And do so without knowing what was wanted, or
what wasn't wanted. More anguish.
Years of anguish for the Cruzan family. Years of anguish for the
Wendland family. Will
there be years of anguish for your family? For mine?
You and I can avoid inflicting this anguish on our families. We can
make our own final days consistent with the life we choose to live. The
Cruzan family's experience and suffering supported changes in the laws in
California and elsewhere. Under the law today, we each need to take two
- Sign a legal document
called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, naming family members or
friends (our "Agents") to speak for us, if we can't speak for
- Figure out and communicate
with our Agents about our feelings on medical treatment and our
views on what makes life worth living, and what would make it not
The legal and communication tools are readily available. For our own
peace, and for the comfort of our families, we need to use them.
Many hospitals will provide copies of the the Power of Attorney for
Health Care form. Aging with Dignity (Florida) provides its "Five Wishes"
living will form at a nominal charge.
Thanks to the generosity of The Ahmanson Foundation, H.E.L.P.
provides (without charge) both a simplified Power
of Attorney for Health Care form, and a plain-language communication
tool called "Your
Rest in peace, Nancy. To Nancy's family, thank you for fighting the
fight that made it easier for the rest of us.
Rest in peace, Robert. To Robert's
family, thank you for reminding us that we and our families can avoid your