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MICHAEL FOWLER: Talk with family about end-of-life care

CORONER COLUMN: Make sure your wishes are known regarding life-support care

Michael Fowler

Michael Fowler

As the coroner, death is what I deal with almost daily. I am not insensitive to it, but over the years I have I come to terms with the fact that it happens. Fortunately, God has granted me with the grace and strength to deal with it.

However, in spite of my many years of serving through natural disasters, seeing death tolls ranging in the thousands, and finding decomposed bodies, nothing prepared me to make the ultimate decision about facing the death of the closest person to me, my wife, Rosa.

A couple of weeks ago, my precious wife of 36 years, Rosa, fell gravely ill within minutes. In an instant, my entire world as I knew it changed forever. I went from discussing retirement plans with Rosa on the day before to discussing plans of whether or not to terminate life support on her the day after.

After only a few of hours of us arriving in the emergency trauma center with Rosa, the physicians informed me and our children that my beautiful wife had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, destroying 75 percent of her brain, and that her chances for a full recovery were less than 2 percent.

After Rosa pulled through an incredibly risky brain surgery, she was placed on life support. The doctor informed us that, as her family, we would have to make a decision as to whether or not to withdraw life support. I never saw that coming. I never would have thought that after kissing my wife that morning and telling her that I loved her that it would be the last time that she would ever be able to tell me that she loved me, too.

Unfortunately, no one ever sees it coming. Therefore, it is important that you and your loved ones discuss your wishes if the time ever comes that life-sustaining treatment is needed.

Rosa and I had discussed her wishes prior to this tragedy happening. Rosa passed on Sept. 26 and although it is an indescribable hurt and irreplaceable loss, we have peace in knowing that all of her wishes were honored concerning her life and her transitioning on to be with Our Lord.

Life-sustaining treatment, also known as life support, is any treatment intended to prolong life without curing or reversing the underlying medical condition. This can include mechanical ventilation, artificial nutrition or hydration, kidney dialysis, chemotherapy and/or antibiotics.

If you find yourself or someone you love faced with the decision about whether or not to use or continue life support, the most important thing you can do is evaluate your own goals and the known wishes, if any, of the patient. Gather all the information you can about the types of life-sustaining measures the patient requires, including the benefits and risks of each one.

It is best when all of the patient’s loved ones can agree on whether or not to withdraw life support. If a unanimous decision cannot be made, it may be helpful to try mediation. A social worker or chaplain can often help mediate difficult situations like these.

The decision will ultimately fall to the designated or default surrogate, but if all the patient’s loved ones can participate in the decision-making process, it can help foster closer relationships and prevent resentment.

The choice whether or not to withdraw life support is a difficult one to make. I would recommend getting some emotional support during and especially after making the decision. Making an informed decision, taking into consideration the benefits, risks and what you feel the patient would have wanted can still cause feelings of guilt and uncertainty.

Talk with a professional counselor, a member of clergy or even a good friend to get those feelings out in the open and begin to deal with them. You are merely human and not divinely all-knowing. You can only make the decision you feel is best at the time. You have to obtain peace with that decision so that you and your loved ones can live on with as much healing and acceptance as possible.

Finally, I ask that you continue to pray for me and my family as we cope with the loss of our dear and sweet Rosa, a wonderful wife and priceless gift to her family and loved ones. Although we discussed what we wanted should such a decision be needed to be made in our lives, it was simply easier said than done.

It is my sincere wish that this type of decision and pain never fall on anyone, but my earnest prayer that you have discussed it with the very real possibility that it may happen to someone you love or to you.

Michael Fowler is the Dougherty County coroner.