- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Letting go of a loved one has to rank as one of the hardest human experiences, even after we are forced to face the inevitable. Whether the cause of separation is death, divorce or dissolution of a relationship, we choke at the unbearable challenge of losing a special someone.

Unless we have walked in the “shadow of death” shoes of the family of Terri Schiavo, we cannot truly know and understand what fear, what desperation, what hopelessness each one feels in trying to do what is best.

Only Terri Schiavo knows and she did not make a written record of her wishes.

That’s why we should all take heed, and if you haven’t already done so, you might want to make a will and fill out the Five Wishes for your end-of-life care.

The Florida-based nonprofit Aging with Dignity organization — founded by Jim Towey, a Washington lawyer who worked with Mother Teresa and now heads President Bush’s faith-based initiative office in the White House — sells the Five Wishes document for a mere $5 either by phone or online.

Aging with Dignity spokesman James Herzog said the organization has seen a spike in requests for the document, which has been distributed to more than 4.5 million Americans, since Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed last Friday.

“People really want peace of mind,” Mr. Herzog said. “They see how heartbreaking [the Schiavo case] is, and they don’t want the same thing to happen to them.” The easy-to-use “advance directive” form, written with the help of the American Bar Association, is legally recognized in 37 states and jurisdictions including Maryland, Virginia and the District. It lets your family and your doctor know in advance how you want to be treated, not only medically but personally, emotionally and spiritually.

Wish One lets you choose “a durable power of attorney,” or the person you want to make decisions for you when you can’t make them for yourself. Wish Two is a living will, which puts in writing the kind of medical treatment you want or don’t want if you become seriously ill and can’t communicate.

Wish Three and Wish Four lets you describe in detail how you want to be treated so your dignity and comfort can be maintained. For example, do you want certain prayers recited or music played? Do you want lots of visitors or only a few, or only one person to hold your hand in the end? Wish Five gives you a chance to tell others how you want to be remembered and express other things that might be in your heart, such as forgiveness.

“When you put it all in writing, it makes it all the more clear,” Mr. Herzog said.

None of us, least of all politicians and judges, can truly determine what is the absolute right thing to do in such a complex case. Only the disingenuous will stand to make public pronouncements for personal or political gain at this unfortunate woman’s expense.

The Schiavos and the Schindlers are hardly alone. Thousands of us face difficult medical decisions involving others every day with little help, little resources and little hope.

I know. I have been the medical guardian for at least three terminally ill relatives — my aunt, my older cousin and my mother, who continues to defy the doctors’ deadly prognosis. I’ve been asked to sign those waivers that give the hard-to-handle instructions — do not resuscitate or do not insert a feeding tube or do not take any extraordinary measures to save the life of the person I love and don’t want to let go of.

My heart goes out to the family of Mrs. Schiavo because I can empathize with them. I’m always second-guessing myself about the decisions I have made. I can only pray that I am right.

“People’s eyes are opening and they are seeing that this is something I need to take care of and are putting it on their ‘to-do’ list,” Mr. Herzog said of living wills such as the Five Wishes. The Schiavo sadness, for example, caused my son and me to begin discussing our desires in case of emergency or death. I learned he doesn’t want to be cremated and he learned that maybe I do.

You’re never too young to set your end-of-life affairs in order. Terri Schiavo was in her late 20s when she had a heart attack — 15 years ago — that ultimately led to her current condition.

None of us knows the hour that we will draw our last breath. None of us will escape this earthly experience alive. Better to prepare your loved ones while you can. Leave them with your Five Wishes.

For more information on the Five Wishes, call 888/594-7437(WISHES) or go to www.agingwithdignity.org.

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