Last month, the death of 87- year-old Lorraine Bayless in Bakersfield sparked a national discussion after a staff member at a senior residential facility refused to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation after Bayless' heart stopped beating. A 911 dispatcher pleaded with the staff member to start CPR and she did not, allowing Bayless to die naturally.
According to news reports, Bayless' family knew that she wanted to die naturally and without the medical interventions that can attempt to artificially prolong life. Even though she had expressed her wishes, she had never put those wishes in writing.
This contradiction between knowing what a person would want for end-of-life care and actually putting those wishes in writing is an epidemic for Americans.
According to a 2012 report by the California Healthcare Foundation, only 23 percent of Californians have actually put their health care wishes in writing. This is in striking contrast to 82 percent who think it is important to do so.
There are two main ways that people can document their health care wishes. The first is with an Advance Healthcare Directive or Power of Attorney for Healthcare. This document can be completed by anyone over the age of 18, and it speaks in general about what the person values and what health care interventions he or she would want if they could not speak for themselves. This includes interventions such as CPR, ventilators or tube feedings. These documents name an agent who will act as the health care decision-maker if the person were to be unable to speak for themselves.
The second method is with a Physician Orders for Life- Sustaining Treatment form.
The POLST is not for everyone; it is intended for those are medically frail, or are of significantly advanced age someone who can reasonably expect to go to a hospital or use an ambulance in the next year. The document, which is bright pink, is completed in conjunction with the person's physician. The form is a formal documentation of the conversation between a doctor and a patient about their medical situation, the likely burdens and benefits of treatments and the patient's wishes regarding life-sustaining treatment.
The form is signed by the person's physician and, because it is a doctor's order, paramedics honor it. If the person is unable to make decisions, the POLST can be completed by the legal decision-maker in conjunction with the person's physician.
There is help for those in our community who want to document their health care wishes in writing. In conjunction with National Healthcare Decisions Day, the Stanislaus POLST Coalition and Community Hospice will be providing information and tools for the community to talk about their wishes with family, friends and health care providers, and execute written advance directives.
Free seminars will be April 16, from 7 to 8 p.m. and April 17, from noon to 1 p.m. at Community Hospice, 4368 Spyres Way, Modesto. POLST forms will be available for those who want to take one to their physician's office and have a conversation with their doctor.
In addition, the coalition has two seminars specifically for health care professionals: one on Tuesday evening and the other midday Wednesday, also at Community Hospice. These seminars will provide quality education and up-to-date information so that health care professionals know how to clarify and honor patients' wishes.
April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day. I urge you to take this opportunity allow Bayless' legacy and the legacy of so many others to move you to complete the documents and have the conversation so your family knows your wishes and your doctors and emergency personnel can honor them. This is truly a loving act for your family.
To sign up for a seminar, please call Community Hospice at (209) 578-6300.
Collet is director of social services at Community Hospice and chairwoman of the Stanislaus POLST Coalition.