When a Heart Attack Hits Home

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12/29/2011

Considering the importance of end-of-life decisions, we all need to have an emergency plan

by Kathleen M. Gallagher

heart attack

The first big snowfall in upstate New York this winter brought back memories of a family crisis last year, when my husband, Joe, suffered a heart attack after shoveling. He had all the symptoms you hear about but never imagine you will witness: shortness of breath, chest pain and numbness in the arm. Fortunately, my younger son and I were home at the time and able to get Joe to the hospital.

Many people think that end-of-life decisions are only for the elderly or terminally ill. Not so. Every one of us — young, old, healthy, sick — should plan now for a time when our ability to reason or communicate our medical decisions is compromised.

A top-notch cardiology team met us in the emergency room, and within 90 minutes, a stent had been placed in the artery, blood was flowing again, and we were told there was only minimal heart damage. The doctor explained everything with precision, simplicity and compassion. He also told us that we should have called 911 instead of driving to the emergency room so that Joe could have gotten expert treatment earlier. Today, my husband is eating healthier, exercising more and happy to be alive.

Nonetheless, the episode was terrifying for our family. It demonstrated, up close and personal, the fragility of life. My husband is a healthy and fit 62 years old, and his cholesterol level is so low that his doctor joked that Joe was the least likely candidate for heart trouble. It just goes to show that any one of us can be here one minute and gone the next. Or we can face debilitating heart failure, stroke, illness or injury. That’s why it’s so important to plan in advance.

Many people think that end-of-life decisions are only for the elderly or terminally ill. Not so. Every one of us — young, old, healthy, sick — should plan now for a time when our ability to reason or communicate our medical decisions is compromised. Most states, like New York, have a health care proxy or similar durable power of attorney law. Joe and I completed our health care proxies soon after we were married, and named each other as our health care decision-makers.

We discussed what the Catholic Church teaches about the end of life. We understand our moral obligation to provide each other with the basics of food, water and bed rest, as well as ordinary treatments that do not bring undue burdens or hardships. We also know we are not morally bound to use every possible medical treatment available to prolong life. Believing that death is a doorway to eternal life in the loving embrace of God, we are prepared to accept natural death when it occurs.

Who is better to name as your health care proxy than your spouse — or your brother, sister or other close relative? Since your proxy’s voice will become your voice should you become unable to speak or decide for yourself, you need to choose someone who knows you well, and who understands, respects and hopefully shares your beliefs. Take it from me: Talk to that person now about your feelings, fears and concerns about the end of life. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Following Joe’s surgery, there were a few medical setbacks and nerve-racking hours at the hospital where I had no idea what was happening to my husband. A million questions raced through my mind: What exactly are they doing to his heart now? Will he survive? Will he be able to do all the things he used to do?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to also ask, “Can I legally make medical decisions for my husband?” Copies of our health care proxies are stored carefully at home, at our doctor’s practice and at our lawyer’s office. We thankfully haven’t had to use them. But they are there, just in case.

Life is fragile. Handle with care.

KATHLEEN GALLAGHER is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy organization of the New York state bishops. Her husband is a member of Geneva (N.Y.) Council 272.