Life support: Deciding what to do, just in case

By on April 13, 2005

Many people make plans about what they want to do with and how they want to live their lives. But have they ever considered what they would want done if they were ever in a persistent vegetative state and put on life support?

The death of Terry Schiavo has made people all over the world think about this very personal and controversial issue.

Schiavo suffered a heart attack as the result of a potassium deficiency in 1990 which led to severe brain damage. For the past fifteen years Terry was unable to care for herself and needed a feeding tube to sustain nutrients and fluids needed to live.

The issue in this case was whether or not Schiavo should have been kept on the feeding tubes, her life support. Her husband believed she would not want to, while her parents fought to keep her on the feeding tubes.

This case brought the issue of life support into the public eye and got Americans debating about the right to live or die.

A pressing issue in the debate has been that there is no definitive definition of life support. It takes on many shapes and forms that most people do not even realize constitute life support.

“I always thought of life support only as breathing tubes,” Melissa Trebbe, a junior media studies major, said. “I never realized all in entailed”.

According to life support is “is a term for a set of therapies to preserve a patient’s life when essential bodily systems are not working well enough to be relied upon”.

It can include any of these procedures: “enteric feeding, intravenous drips, total parenteral nutrition, mechanical respiration, heart/lung bypass, defibrillation, urinary catheterization and dialysis”.

Basic life support is “emergency procedures performed to sustain life that include cardiopulmonary resuscitation, control of bleeding, and treatment of shock, stabilization of injuries and wounds and first aid.”

“I never thought something like stabilizing injuries or first aid could be considered life support” Trebbe said.

One of the most important things to come out of the Schiavo case has been the awareness of who will make your decisions for you if you can not.

Many people young and old have started thinking about living wills.

According to a living will is a type of advanced health care directive or specific type of attorney deciding who should make decisions for the patient regarding type and extent of care if the patient can not do so themselves.

It is a way for people to make their exact wishes known. Without a living will it can be very hard to come to an agreement when there are opposing views regarding medical treatment, but who should have the right to decide if some one lives or dies?

“I think people should have to make living wills” Rich DeVoe, a junior accounting major, said. “This way a persons wishes are known and can be carried out”.

Before the Schiavo case it was estimated that only 20% of Americans actually had living wills.

“It is such a hard decision, but I think that without a living will it should be up to the spouse if there is one to decide. When you get married you trust that person with your life, and hopefully they would know your wishes better than anyone else” Trebbe said.

It is an extremely hard and personal decision to make whether someone should be on life support or not, so it is important to become educated about what constitutes these procedures and who would be making the decisions for you if you were unable to.


About Sarah Sztuk