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Schiavo case illustrates need for living wills and health care power of attorneys

The death of Terri Schiavo has legislators hoping the painful struggle over how to end the Florida woman’s life will prepare individuals to plan for the future and prepare living wills and health care power of attorneys.

The Schiavo case illustrates the need for people to tell family members of their wishes upon disability or death via such forms.   

According to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who oversees the North Carolina ’s Health Care Directive Registry, interest in the registry, which is designed to give family members and physicians access to an individual's final wishes, has skyrocketed since the Schiavo became a national topic of debate.

During March, the N.C. registry’s Web site received about 500,000 hits—more than 10 times February’s total, Marshall said.

The registry was created because the legal documents people prepare to give direction about medical treatment should they be incapacitated often can't be recovered during an accident or sudden illness.

Marshall said people often keep the documents in bank safe-deposit boxes or a fireproof safe in the home; sometimes, family members don’t know how to access the documents. Or the patient falls ill while out of town, away from those papers.

Family members can access the directives on the Web, using passcodes designated by the patient. Codes can also be given to attending physicians.

Had Schiavo’s end-of-life desires been made clear before she became incapacitated, the legal struggle between Schiavo’s husband and her parents over whether to remove her feeding tube could have been avoided, Marshall said.

A living will indicates whether a patient wishes to receive extraordinary medical care for a terminal illness or to be kept alive in a vegetative state. 

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