Are you familiar with the different types of paperwork you should have in place when you have an illness like cancer? Today I’m going to give an overview of some of them and how we approached things like healthcare directives, wills, powers of attorney, and the POLST.
Back in 2012, my husband filled out a healthcare directive. This paperwork has many names and is commonly called a “living will.” I recommend that everyone have a healthcare directive and that they fill it out while they are healthy. If you wait until you are sick, it is far more difficult to do because you will feel far more emotional about it, and likely overwhelmed.
Because doctors had just diagnosed Dan with a terminal illness, the questions on the form weren’t theoretical. They were very real and very relevant. To make the task easier, I asked him one or 2 questions a day and then wrote down his answers. That made it more like a conversation—one we needed to have, anyway. I needed to know exactly how he felt about things like intubation and tube feedings. Where would I need to draw the line if he could no longer express himself and I needed to advocate for his wishes? Within a few days, we had completed the paperwork and had it notarized. Then we gave a copy to my husband’s oncologist to keep on file.
Later, we wondered if Dan would need a will.
Because of Dan’s illness, over time, we had assets such as our vehicles and our home in my name alone. Still, many people cautioned us to have a will drawn up. So we visited with a lawyer who does pro-bono work on behalf of cancer patients and their loved ones. He told us that due to the way we had set up our finances and assets, Dan didn’t need a will.
However, the lawyer did suggest writing up a durable, power-of-attorney. A regular, run-of-the-mill power-of-attorney only allows someone to sign on another person’s behalf in certain circumstances, and it wouldn’t hold up if Dan was incapacitated by illness. But a durable one, would. The paperwork took less than 20 minutes, including the free cups of coffee we drank.
Reassess Your Paperwork
After several years, as Dan’s health declined further, we reassessed his healthcare directive. Like everything we did, we tried to add a positive spin to it. I quizzed him to see if his answers had changed after living with this disease for 6 years. To our surprise, he answered all of the questions the same. It was assuring to know that I understood just what he wanted as we moved into the next phase of his illness.
Then in March of 2019, he was in the emergency room twice—two different ones, in fact. Since we would be returning to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, we needed to bring the scans that were done at these outside hospitals. I ran several errands that day and timed them out just right so we would have plenty of time to make the 2-hour trip south.
Bring Your Paperwork
I called ahead to our local hospital to ask about picking up the scan images.
“No problem. You just come into the medical records department and we’ll give you the scans on a disk.”
Okay. It sounded simple enough. But then, when I got there, the lady said, “Do you have a power-of-attorney?”
“Yes.” I told her, “But it’s not with me.”
“Well, I can’t give you the disk without it.”
How frustrating! Thankfully, I was able to get her to send the images directly to the Mayo (which was what I wanted in the first place because it was so much simpler). But, this taught me a valuable lesson about bringing the durable power-of-attorney with me, anytime I might need to sign for something.
It also reminded me that we would need to get the healthcare directive into our local hospital’s hands in case they would need it. Since Dan was being treated by 3 different health care systems, it was easy for things to slip through the cracks. From that point on, I carried his paperwork with me.
We also updated Dan’s POLST.
POLST stands for “Provider Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment.” The form goes into your clinic file. Then, you place a copy of it on the front of your refrigerator to notify emergency workers how—and if—you want to be treated in an emergency. Are you a DNR (do not resuscitate)? Do you want to be intubated? Etc. As soon as emergency workers enter your home, they look for this yellow form on the refrigerator.
All of this paperwork can seem overwhelming, but it is essential to ensuring patients’ wishes are followed. Carrying your paperwork with you will make your life a lot easier. There will be times when you find yourself needing to produce it, unexpectedly.
What Are Your Thoughts?
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
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I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker