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Monday, November 21, 2005

More Stuff About End of Life Decisions

This appears to be an excellent collection of resources dealing with Church teaching on end of life decisions. The other night I had one of those really random thoughts that snowballs itself into an entire scenario. The crux of the thought was "will a 911 operator call a priest?" If you have an auto accident in a place you're not familiar with, and you have no clue how to get in contact with a nearby priest (or really any concept of how far away one might be), will you have any way to secure the sacraments for a badly injured companion?

That got me thinking about this post that Holy Whapping linked to back around Halloween, which provides interesting information for anyone considering making more planned decisions about their eventual incapacitation. Fr. Fox is right when he says the hospital will not call a priest -- Federal (and oftentimes state) privacy laws prevent hospitals from notifying people who are not next of kin that a person is hospitilized, even if asked. The laws aren't directly intended to preclude ministry to the sick and dying, but they have that effect regardless. Also, nurses and doctors are not going to care about the eternal fate of the sick or dying person in their care. If their red tape says that such and such a tube can't be taken out, then they aren't going to remove it temporarily to allow you to receive viaticum. Relatives are normally too stressed out and too deferential to doctors to insist on these sorts of things. So they probably aren't going to happen.

Unless . . . you have left legally-drawn notarized documents (a "living will") containing explicit instructions to be followed in the case that you are hospitilized and unconscious or near death. Hospitals are, in ordinary circumstances, required to follow these living wills unless they contain provisions that are grossly contradictory to medical ethics (or what passes for those nowadays). A lot of people have living wills drawn in order to ensure they won't be kept on life support or feeding tubes. The respirator question is one that a Catholic can decide as he sees fit (obviously it is not moral to withdraw feeding tubes). But Fr. Fox's dillema points to other things that a Catholic should have put in a living will -- in fact, they provide good reasons a Catholic should have a living will in general. If you're a Catholic attorney who writes wills and other such documents, or if you're just a Catholic who has or will be getting such documents for himself, I suggest you look into having provisions for these things inserted in a living will.

1) Require that a hospital to which you are admitted with a life-threatening condition notify a Catholic priest immediately. You can waive your right to be protected by the privacy laws (like when you sign that "my parents can see my grades" form in college) -- this does that, and the hospital should be required to comply (your attorney should know how to make it so they do).

2) Request that if you are facing imminent death and have your mouth and/or esophogus restricted by tubes, that the tubes be removed for the provision of viaticum. Speaking personally, I would much rather receive the Blessed Sacrament one last time than have a few more minutes of (probably unconscious) physical life. After all, they can always try and put it back. If a patient isn't facing directly imminent death or is on a feeding tube, request that the Precious Blood be administered through the feeding tube (although check with a priest before you put that in -- I don't know if that's allowed, but if it is it would be an excellent way to do it). That way you reduce the trauma associated with removing and reinserting the tube.

I'm sure there are other such provisions that should be put in a living will to ensure that your relatives and doctors properly allow for the care of your soul as well as your body, but I'm not thinking of them at the moment.

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