April 16, 2016

By: Jerry Schwartz, PhD, LMHC


So what is “National Health Care Decision Day” and why April 16?  It certainly isn’t a day of celebration as familiar as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Labor Day, or the bit more obscure Secretary’s Day or, as I found out recently, Doctor’s Day. Hallmark has opened the door for days for just about anything. So, “National Health Care Decision Day”, is a beneficiary of this momentum although I doubt it was conceived by Hallmark!

What began in Virginia in 2006 became a national effort in 2008 to bring awareness to and to educate the public on the importance of Advanced Directives. These directives are, simply putting in writing, who will speak on your behalf about your health care decisions if you are unable to yourself and what are your wishes regarding treatments and interventions that will impact the length, course, and quality of your life. April 16, the day after Tax Day, was chosen to epitomize Mark Twain’s quote, “there are only two certainties in life – taxes and death”.

Unlike the world that my 92 year old father believed still existed when I encouraged him to fill out such Advance Directives – saying to me “Don’t worry, if something happens and I can’t speak for myself, they’ll ask your mother” – things are not so simple in this world of medical complexities and litigation. Our wishes need to be stated and in writing or a whole lot of difficulty is generated during situations when time is of the essence and emotions are running high. These Advance Directives, often known as a Living Will, can state as specifically as you choose what you want and what you don’t want for life sustaining interventions. They insure that your end of life wishes are honored.

But there’s more, and from my many years of being with people with life threatening illness and their families as they face serious decisions, it is the impact of having, or not, Advance Directives. It is a consequence that often lives on with people and families for years and years to come. I would suggest that this matter of putting our Advance Directives in writing, and sharing them with our loved ones, is in essence not just a legal exercise but a matter of love.

It these questions that I have found ultimately move people from a place of discomfort and fear to taking action …

How do I put my love and concern for my family into practice? How do I protect them from being overwhelmed, conflicted, guilty, and afraid when they are acting on my behalf? How can I provide them with peace and confidence when they are in the midst of intense emotions, confusion, fear, sadness, and grief? How can I free them from the burden of “pulling the plug” guilt and doubts and regrets lingering into the future?

In the end, Health Care Decisions, Advance Directives, Health Care Proxies, and Living Wills, are about Love. They are not only about insuring that our own wishes are carried out but that our most cherished ones are not burdened with profound decisions without any guidance or comfort. They are truly a gift of love for those who have to make “life and death” decisions, ones that can be emotionally paralyzing and wounding. By being able to call upon our own stated, in writing and verbally, medical and quality of life wishes, loved ones do become “our voice”. I have seen not only relief but a sense of happiness to be able to give a loved one what they want. Advance Directives can transform the most painful and sad situation into one of peace and harmony knowing that a loved one’s last wishes are being honored.

National Health Care Decision Day, April 16, is an opportunity to have difficult but caring conversations with those you love – with those who may have to make serious decisions on your behalf with profound consequences for you and for them. Give them that gift!

For more information about National Health Care Decision Day you can go to www.nhdd.org