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What the Terri Shiavo case taught us about end-of-life wishes

For a lot of people across the nation, the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman who moved to Oregon to die legally with help from doctors, is sparking new conversations about end-of-life wishes and what many people are calling a person's "right to die."  It's because of this and other stories that 26 states, including Washington D.C., are expected to consider legislation this year that could change how we view our rights within health law.

But for residents here in Florida, the talk about end-of-life wishes as well as health care directives really began more than a decade ago with the case of Terri Schiavo. Though hers was just one case out of thousands, it nonetheless sparked controversy across the nation, asking everyone to question "when life ends and who gets to make that determination."

For those who may not remember, Terri Schiavo was 26 years old when she collapsed in her St. Petersburg home on Feb. 25, 1990. Because of significant oxygen deprivation, Terri suffered severe brain damage that left her in a "persistent vegetative state." Although her husband wanted to honor her verbal health care directive that insisted she not be kept alive when there was no hope of recovery, her parents and family thought otherwise. They even sought support from the public and legislators to intervene when Terri's husband asked to have his wife's feeding tubes removed.

Although legislation was passed in 2003 that prevented the removal of Terri's feeding tubes, the Florida Supreme Court later determined the bill to be unconstitutional. State court orders then prevailed, allowing Terri to die the way her husband says she would have wanted.

Even though this case was resolved roughly 10 years ago, many residents here in Florida still consider this a perfect example of why everyone should have clear health care directives laid out in their will. Without clear direction, family members can be left arguing over what they think you would have wanted. And like in the case of Terri, it may even require involvement from the courts before a resolution is met.

Avoid this problem by clearly establishing your end-of-life wishes in your will with the help of a lawyer.

Sources:  The New York Times, "From Private Ordeal to National Fight: The Case of Terri Schiavo," Clyde Haberman, April 20, 2014

The Wall Street Journal, "Bills Would Let Doctors Help Terminally Ill Patients End Their Lives," Joseph De Avila, Feb. 16, 2015

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