As we experience this extremely unsettling time in the history of our world and nation, we are reminded of the fragility of life. And not just in relation to those who have recently become ill or who have even succumbed to Covid-19, but also our own personal fragility. For most of us, it is hard to face the reality of life and death.
But there are some practical steps we can take to make things easier for ourselves and our loved ones should we become ill and need urgent medical attention. These steps can help to facilitate quick medical treatment, reduce stress to all concerned and provide clarity on our wishes should we become too ill to convey them ourselves.
Consolidate your medical information
A single document that provides an overview of your personal information and medical status is very helpful in an emergency medical situation. Such an overview should include:
- Your name, ID number, address and contact information
- Next of kin details
- Medical Aid details, or if you are a State patient, your patient number and home hospital or clinic
- The name and contact information of your General Practitioner (GP)
- Diagnosed health conditions and prescribed medication
Once you have completed it, share your information with your GP and one or two trusted family members or friends. Also upload one to Dropbox or a similar app (so that you can access it from your cellphone) or keep a copy in your handbag or wallet. I suggest that you review it on an annual basis and update it when necessary.
I compiled such a document when I was caring for my elderly mother some years ago. It was incredibly helpful when taking her to see various specialists as all the necessary information was at our fingertips.
Draft a living will
A living will (also known as an advance directive) is a document that outlines a person’s wishes about future medical treatment in circumstances in which they aren’t able to make informed decisions and give their consent. To make a living will, a person must be over 18 years of age and of sound mind. The legalities of a living will are now covered in section 7B of the National Health Amendment Bill 2019. According to the Medical Protection Society, when a patient loses their capacity to make decisions, an advance directive made when he or she was still competent must be honoured unless there are good reasons for believing that the patient changed his or her mind.
The main reason people choose to sign a living will is to ensure that their life will not be prolonged unnecessarily by medical means (e.g. by staying on life support when there is no reasonable chance of recovery). This will save your loved ones from the distress of having to make this type of difficult decision and reduce potential family disputes. It will also give you the peace of mind that your wishes are known and understood upfront.
You can draft a living will with a lawyer specialising in estate law, through a range of online legal services like Law for All or through DignitySA, an organisation that promotes dignity in death. The living will should be signed and dated by you and two witnesses, who cannot be relatives or the executor or beneficiaries of your will. Share your living will with your GP and next of kin.
Consider organ donation
While you consider drafting a living will, also give thought to registering with the Organ Donor Foundation as an organ donor. Organ transplants have saved many lives but the need for life-saving surgery always exceeds the organs that are available. Any person who is in good health and is clear of defined chronic diseases that might adversely affect the recipient will be considered as a possible donor.
Registration as an organ donor is a simple process and does not require a medical examination. Register on the Organ Donor Foundation’s website or call their toll free line on 0800 22 66 11. They will then send you an organ donor card to fill in and carry in your wallet, and stickers to put on your ID document and driver’s license. You can also add your wishes to donate your organs onto your living will.
While it can be hard to face our own mortality, now is an opportune time to discuss these ‘end of life’ issues with your family members or a close friend. I trust that as you talk them through, you will be able to clarify what is important to you and to record it in writing now, so that your wishes can be honoured in the future.
I have created a Personal Health Information Sheet to help you to consolidate all your medical information. At the bottom of the sheet you can record whether you have a living will and/or have registered as an organ donor. Click here to download it. You are welcome to pass it on to friends and family.