Five years ago, my father had a massive heart attack. Thankfully, he was rushed to the emergency room and straight into the intensive care unit (ICU). His condition was so bad that he was on more nitroglycerin than his nurse had ever seen and he had to wait in ICU for nearly a week while he stabilized enough for the doctors to perform a quintuple bypass. (Yeah, that says quintuple; they bypassed all of the arteries in his heart).

Spoiler alert: he survived the surgery and just got his first smart phone last month. 

But, what if something had gone wrong while he was on the operating table? As his medical proxy, I was facing some pretty difficult decisions if things did not go as planned.

I wanted to believe that I was prepared. My family never shied away from talking about death. I knew that both of my parents wanted to be cremated and had a general idea that they would prefer quality of life rather than quantity. However, once I actually got to the point of no return, I realized I wanted a bit more information than “I don’t want to be a vegetable.”

Turns out, there are a lot more decisions than “Vegetable” and “Not Vegetable.”

In the days before his surgery, I hauled my dad through the Five Wishes pamphlet kicking and screaming. Boy, he did NOT want to answer those questions – and boy did I need him to. As the final decision maker, I needed as much information as possible in order to make the best choice I could for my dad. If I had let him leave it at “No vegetable,” I would have likely killed him in fear of making a mistake that I couldn’t correct.

Dad, I learned, actually did want some life saving measures. On the scale between Try Everything Possible and Do Nothing, he fell somewhere in the middle. Good to know. Having his answers to the very specific questions in the Five Wishes took an incredible amount of pressure off my shoulders. Those answers allowed me to sit in the waiting room secure in knowing that I would make the right decisions, during that awful evening when they put my Daddy on machines and cracked his chest open.

Looking back, I wish I hadn’t had to fight him to get the answers I needed. It wasn’t pleasant for either of us and I shudder to think that it could have been one of my last interactions with him. Death is scary, both for the one facing it and the ones who might be left behind, but we need to talk about it more often.

A couple of years ago I filled out my own Five Wishes packet and sent it to just about my entire family. I think I freaked them out. I didn’t want anyone to have the same uncertainty about my wishes, should the worst happen. I can’t say that filling it out was fun but thinking things through and putting the words to paper gave me peace of mind. While I have no idea what the future will bring, I sleep better knowing that no one will be standing over my hospital bed, demanding to know if I want a feeding tube or CPR just so they have the strength to face the reality of the situation.

CIVHC convenes an Advance Care Planning Workgroup each month. Please email info@civhc.org for more information.

By Stephanie Spriggs, CIVHC’s Content and Report Manager