By Larry Wildemuth, Minister and former Chaplain, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, CA
Life is dynamic. Anything can happen at any time. So isn’t it best to be prepared for that anything? Knowing what you want at end of life; before you no longer have a chance to express what your choices are, is important for life as well as death. We, at Coda, found that when people prepare their wishes for end of life, they actually find their choice is what’s most important throughout life. It makes it easier to ‘Live their life to the fullest.”
As a Chaplain for over 22 years, I’ve seen families struggle when they have no idea what their loved one wants; then all of a sudden, they’re placed in the position of having to make difficult medical decision for another person. Most often, these families haven’t taken the time to talk about what’s important to each of them, nor do they leave information about their choices for a time when they can’t speak for themselves.
We seem to go through life as if we’re going to live forever. So, many feel why even think about dying. In fact, some believe talking about death will “jinx” them and actually lead to their deaths. I’ve learned first-hand that everyone who comes through those emergency room doors has other plans for their day.
People who are given a bad diagnosis of, say Cancer, when they visit their doctor, suddenly realize they’re mortal and will die. And, when death and dying is right in front of them, then they begin to put it in perspective. But what if death is sudden, or you can’t speak for yourself after an accident, for example? The sad thing is that most people don’t take the time to think about what would be important to them when they’re reaching end-of-life – and then, of course, it’s too late!
Many of you may have heard about the mass shooting at the well-known Garlic Festival in Gilroy, CA this year. Gilroy’s very close to San Jose. So, some of the shooting victims were brought to the hospital I work at. At the same time, many of our staff had loved ones who’d attended the event as well; they too needed to talk.
About a week after this disaster, I was called over to a clinic to help with a family member who’d initially brought their parent in for a regular checkup. All of a sudden, this person had burst out crying. Luckily the staff realized she’d been at the shooting and was suffering from PTSD. As I sat with her, she revealed that she’d been so close to the shooter that she saw him reload his gun. She and her children felt the dirt fly up and hit them from the stray bullets. One of her family members was injured. She’d also witnessed others being shot. Over the last week, she’d been the strong one, the one everyone else could depend on. Now she was suffering. She was the one who needed help. For many, a mass shooting, or a disaster is a wake-up call as to just how quickly life can change. Quite a few find themselves playing the “what if” game, reliving the events of that day. They keep thinking what if, it had been me or my child, or my spouse or ______! You fill in that blank.
The reality is that no one knows what might happen next, especially now with all the recent shootings, plane crashes, fires and disasters. You could be driving home today, and a car comes out of nowhere and hits you and you’re not be able to speak for yourself. You’re not able to tell your family or your medical team what you want.
In the aftermath of the shooting, for example, many medical decisions needed to be made for those injured or dying. The question quickly became – who’s going to make those decisions for those who can’t speak for themselves?
We, at CODA understand that End of Life choices are as much about life, as what one wants surrounding their death. The goal of our Go-Wish cards, from the very beginning, was to find a way to make it easier, and more comfortable, for you to share your wishes about what’s important to you at the end of life, which of course, helps you learn what’s most valuable throughout life. You can go online and play the Go-Wish game, or even order a set of cards to play with your loved ones.
There are a number of reasons for using the cards beyond determining and letting your loved ones know what you want. Another example is practiced by one of our Go-Wish champions, Dr. Dawn Gross. As a Medical Doctor she’s seen first-hand how valuable the cards are to patients she cares for. She also learned how valuable they could be for her own family by ensuring they each know and understand what the other wants. In fact, every year on their anniversary, Dr. Gross plays the GoWish card game with the family. She says, it’s because she learned that no matter how much you think you know about others, and what’s important to them, you don’t! Life is too dynamic; things often change, so she, and her family, want to have an update discussion with each other every year.
Recently I had the opportunity to use the cards with a family member of my own. After going through the cards, my sister-in-law, chose one of the cards that said, “To be at peace with God.” I said, “I understand what that means to me, but can you share with me what that means to you.” We had a great discussion and now I know what she’s really looking for.
Knowing what’s important is critical but putting those thoughts in writing for your medical team and your loved ones is just as important. So, first talking to your family about your end of life choices, followed by filling out an Advance Directive, or another legal document, is key to sharing your end of life wishes. In fact, one of CODA’s goals is that everyone, when they receive their renewal for a driver’s license, would be given an Advance Directive to fill out.
I hope that now you really get that life is dynamic, things change, which means you need to – be prepared. So, let me challenge you to take some time today to consider what’s important to you. If you need help, you can try out Coda’s card game at https://codaalliance.org/go-wish/