Grey’s Anatomy Poses A Question of Life and Death: The Answer In Your Hands (In The Form of An Advanced Health Care Directive)


What happens in case of a medical emergency? Would you want to be on a ventilator or other life prolonging device for the rest of your life? Would you want to live this way?

Once again the world of entertainment provides food for thought for important legal issues.  (Who says television is mindless?)  In Do You Know, the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Cristina Yang performs a complicated surgery to save a man’s life, only to find out that her patient is paralyzed completely from the neck down and cannot even breathe on his own.  The patient’s wife tearfully asks Dr. Yang to wake up her husband so she can ask him if he would want to remain on a ventilator and other life saving devices.  It’s literally a question of life or death.

A line repeated throughout the episode tells us “it takes only one moment, one incident… to change your perspective, to color your thinking.”  And then we are asked, “Do you want to live this way?”  Perhaps the more relevant question is, “Would you want to live this way?”

No matter what your wishes or desires, in California you can retain some level of control in emergency situations where you may not have the capacity to communicate or make decisions.  An advanced health care directive can be as detailed or as broad as you want.  If you want something straightforward and don’t want to delve into detailed instructions regarding your health care, you can find resources at the California Attorney General’s site:

There is no designated form required to be completed for an advanced health care directive, but there are some example forms given on the Attorney General’s website, including:

A few things to keep in mind:

  •      Think carefully about the person you will designate as your agent.  It should be someone who will be comfortable carrying out your wishes.  And don’t forget to designate a back-up, in case your first choice is unavailable or unable to act as your agent when you need them.
  •      You need to have two witnesses sign the form on the same date as you do.
  •      If you do not have two witnesses, you need to have the form notarized.
  •      If you need notarization, you can use either form, but the first link above includes the appropriate text for notarization.  If you use the second form, you will need to ask the Notary Public for an ‘Acknowledgment’.  If you don’t remember this term, the Notary Public CANNOT tell you what kind of notarization you need.
  •      There are many Advanced Health Care Directive forms available online, many of them through medical associations.  You can decide which one is best for you, but you can’t go wrong by using the form on the Attorney General’s site.
  •      If you need more detail than is available on publicly available forms, please see a licensed attorney.  The Advanced Health Care Directive can be as specific as you want it to be.

It can seem gloomy, morbid or depressing to discuss an Advanced Health Care Directive with your family or friends.  But what you are actually doing is saving your loved ones the pain of having to decide what you would want in a health care emergency, unsure of what you would really want to do.

With a valid Advanced Health Care Directive, you control who makes decisions on your behalf and even what decisions can be taken.  The person you designate becomes your agent for health care decisions.  You can control the parameters of what types of health care treatment decisions your agent can make on your behalf.  Think of it as a way to answer the question “Would you want to live this way?” well in advance of an emergency.  After all, all it takes is one moment or one incident to change your perspective.

And remember, you can always change your mind about any of your decisions –  but you need to also change your Advanced Health Care Directive.

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