It is always tragic when someone dies. The tragedy is compounded when that person is in the prime of her life and the top of her “game.” Such is the case of freestyle skier, Sarah Burke, who, at the age of 29, died on Thursday, January 19th, after sustaining injuries in a training accident on January 10th.
Through this tragedy, we can only hope that others can learn from her story. The lesson that I take away is that we never know when we will end up in the hospital or when we may die – there is no age requirement on injury or death.
Sarah was in the hospital for nine days. The vast majority of Americans do not have vital health care documents – especially young adults. Without those documents, the doctors would not have talked with Sarah’s husband, Rory, or her parents about her medical condition. This is a real and heartbreaking possibility because of the privacy laws that are in place to protect a patient’s medical information. Everyone, whether you are 18 or 118, needs to have a valid “Authorization to Disclose” document to ensure that those you want to be able to talk with your doctors are able to.
During Sarah’s stay in the hospital, she was in a drug induced coma in the hopes that it would allow her injuries to heal. Once the emergency had passed, and her condition was stabilized, her doctors would require authorization to perform any additional medical procedures. Since Sarah would be unable to provide the authorization, she would have needed a Durable Health Care Power of Attorney granting the people that she trusted most to be able to make those medical decisions.
The reports say that Sarah died peacefully, which is, at least, some consolation in her tragedy. Her injuries were severe, and according to her publicist , all indications showed that there was “irreversible damage to her brain”. This evokes thoughts of a well-known court battle involving Terry Schiavo. Like Sarah, Terry was in an accident in her late 20s that resulted in the strong unlikelihood of recovery. Terry did not have a Living Will, thus there was no guidance as to her wishes regarding what was to be done in that circumstance. A long, and expensive court battle was waged, and there were no “winners” in the end. From what we have seen, it seems that Sarah had a Living Will, and at the appropriate time her Health Care agents knew what her wishes were and let her pass on peacefully and with dignity.
Tragedy is a catalyst for thought and change. In the skiing world, Sarah’s death sparks the debate over the dangers of the sport. In the everyday world that you and I live, Sarah’s death sparks the realization that everyone needs to have, at minimum, the three health care documents in their estate plan: Authorization to Disclose Medical Information, Health Care Power of Attorney, and the Living Will. Since we never know when we will need to use these documents, it is best to have them in place now.
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Contributed by Attorney James P. Plitz