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There is a tremendous need for legal services at the end of life, but the only option is through overstretched and underfunded legal service organizations. This is a disservice to patients and their families.
“Please, Debra. For your son. Can you stay awake? This is what you wanted- you asked Ria to call me immediately. Please..." It was 5:30 on Friday. Her family was in the MICU waiting room, suggesting I come back another day. It’s been hard for all of them. I felt stuck—she was actively dying and unlikely to last the weekend. But I knew she wanted this and I knew how hard it was for us to get this far.
I met Debra through the legal clinic held at the hospital. Though only twice a month, I met with Debra in the hospital at least five times in the past month. As she got sicker, she started panicking about her will. She felt guilty about leaving things to the last minute, about possibly hurting her husband, but even more so if she didn't protect her son. She felt guilty needing so much help from her family and yet not fully trusting them to honor her wishes.
As I stood there with her I kept thinking about her panicked voicemails and our bed side visits. I didn't know what to do. Ethically, if she didn't have legal capacity, then I couldn't execute the will.
Fortunately, she opened her eyes and I summoned my witnesses. They quickly walked past Debra's family and into the MICU. They whispered to the nurse that they were with the lawyer for Debra- she nodded and showed them the way. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “This is what Debra wanted.”
I pulled my seat close to her bed and proceeded to slowly read the will out loud to her. When I finished we began the ceremony. It was a slow and painful process.
As I gathered our things to leave I took one last look at her and said, " you did great... we will speak more later.” I knew we wouldn't speak again but I still haven't figured how to end these conversations.
Debra died that morning. I'd like to say that things ended at that point, but they didn't. Her family had so many questions and no one to answer them. I was the only person they could reach out to who might understand the complicated process of “after death.” But I just couldn’t answer them. I gave the executor the number to a private attorney, and our last conversation was about how she’d pay for him. “I don't know, the money in the estate can be used, but I'm not sure how. I'm sorry. I really have no idea and we don't do this type of work. You have to call another lawyer; I don't know the answers to your questions. I’m really sorry.” “OK, fine.”
And that's how it ended. That's how it usually ends with the family feeling abandoned and me feeling guilty that I can't help them further because I have 60 other Debras desperately waiting for me.