My Dad fell really ill almost one month ago, on January 25, 2010. I have been his agent for health care for years. He's been in the hospital before, but I've never had to step in to protect his well-being before. I knew, in an intellectual way, what it means to be named as a health care agent (you are the one who will make medical decisions if the principal (the person you are acting for) is unable to do so)--but I wasn't prepared for either the emotional or practical aspect of the job.
Here's the first big lesson: PLEASE MAKE REALLY SURE THAT YOU KNOW WHAT THE PRINCIPAL WANTS BEFORE ANYONE ASKS YOU TO DECIDE SOMETHING.
When the doctors call you up in the middle of the night and ask whether or not they should put your parent on a ventilator (which means they stick a tube down into the lungs and a machine does the breathing), you really ought to have had that discussion before the call. Saying "NO" may well mean that your parent won't make it through the night. Saying "YES" may well mean that your parent gets stuck in the ICU, unconscious, with a machine doing the breathing....for a very long time, or maybe forever.
Here's the second big lesson: YOU MAY NEED TO REALLY FIGHT WITH THE DOCTORS TO GET WHAT YOUR PRINCIPAL WANTS.
The doctors may call you and ask what to do. But if you're not there, they may very well do what they think should be done, regardless of what you've told them. More on this tomorrow.
To learn more about health care directives and agents, read Nolo's article The Durable Power of Attorney: Health Care and Finances.