Mary Jo’s friends now ask why the hospital staff made no effort to revive her and, even after discovering their error, still left her to die such an agonizingly slow death.
The tragic but avoidable death of a Yakima, Washington, woman has raised a number of serious questions on the advisability of signing a living will.
In late December 1992, the staff at a Washington nursing home mistakenly gave 92-year-old Mary Jo Estep three doses of another patient’s medication. At first nothing seemed wrong but eventually her heart rate and pulse began to fall. Eight hours later, she was pronounced dead due to “age related” factors. No mention was made on her death certificate about the mistakenly administered drug dose.
Mary Jo Estep’s friends now ask why the hospital staff made no effort to revive her and, even after discovering their error, still left her to die such an agonizingly slow death.
It has since come to light that Mrs. Estep had, before entering hospital, signed a “living will” stipulating that she did not want the medical staff to attempt any heroic measures to save her life. This condition was obviously meant to apply in an instance of terminal illness and not medication error. In this case, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation would have revived her but, because CPR is considered a heroic measure, it was forbidden in her legally binding living will and doctors were helpless to act.
Pro-life groups have always understood the inherent problem with living wills. The International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force (IAETF) claims its primary objection is that the document gives all decision-making power to the doctor who must sift through the information and determine its correct interpretation. The possibility of error, as illustrated by the Estep death, is too large to take any chances.
The Washington State Department of Social Services conducted an investigation of the affair, but found only that the nursing home had been negligent in giving out the incorrect medication. Other groups, such as the Washington Health Care Association are looking into the matter, but feel that the whole issue is too hot to touch.
The IAETF, hoping to avoid the mess which living wills create, suggest one sign a Protective Medical Decision Document (PMDD). This document defines and prohibits euthanasia and allows a trusted family member to make medical decisions in the event that the signer becomes unable to do so.