Are you prepared for a sudden serious illness or accident? I know, it's an uncomfortable question. We prefer to not think about the bad things that can happen to us and as a consequence, many of us — perhaps most of us — are completely unprepared when bad things do happen. Having just come out of one such situation myself, I’d like to share a few tips that can make it easier for you and your family in the event of a medical crisis.
It started in early March, when I got the flu. Having rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and being immunosuppressed, colds and other illnesses often hit me harder than they do healthy people, but I’m usually fine.
Not this time.
My case of the flu developed into pneumonia, which became Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). By mid-March, I was in an induced coma and on a ventilator. I came very close to not making it — I’ve been told that the ICU staff said things like “we’re getting desperate,” and that they were using the “kitchen sink” approach to treating me. I did make it out of the coma, but crashed when I was extubated and they had to do an emergency tracheostomy. Thankfully, I remember none of this.
After another 10 days in the ICU and a week on a regular ward, I had weaned off the ventilator, the trach equipment was removed, and I was discharged. It’s going to take time to recover fully, and I’m definitely okay with that. I am beyond grateful to be alive and home again.
Get a medical ID bracelet
When you have a chronic illness, it’s a very good idea to get a medical ID bracelet, such as those provided by Medic-Alert. This can provide emergency responders and other medical professionals with important information about your medical conditions, blood type, medications you use, allergies, and so on. If you are unconscious, or are unable to communicate due to other reasons, a medical ID speaks for you. Medical personnel are trained to look for this kind of jewelry, so it can lead to faster and more effective care.
Power of attorney and a living will: Don't wait
There are two important areas of concern if you are having a medical crisis. One is making decisions about your treatment, the other is taking care of your financial matters.
If you are incapacitated, someone will have to provide direction to hospital staff about your medical care and take care of your finances. If you do not have a power of attorney, it is common for medical staff to rely on family for direction, but there is a possibility that the courts can take over and make decisions about your care. Most of us will not want strangers to make decisions for us.
Creating a power of attorney (POA) for healthcare and finances — note: these are two distinct, separate documents — is an important part of planning for the future. In a POA, you designate certain people you trust to make decisions if you’re not able to do so yourself. Make sure you make what is called a durable power of attorney, as this continues to be in effect if you become incapacitated.
It’s also a good idea to create a living will or advanced directive. This is a legal document in which you can spell out your wishes about your medical care. Commonly, advanced directives deal with your wishes regarding resuscitation, heroic measures, and organ donation. A living will can also designate someone to make decisions for you.
Make sure the people you have designated to make decisions for you (called agents or proxies) have copies of the POAs and living will, as well as access to what they need in order to act for you. This can include the key to your home and banking information. You should also have a detailed conversation with them about your wishes in case of critical illness.
Get your contact lists in order
When I got sick, I’d been in touch with a few of my friends to let them know I’d been admitted to hospital. And then I essentially disappeared. Luckily, my family had the email addresses of close friends who needed to be informed of my illness. My sister posted updates about how I was doing on my Facebook wall, as well, reaching a wider circle.
Your proxy or agent should have a list of people to notify in case you have a sudden accident or illness. This should include contacts at work and other commitments, such as volunteer work, and close friends.
Don’t forget your online friends and contacts. These days, many of us live part of our lives online, making connections that are just as close and important as those in our “real life.” They will worry if you disappear and they don’t know what happened to you.
Create a last will and testament
As you're planning to protect yourself and your family during a critical illness, you may want to take the next step and create a last will and testament. This can codify the arrangements for the division of your estate, guardianship of your children, and other important matters.
Do you have a blog or other online assets, such as social media accounts? If so, you may also want to consider creating a digital will. This will ensure that your wishes regarding your digital presence are taken care of in case of your death.
It’s easy to stick your head in the sand about the possibility of serious illness or death and continue as if you are invincible. I’ve been putting it off myself for a long time. But then I found out just how quickly and randomly you can be knocked down. Preparing for serious illness is like having insurance — it protects you should the very worst happen.
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Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain_. _