Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Life and Death and the Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor

By Margaret R. McLean, Ph.D.,

About six months ago I was flipping through the daily mail when I noticed a letter from my mother. This seemed a bit strange since she lives in San Francisco and never hesitates in picking up the phone and dialing my number. Curiosity quickly got the better of me; I tossed the conglomeration of bills and junk mail on the table and slit open this mysterious message. I thought, "Perhaps it is the itinerary for her cruise; perhaps it's a notice from my grammar school alumni committee informing me of yet another function I will not attend"--well, it wasn't either one. The sheet of carefully folded paper that I retrieved from that envelope was her Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care! Now, this was quite a surprise--especially since an examination of the document revealed that I was appointed as her "agent,"the one person who would make the decisions about her health care, her life and death, if she became incapable of doing so. Immediately, I grabbed the phone intending to call her and find out just what it was she would want me to do; to have her tell me what was important about life; to help me understand just what she would ask of me and the health care team. But, as my hand cradled the phone, I remembered that she was sailing around the Cape that very afternoon . . . . We have not had that conversation yet.

In May, the Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor Hospital provided a time and space for such a conversation. In two evening sessions, the legal, emotional and ethical issues concerning taking control of our dying were addressed. Participants learned about the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and the Living Will--what they are; how to complete them; why it is so difficult to consider mortality, to plan ahead for illness and death; what personal and social values are at stake. I wish my mother had been there.

Concerns about patient and family values and visions are what drives the Applied Ethics Center in its community programs. Founded in August of 1994 as joint effort of O'Connor Hospital and the Santa Clara University Center for Applied Ethics, the Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor seeks to clarify and enhance the role of ethics in health care practice and delivery. Raising people's awareness of the ethical implications of modern health care and of the role of individual and family values and visions in decisions about health is one of the main goals of the Center. The judgments which patients and families make are often very difficult and personal. The Center offers help in identifying personal values and assistance in decision-making. The goal is to make the medical environment easier to understand and to recognize the importance of beliefs and values in the decisions which patients and families make.

The Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor is "a service for patients and families"and the community.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 1995 edition of the O'Connor Health News, a publication of O'Connor Hospital, San Jose, California.
Copyright 1995 Margaret R. McLean, Ph.D.

Margaret R. McLean is the director of the Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor and director of Health Care Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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