Joan Rivers’ Health Scare Illustrates Importance of a Living Will

Dana Hinders

Last week, 81-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers was rushed to the hospital after she stopped breathing following a minor vocal procedure. She has been in a medically induced coma since then, but doctors are reportedly working to begin the waking up process and to evaluate her motor skills and cognitive function.

The sudden and unexpected nature of Joan's health scare illustrates the need for all adults to have clearly communicated their wishes regarding emergency medical care. Joan has been a widow since 1987, when her husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide. She had a few romantic relationships in the following decades, but nothing that could remotely be considered serious. Melissa Rivers is her only child and said to have the durable power of attorney for her mother's health care. Melisa will thus be forced to make some very difficult decisions regarding her mother's care if Joan's condition does not improve in the next few days.

Durable power of attorney for health care authorizes someone to make medical decisions on your behalf when you are unable to do so. This responsibility is often given to a spouse or adult child, but can be a close friend if a suitable relative is not available. This person makes any decisions that are not already covered in the provisions of your living will.

A living will explains your wishes regarding your medical care. There is no right or wrong answer as to what you should include, but the document should clarify how you feel about making use of medical technology to prolong your life. Some people wish to have everything possible done to save them while others do not want to live if their mental capacity and/or independence would be severely diminished. A living will typically covers your feelings on issues such as blood transfusions, CPR, use of a respirator, intravenous food and water, and the use of palliative care to reduce pain if you've chosen to forgo life-prolonging treatments. It also discusses how you feel about being an organ donor.

You do not need an attorney to make a living will and select a durable power of attorney for health care, but hiring an attorney to draw up the documents will make sure they honor the specific regulations in your state. For example, some states have laws saying that pregnant women can not be taken off life support if the fetus is still viable.

As for Melissa Rivers, she has told the media she is keeping her "fingers crossed" for a miracle that will bring her mother back to her and is thankful for the outpouring of public support they've received. However, multiple sources close to Joan have stated that the comedienne would not want to continue living unless she would be able to enjoy a full and active life without placing a burden on anyone.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]