The recent case of Marlise Munoz reminds us all of one important decision we should not leave to others: Whether we want to remain on life support or not. A living will is a legal document that can be used to make  decisions as to whether we want to be on life sustaining support or whether we want to “pull the plug” if we are brain dead and in a vegetative state.

In November, Marlise Munoz suffered a pulmonary embolism and was taken to a hospital in her town of Fort Worth. She was pronounced brain dead two days later. Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant and under Texas law, her body was required to be left on life support even though the fetus was not able to survive.

Erick Munoz, Marlise’s husband, attempted to have her life support and ventilation removed after being told she was brain dead and after being with his wife’s body in the hospital. He stated she had previously expressed to him that she would not want to be kept on life support if she was in a vegetative state. However, Mrs. Munoz did not complete a living will.

Mr. Munoz stated to the Court that it was difficult to “endure the pain of watching my wife’s dead body be treated as if she were still alive.”

He further stated that, “As a married man, I became very familiar with the way Marlise’s body felt, the way her hair smelled and the way her eyes appeared when we looked at each other, among other things. Over these past two months, nothing about my wife indicates she is alive. When I bend down to kiss her forehead, her usual scent is gone. Finally, one of the most painful parts of watching my wife’s deceased body lie trapped in a hospital bed each day is the soulless look in her eyes. Her eyes, once full of the ‘glimmer of life,’ are empty and dead.”

Despite Mr. Munoz’s requests to the hospital that his wife be removed from life sustaining support, the hospital refused and Mr. Munoz was forced to file an action in Court to have the ventilation and feeding tube removed. Almost two months later, the Court in Texas finally approved the removal of life support and Mr. Munoz is finally able to lay his wife’s body to rest.

Dealing with the death of a spouse or other close family member is one of the most difficult situations a person will face. However, that experience is compounded and made even more difficult when family members are put into situations where they must make life ending decisions for their loved ones. A well drafted estate plan includes a living will (aka, health care directive) whereby a person makes a legal decision for themselves about whether they want to be on  life sustaining support or whether they want to be removed if they are brain dead and in a vegetative state. The living will can be used and relied on by family members and also allows a person to declare whether they want to be an organ donor and whether they want their body to be used for medical research or not. Hospitals are authorized and protected by law when they rely on a living will and it makes family decisions at a hospital so much easier.

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