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Church groups enlisted in end-of-life medical planning initiative

Baltimore Sun
Jacques Kelly
October 22, 2017

Doug Wilson, an elder at West Baltimore’s Kingdom Life Church, recalled the steps he took after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Before going into the University of Maryland Medical Center, he put down, in writing, the steps he wanted taken during and after his seven-hour surgery.

Months after his lengthy recuperation last year, he stood Sunday morning before a class at the North Hilton Street church to talk about end-of-life planning and why it is a good idea to have in place an advance health care directive and directions on disposing of an estate.

“The surgery was lengthy, and you never know the risks during the post-surgery period,” said Wilson, his congregation’s director of community relations. “It is important to have a medical directive in place.”

Sunday’s class was the first in a series sponsored by the Maryland Faith Health Network. The class, like others to follow at other congregations, was funded by the Maryland State Department of Health. The initiative will continue until about 500 religious congregants hear the talk and receive informational documents.

“There is a general resistance to estate planning. Folks don’t want to talk about death,” said Susan Francis, deputy director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which is partnering with the Maryland Faith Health Network in providing the initiative.

“We find that people turn to churches when in crisis. There are really hard decisions, potentially life-and-death decisions. When you don’t have an advance health care directive, it is not clear who will make the decisions. It can get really ugly. And people can be really well intentioned, but there may not be agreement. It can cause lasting divisions in families.

“To us, churches were an effective way to reach people,” Francis said.

“You never know when an emergency is going to happen,” said Tonoah Hampton, a Kingdom Life member who addressed the class. “As a nurse for 30-some years, I’ve sat by the bedsides of patients. I also had to deal with end-of-life situations in my own family.”

She urged members of the class to talk to family members and medical providers about what sort of care they want — and don’t want — at the end of their lives, and to do it before a medical emergency arises.

“You should ensure that your wishes are honored,” said Hampton. “This will reduce conflict in the family and with doctors.”

She said that during a medical emergency, family members can often become distraught and confused.

“There can be conflicts, which is not what you want at a time like this,” Hampton said. “Some family members will insist and believe that God is going to cure the patient with a medical miracle. Others will be just fearful. Children of the parent will not know which way to turn. An advance directive becomes a great help.”

She also told the class that creating an end-of-life document is a way of ensuring that one’s religious beliefs are honored. For example, Hampton said, members of some religious groups do not believe in blood transfusions. “A document that you have written records your health care wishes in a legally binding way,” she said. “Put it in writing so that people know.”

She also emphasized that medical directives should be done in consultation with family members. And, she told the class, you can always change your mind about end-of-life care.

“You don’t have to commit for life,” she said. “You can change these documents.”

The speakers recommended using electronic medical directives, which they said are available online through private vendors. They said that paper forms can wind up being lost or hard to find during an emergency.

Suzanne R. Schlattman, a community outreach deputy director for the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative who attended the class, said Maryland does not require that a health directive be signed by a notary public.

“One idea is that more people will fill out a directive if it’s easier,” she said. “We have come to religious congregations to help members be prepared spiritually and medically in the event they can’t speak for themselves.”

Schlattman said she spoke from personal experience.

“I had three sons, and every time I was preparing for a delivery, my midwife encouraged me to update my medical directive. You do this for your own wishes and to make it easier for the people caring for you,” Schlattman said.

A church member, Theresa Wilson, said that Sunday’s meeting was targeted to the leaders of the Kingdom Life congregation.

“Today’s talk was a natural fit for our leadership class,” she said. “We wanted to promote the awareness of the advance directive

“We do not know the hour” when death will come, Wilson said, “but God provides help through his people. Talking about this in a church is an appropriate place.”

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