The Toughest Conversation: A Matter of Life and Death

The hardest discussion you’ll have with your loved ones will be about death.

No one wants to die. And for most of us, the thought of our own mortality rarely enters our thoughts until we come face to face with that possibility.

As a pulmonologist, nearly every day I saw patients who never expected to become so ill so young. Maybe they had a stroke. Their family would put them on a ventilator. But was that what the patient wanted?

No one knew because no one had talked about it.

Healthcare Decisions Day is April 16, and it presents a great opportunity to think about and talk about your wishes. As a system, Lahey Health has partnered with Honoring Choices Massachusetts, and we are working to make conversations about a health care plan part of routine care.

It’s not an easy talk to have. Do you know what you would want for life sustaining treatments if you were seriously ill? What happens if your illness has taken away your ability to make your own decisions?

Unfortunately, people put it off day after day, month after month, year after year. I’m as guilty as anyone. I had the discussion with my loved ones only 15 years ago.

But far too often, crises happen and family members – already confronting the illness of a loved one – are left in the difficult position of sorting out who can make decisions and what should be done. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, there are conflicts as they try to sort out the best way to care for their relative. One person wants to avoid suffering, while another wants to keep them alive at all costs. By talking to your family and designating someone to be your decision maker should the need arise, and letting them know your wishes, you can help avoid these challenges.

So today, have the conversation. Be open and honest. Talk to your family and assign a health care proxy. Filling out the legal paperwork to appoint your agent as a health care proxy is the easy part. Talking to your loved ones is the hurdle we all need to overcome.

Do it now. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Dr. Leslie Sebba is a pulmonologist and the CMO of the Lahey Clinical Performance Network. He is also the system wide lead of the Honoring Choices initiative across Lahey Health. Lahey Health is the first health system in the Commonwealth to partner with Honoring Choices Massachusetts to further their mission of helping patients and doctors work in partnership for quality personalized care that honors every patient’s values and choices.