If you don't have a living will or advanced medical directive, get one. Regardless of how young or healthy you might be, write one now. If you don't, your family could end up like Terri Schiavo's.

Four doctors hired by judges have determined she is in a vegetative state. Her husband says she would not want her life prolonged with a feeding tube as it has been for 13 years. But her parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, cling to the hope she can be rehabilitated.

Years of court battles have caused a deep rift between the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo, and he has kept them from seeing their daughter. Now the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush have reversed the court's decision to remove the tube.

It's a sad story for all involved and could have been prevented if Terri Schiavo had signed a living will.

I've had personal experience in this area.

My father had a stroke in his brain stem that left him unable to speak or move anything but his pinky finger. The doctors told us we could connect him to a respirator that would keep him alive for many years, but a court order would be required if we wanted to remove it later. My mother could not bring herself to make this decision. I was in my late 20s, newly married, and I did not want to lose my father so soon. My two older siblings convinced my mother that Dad would not want to be an emotional and financial burden to her. They were right, but it was difficult nonetheless.

He lingered two weeks without a respirator and just fluids, until pneumonia took over. His breathing became increasingly erratic. Eventually, the labored sounds ended.

Earlier this year, my mother died after several years of illnesses and disease, both chronic and minor. Several times during the final months of her life, she ripped the intravenous feeding tubes from her arm and violently insisted the nurses stay away.

Did she know what she wanted? Should her arms be strapped down so she could be force fed? My brother consulted with me, but with power of attorney over her affairs, he had to make the decisions.

She had basically stopped eating whole foods. On two visits, I brought her favorite foods from stores and restaurants, but she usually only nibbled them. A woman of average height and build, she had dwindled to 85 or fewer pounds by the end.

I tried to make sure she understood that without the I.V., she could die. She told me that we needed to abide by God's will. As it turned out, she bounced back, but the final time she took the I.V. out, she gave up completely.

These were anguished decisions my siblings and I had to make regarding our parents, but at least they were ours to make. I would never want them left to a judge or a group of politicians eager to be re-elected.

The best way to avoid the heart-wrenching scenario faced by the Schiavo-Schindler family is to write a living will. Make sure your family knows what you would want. The directives can be specific about whether you want nourishment and hydration, and what might be done differently if you are pregnant at the time you're in a coma.

Contact your lawyer or a local hospital for more resources and information. The Internet has a wealth of related sites.

Ron Wayne is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at 244-3400, ext. 229, or e-mailed at ron.wayne@gaflnews.com.

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