Birch Bay man clarifies end-of-life decisions

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 15, 2013 

7 13 Prime Berg

Birch Bay resident Don Berg, 78, recently attended a workshop on end-of-life treatment documents. April 30, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Name: Don Berg.

Age: 78.

Home: Birch Bay Village.

Family: Wife Penny, a daughter and a grandchild.

Moved west: Berg grew up in Chicago and his wife grew up in New England. Both came to Washington in 1960.

Berg's wife, Penny, a nurse, helped open the child psychiatry inpatient unit at the University of Washington. Berg received a degree in psychiatric social work at the University of Washington. They met in a psychiatric unit where Don was working as a therapist and Penny was working as a nurse.

Moved north: In the 1980s they couple moved to Whatcom County, where Berg became executive director of Whatcom Counseling and Psychiatric Clinic.

Family emergency: When Berg's mother suffered a debilitating heart attack, he was told that doctors could keep her alive, but that she would be bedridden. A doctor asked Berg to what extent physicians should treat his mother, given that she was unable to speak for herself.

At the time Berg was living in Seattle and his mother was in Chicago. After calling his sister, who was in Pennsylvania, they decided to not employ "heroic measures" that would only just keep her alive. They decided their mother, who was active until the day of her heart attack, would not have wanted that. Berg's mother died within the week.

"We thought that was the right thing to do, but the burden of making that decision 2,400 miles away was really rugged," Berg says. "And it happens more than we might think."

End-of-life learning: Berg volunteers for Friendly Visitors, a nonprofit program that places volunteers with lonely or isolated seniors in Whatcom County.

As a part of his monthly training, Berg attended an end-of-life planning workshop hosted by Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement, a nonprofit organization in Bellingham.

After attending the first workshop, Berg was so impressed that he insisted that his wife join him for a second one. Berg also helped organize a workshop on the subject at Blaine Senior Center.

Advance directives: The workshops strive to make conversations about end-of-life care more widespread, and increase the number of local seniors with advance directives.

Advance directives are documents that convey people's wishes ahead of time about critical care, in case they are rendered unable to decide or communicate when a medical emergency arises.

For example, an advance directive might say the person doesn't want to be put on life support should he or she become incapacitated. Having a directive in place can relieve loved ones from having to make difficult decisions during times of crisis.

"It shouldn't fall on other people, relatives and friends," Berg says. "People should be prepared and explain what they would like to do and what the alternatives might be."

Advance directives weren't common in the 1980s, when Berg's mother died. He says they would have made the process easier because he would have known exactly what her wishes were.

"(Advance directives) are a comfort to survivors, because then they do not have to make a decision out of thin air," he says. "They can make the decision based on the patient's stated desires."

Letting others help: Berg has authorized his wife, daughter and regular physician to help if he should become incapacitated. He wants to ensure that the people making decisions for him are familiar with his wishes, not a doctor who might be treating him for the first time.

Like his mother, Berg maintains an active lifestyle and is a self-described golf addict. He says he doesn't want to be resuscitated should he become bedridden or have to live in a nursing home.

Sara Welsh is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

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