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Event working to get Whatcom residents to make end-of-life plans

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Get your driver’s license, make clear what kind of medical care you want or don’t want.

That’s what Marie Eaton, director of the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University, would like to see Whatcom County residents do — even at a young age.

“If I had my way, you would write your first advance directive when you apply for your driver’s license,” Eaton said of such written plans, which lay out what kind of end-of-life medical care people want, or don’t want. “Every adult should have an advance care directive.”

The idea is for people to do their advance directives now, when they can, in case they can’t communicate their wishes later because of illness or injury.

People can learn more March 16 at Bellingham Technical College during an event that is part of Ramp Up to National Healthcare Decisions Day. It’s also part of an effort that’s been going on locally in recent years to get more Whatcom County residents to create advance directives by having conversations, essentially, about how they want to die.

It’s only perceived as awkward because we have made sickness, aging and death taboo topics in our society and they shouldn’t be.

Dr. Bree Johnston, head of palliative care for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center

The event will feature talks, including keynote speakers Nathan Kottkam, founder of National Healthcare Decisions Day, and Scott Foster, medical director for specialty care for PeaceHealth System.

There will be music, food and door prizes to help make the event lively, Eaton said, “not a grim day, even though the topic is a little challenging for some people.”

“We’re a death-phobic culture and we’re afraid of talking about death,” she added.

Organizers also want employers to encourage their workers to complete an advance directive, in much the same way they encourage their employees to take care of themselves through wellness programs.

Might such conversations be awkward?

“It’s only perceived as awkward because we have made sickness, aging and death taboo topics in our society and they shouldn’t be. They should be part of the mainstream,” said Dr. Bree Johnston, who is head of palliative care for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

Our goal is that everyone have it so that when you go to the hospital, people know what you want.

Marie Eaton, director of the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University

Advance directives reduces stress and confusion for family, friends and medical providers, as well as unnecessary suffering for patients in an era when medical technology allows doctors to prolong life but not necessarily quality of life.

“The more people have advance care directives, the better job the medical system will do of providing excellent care, providing patient-centered care, and providing care that people want,” Johnston said.

Without such a directive, your loved ones or your doctor could be making decisions for you. Or a judge might have to appoint someone to do so.

“Our goal is that everyone have it so that when you go to the hospital, people know what you want. It’s when you can’t speak for yourself that we want to know what your wishes and your values are,” Eaton said.

The Palliative Care Institute is one of the organizers of the event, along with Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement and Northwest Washington Medical Society.

People of all ages should attend. They should create advance directives and then alter them over the course of their lifetimes.

Advocates working to get more Whatcom County residents to draft advance directives for medical care are turning to a program in La Crosse, Wis., called Respecting Choices. Launched in 1991, the community-wide project in La Crosse has been successful in getting people to talk and plan with their families and doctors and has garnered a great deal of media attention.

In La Crosse, 95 percent of residents have advance directives.

In Whatcom County, it’s an estimated 30 percent.

“We want to be much higher than that,” Johnston said. “We would love to be higher than 90 percent.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Go to the event

What: Discussions about creating advance directives as part of Ramp Up to National Healthcare Decisions Day. The event is free.

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16.

Where: Settlemyer Hall, Bellingham Technical College, 3028 Lindbergh Ave.

Details: 360-650-6700 and wce.wwu.edu/bsn/palliative-care-institute.

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