The story of Albert Goodheir
Mounting evidence suggests that living wills only work when part of a communication process. Relying on the document alone is not enough. Taken into hospital on Christmas Day, the husband of one of this country's greatest living will campaigners, died two days later. We are privileged to tell his story.
Albert Goodheir, former minister, Esperanto expert and author, died at age 83 "in accordance with his living will." The phrase was picked up by newspapers around the country. To his devoted wife Phyllis, the moment was wonderful, even though doctors had pleaded to give him surgery: "I told the doctors, `I want to let him go.' I repeated it a second time, `Let him go.' He didn't suffer and I didn't suffer because we knew that was what he wanted. It was wonderful because he died in peace. His death was a joyous occasion."
"As his quality of life disappeared, he was sustained by a deep belief in the emptiness of all things of the world, compared with the eternal - those things which endure despite all, a sentiment that often appears in his poetry...
Albert was born at Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1912, and obtained a Ph.D in history at the University. During the war he suffered greatly under the Nazi occupation, suffering near-starvation and witnessing horrors that were to have a profound effect on his later life and outlook. He was very sure of what he believed, yet it was more an inner sense than a great sprouting of words. Following the war, he took a degree in philosophy and trained to become a minister, afterwards working for lowly pay in small parishes.
Reading the living will and seeing his handwriting was like him talking to me...
Later he became a Quaker and author, often inscribing his thoughts on toilet paper as he worked as an orderly in a mental hospital. His published works include much poetry and a book on the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, which he wrote in Esperanto. He met his second wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1970, through his interest in Esperanto. Settling in Coatbridge, he became Secretary of the Glasgow Esperanto Society for 20 years, and published a journal, Esperanto in Scotland, which was circulated internationally. He became a life member of VESS in 1984.
In February 1995, Albert suffered a stroke and his health gradually declined. His sight became too poor to study seriously, he could no longer enjoy hill walking or gardening, attend musical concerts or visit his family (five children, 11 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and three step-children). As his quality of life disappeared, he was sustained by a deep belief in the emptiness of all things of the world, compared with the eternal - those things which endure despite all, a sentiment that often appears in his poetry and shared by his wife Phyllis, also a Quaker. Phyllis has distributed more than 8,000 living wills in the last eight years. Their motto was "Enjoy life, die in peace." Yet, when Albert was hospitalised and in severe pain from a twisted colon, the piece of paper alone was not enough to see that his wishes were respected.
Again and again, the doctors remonstrated with Phyllis to allow them to perfom surgery, saying that if they weren't successful they would just "stitch him up again." She had to be quite forceful with them before they finally agreed to respect his living will, which he had updated only six days earlier. "Reading the living will and seeing his handwriting was like him talking to me." The document was on the front of Albert's notes at Monklands Hospital in Lanarkshire. It was the key that provided convincing evidence of his wishes. All Phyllis had to do was to communicate it effectively, but it took a lot of perseverance before the doctors finally listened to her. When she repeated that Albert was not to have the proposed operation, in front of witnesses, the doctors finally felt they had no choice, and allowed Albert to die in peace.
Notes: In the UK, a relative has no legal authority to make treatment decisions for an incompetent adult, but it is not uncommon for hospitals to act as if this was not the case. A validly executed living will has legal force if it applies exactly to the circumstances, but often medical scenarios are not sufficiently clear cut. The whole effectiveness of the living will, in practice, relies on communication, not on laws or on the piece of paper itself. Close communication between the doctor and patient, while competent, with the strong active support of relatives when the patient becomes incompetent, are the most reliable options. A living will or values history is a valuable, perhaps even critical, part of this communication process. - Ed
© 1996 Chris Docker
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