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Your Life, Your Choices: How to Be Your Own Best Advocate

March 01, 2022

The things that give us the greatest joy and reason to carry on in life are as unique to us as our fingerprints. That’s precisely why Dr. Peter DePergola, Chief Ethics Officer and Senior Director of Clinical Ethics at Baystate Health, encourages even the healthiest of individuals to take a personal inventory of their “must-haves in life” and communicate them to their healthcare provider and loved ones.

“The time to begin weighing what’s important to you is not when you’re faced with a medical crisis,” he says, “but rather when you’re well and can take objective stock of your life without the influence of stress or fear.”

Why You Need a Personal Inventory

In his daily work at Baystate, DePergola helps patients, loved ones and healthcare providers work through challenging questions related to care.

“These can be extremely difficult conversations that compound an already stressful moment,” he says. “But for those patients who’ve clearly outlined for themselves and others what the things are that give their life meaning, the choices become clearer.”

The list of “things that matter” are unique to the individual and may include:

  • Being able to spend time engaging in conversation with family
  • Being a part of my faith community
  • Being able to see my grandchildren
  • Being able to travel
  • Being able to spend time outdoors
  • Etc.

Your list should also include things you are willing to sacrifice and those you would never sacrifice.

Your list of priorities will evolve—sometimes growing, sometimes shrinking—as circumstances change and as you move forward in life.

“What’s important about the list is that it can help narrow treatment options should you have to choose one,” says DePergola.

For example, if travel is important to you and you develop an issue with your foot—say, arthritis or an injury, you can weigh your treatment options based on which will provide the best chance of continuing to travel.

Further, says DePergola, “Making your doctor aware of your priorities prior to treatment gives them a lens for determining the best course of care for you. With this insight, they can create a treatment plan that addresses the issue but also respects and honors your goals.”

Lightening the Burden for Loved Ones

Beyond your physician, DePergola advises individuals to share their wishes with loved ones. “These can be hard conversations to have,” he says. “So often people will say, ‘You’re fine. Why are we talking about this?’ The response to that is ‘so that should something happen to me, you’ll know exactly what to do or not do. I don’t want you ever to wonder what would I want. And, because we’re having this conversation, you won’t have to.’”

DePergola encourages everyone to name a healthcare proxy (someone who can legally make decisions about your care if you are unable to). “A proxy doesn’t have to be a family member, and sometimes it’s better if it’s not. You just need to choose someone you can trust to make decisions that are in line with your inventory.”

Harness the Power of Knowledge

While creating a personal inventory is a critical step in being an advocate for your care, staying informed is equally important.

“You need to be a student of your own health,” says DePergola. “When talking with your doctor about anything from a basic medication to a major procedure, it’s in your best interest to question everything. Not necessarily the science behind it but to understand why the given choices are being made, if there are other options, what the anticipated best and worst outcomes are, etc. If you’re not clear on an answer, try asking the question a different way. You and your doctor should be on a mutual quest for the best treatment plan for you. It’s your job to make sure that you’re both working towards the same goal and that you’re comfortable with the intended outcome.”

 Help for the Hard Talk is Always Available

If you’re having trouble managing your own care or finding ways to talk about the health of a loved one, Baystate Health can help. Baystate’s Ethics Consultation Service is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Available at no cost to any Baystate Health patient, family member, or health care provider, for any reason, consultations can be scheduled by phone (413-794-0000, extension 47502) or by emailing Dr. Peter DePergola directly.

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