Area people are scrambling to get their living wills in order.

Few apparently want to wind up in a family tug of war or worse, become the subject of court battles as has happened to Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-injured woman in Florida.

“It’s been unbelievable,” said Robert Couterier. “I’ve been stopped in the street” by people inquiring about the wills.

Couterier is a Lewiston lawyer who specializes in legal issues that affect older people.

As the national media focuses on the plight of Schiavo, whose hydration and feeding tubes have been disconnected after years of court rulings and appeals, Couterier said interest in living wills has peaked.

In Maine, such wills are called advance health care directives. They allow people to tell their families and medical service providers their wishes should they become unable to voice those wishes later.

Couterier says everyone should consider getting one. And he quickly points out that the wills don’t require the services of a lawyer and don’t have to cost anyone a dime, either.

“They’re available at hospital emergency rooms,” among other places, he said. In fact, he added, there’s a federal law that requires hospitals to ask patients about to be admitted if they have a will.

And spokespeople for area hospitals say there’s been a run on the forms that their institutions gladly distribute.

St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center saw a surge in requests Friday, said spokesman Russ Donahue.

“We had to run off more copies,” he said.

There the wills are available at the front desk and also at the chaplain’s office. Donahue said Monday that St. Mary’s also put living will forms on its Web site so people with computers can download the forms, then fill them out.

Central Maine Medical Center already had the forms online as well as available at its offices.

And Randy Dustin, a CMMC spokesman, said those offices have been busy responding to requests for advance directives.

The hospital has noted “a marked increase in requests for advance directive information since the Schiavo case became headline news,” Dustin said. “In fact, one of the pre-admission testing folks told us that she’s ordered more forms.”

He said CMMC social workers can help people with basic questions about the forms, but patients with complicated questions are encouraged to talk to a lawyer.

No hospitals force living wills on patients, but most encourage them.

“An advance directive can be very important in some situations for obvious reasons,” Dustin said. “However, the decision to develop one remains a personal choice.”

Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick also had a run on forms last week. It ran off additional copies after interest in the forms grew last week, said a nurse there.

Under Maine law, the wills allow people to tell their doctors if they want to be given or have withheld nutrition and hydration under certain circumstances. They also allow people to request that they be given only pain medication.

The wills can be changed at any time.

Couterier said that while his services aren’t needed to make out a living will, he does suggest that people make a point to show their advance health care directives to their physician and ask if they’ll respect their requests.

“Some doctors may not feel it’s morally right to honor a living will,” he noted.

He said it’s also important that people talk over their wishes with whoever they name to hold their medical power of attorney. While that isn’t required, Maine living wills include a section for it.

The person named for that responsibility has “got to be someone that you trust with your life,” said Couterier.

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