Q: My neighbor recently told me a horrifying story. While she was away on a business trip, she left her 15-year-old daughter with her grandparents. During my neighbor’s absence, her daughter was thrown from a horse and incurred a severe spine injury. She was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors informed the grandparents that they couldn’t make any medical decisions on her behalf because they were not their granddaughter’s legal guardians. What are parents to do if their child is out of their reach while staying with others and needs consent for emergency medical treatment?
A: It is complicated. Sadly, in the event of tragedy, more than 50 percent of all adults have no health care documents for themselves whatsoever. If conscious when they enter the hospital, the hospital staff will typically provide a health care document for them to sign, which authorizes the doctor’s treatment. However, if they’re unconscious, have no health care directives and haven’t authorized another adult to make decisions on their behalf then not even a spouse can authorize treatment. It can become even more horrifying for a child, conscious or unconscious. Consider the following examples.
Twelve-year-old Grace went camping with her friend’s family. While hiking, she fell off of a rocky cliff, suffered a concussion and required immediate medical treatment. Since her friend’s parents had no authorization to give medical consent, Grace suffered for 48 hours until her parents could be reached and drive to the hospital to authorize treatment. Had Grace’s parents prepared health care directives authorizing her friend’s parents to act as Grace’s heath care surrogate, treatment would have been immediate.
Then there is Alice, who came inside from gardening in her yard to answer a ringing telephone. One of her son’s friends at college gave her terrifying news from three states away that her son, Michael, was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and was taken unconscious to the hospital. Alice immediately called the emergency room where he was taken. Since he was 18 years old, the hospital staff advised her that she couldn’t authorize treatment unless she had a health care directive naming her as his surrogate. Consent would have required Michael to prepare a health care directive naming Alice as his surrogate before leaving for college.
According to Florida law, only a natural guardian, legal custodian, or legal guardian of a person or minor child may designate a competent adult to serve as a surrogate to make health care decisions. And, although we believe our children are always our children, once they turn 18 years old, only they may make such decisions.
Before you send your minor child on a road trip with friends, leave them for the weekend with family or friends, or see your adult child off to college, consult with an estate planning attorney and prepare the necessary documents to protect them.