Health Care Directive Needed for Surrogate to Make Decisions

a person holding hands with someone in a hospital bed

Q: How on earth can doctors, hospitals or any medical facility allow someone to die if the medical experts at the facility believe a procedure may save the person’s life?

It happened to my aunt because I had no authorization to make medical decisions for her. The hospital’s legal staff explained that “may save a life” is speculative, without guarantee, and not a risk a hospital or a doctor can take without direction from someone given legal authority to do so by my aunt. With a Health Care Directive, an immediate decision could have occurred.

My aunt arrived at the hospital by helicopter following an aortic aneurysm while grocery shopping in Cross City, Florida. I arrived almost 90 minutes later because the hospital that specialized in her condition was almost 45 miles away from my home. Being the closest relative at the time of the incident I was concerned that if any medical decisions were required, I needed to arrive as soon as possible. 

Upon my arrival, the doctor said that my aunt’s condition was dire because of her diabetic condition and swelling in her left leg.  He said it “may save her life” if amputation above the knee was performed immediately. Otherwise, he said she might die momentarily. Without any hesitation I informed the doctor to proceed with the amputation. That was just the beginning of my nightmare.

Health Care Directive

The doctor asked if I was my aunt’s health care surrogate, meaning, did I have the authority in writing to make health care decisions on my aunt’s behalf?  I said, ‘I don’t even know what a health care surrogate is.’ The doctor explained.  He said it is a document known as a Health Care Directive that authorizes someone, known as a surrogate or proxy, to make health care decisions on behalf of another, should such person be incapacitated and unable to make decisions for themselves.  He further explained that without such written authority, neither he nor the hospital staff could make decisions that might result in legal liability against them. I panicked.

My aunt’s closest relative, who may have such a health care document, was her daughter, my cousin, with whom my aunt lived in Laramie, Wyoming. Of course, I called my cousin right away only to discover that she too was unaware of the term health care surrogate. I asked the doctor that upon the approval from her daughter, could I make the decision needed to save my aunt’s life. He said he would need approval from the medical facilities legal advisory board before any amputation could be performed. Sadly, my aunt died before any decision could be made.


Even though Florida law entitles persons closest to an incapacitated person requiring immediate medical decisions to save their life, without a Health Care Directive, hospitals, doctors or any medical facility are within their legal right not to provide care to avoid personal liability or malpractice. If you or someone you love have no Health Care Directives, contact an estate planning lawyer today.


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Written by Kristen Jackson

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