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Attorneys give hospice patients peace of mind

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Although a will may be described as “simple,” for patients in hospice care having a completed will and knowing their wishes are recorded in a legal document can bring a peace that makes the word “simple” seem like a misnomer.

Some hospice patients are said to be so relieved to know their affairs are in order that within hours of signing the legal forms, they pass away. And the attorneys providing the legal assistance say the work brings rewards they had not anticipated.

estle-karen-wishard-15col.jpg Rev. Karen Estle, spiritual advisor at Wishard Health Services, with a patient in the Palliative Care Unit. She helps pair volunteer attorneys with hospice patients who need legal assistance. (Submitted photo)

Diane Sargeant, attorney at Cox Sargeant & Burns P.C., said helping the hospice patients teaches her lessons in life and death.

“It just reminds me how precious life is, how much we need to stop and think about that every day rather than getting wrapped up in tasks,” she said.

Sargeant does her volunteer work through the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Hospice Program. This pro bono effort pairs volunteer attorneys with hospice patients to handle legal matters such as a will, power of attorney, or health care directive.

Typically, the volunteer attorneys travel to one of the hospitals in the Indianapolis area and meet with the patients. Usually, the lawyers will draft and file documents related to end-of-life issues, but sometimes they just answer general questions. Patients may be worried their debt will get passed along to their children. In one instance, a man was concerned that his felony conviction would prevent him from being buried where he wanted.

These attorney-client relationships are limited to the patients themselves. Other family matters are outside the scope of this work.

Because the need for these lawyers may arise at any time, the program schedules the volunteers to be “on call” for a few weeks each year.

Diana Moers, coordinator of the IBA’s Hospice Program, described herself as the dispatcher. When she gets a referral from a social worker at a hospital, she contacts the attorneys on call and makes the assignment.

“I don’t stop until I get somebody who says, ‘Yeah, I can help that person,’” Moers said.

The program is especially attractive to attorneys who practice in elder law or wills and estates. Sargeant noted that as an estate planning and administration specialist, she does not have a tremendous number of opportunities to do pro bono work that uses her technical skills. Helping hospice patients allows her to combine her knowledge with her desire to volunteer.

“It’s become personally rewarding for me,” she said. “The clients I’ve worked with have been so grateful for the work I do for them. It’s been very touching.”

Serving as the coordinator fits well for Moers, an attorney in the Office of the Secretary of State’s Securities Division. Her job keeps her tied to her office all day, but through the hospice program she is able to perform pro bono work.

“It feels good to know when somebody needs help they can just reach out and someone will come in a day or two at the most,” Moers said, adding the patient can then focus on being with family.

Larry Lawhead, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP serving in the corporate department, not only volunteers in the IBA’s Hospice Program but also will be educating other attorneys as part of a CLE “End of Life Care and Probate 101.”

“Everybody has the same fears,” Lawhead said. “Obviously, we don’t have the ability to do complex planning for them, but we provide peace of mind for people.”

When he works with those in hospice care, Lawhead is most concerned about making sure they are competent to understand what they are doing and that they are not signing papers under pressure from family members or other individuals.

He always tries to meet the patient in person and discuss what legal issues need to be addressed. After going to his office to draft the documents, he returns to visit the patient again and complete the work.

wilhelm Wilhelm

Before the individual signs, Lawhead will have any family members leave the room. The patient can ask questions, bring up concerns or make changes privately with the attorney without worrying what others may think or do.

When the volunteer lawyers walk into the room, Rev. Karen Estle has seen the hospice patients sit a little straighter and be very respectful. They are often surprised that someone so important has come to see them.

Estle, spiritual advisor with the Palliative Care Team at Wishard Health Services, has worked with the IBA’s Hospice Program since its beginning. The program, she said, has made a “tremendous difference.” Before the attorneys were available, the staff would struggle to find a way to help these patients with their legal needs.

Now she fills out a referral form and passes it along to the IBA. When the attorneys arrive at the hospital, Estle meets them at the front desk and then escorts them through the labyrinth hallways to the Palliative Care Unit.

Along the way, she will talk to them. Once in a while, an attorney may be overcome with memories of family members who have died, so Estle will walk the lawyer around the corner and provide a shoulder to lean on.

Among the attorneys she has greeted at the entrance is Michael Wilhelm, an elder law attorney at DeFur Voran LLP in Fishers.

“I like that the people that we’re serving are in true need of pro bono services,” he said.

Wilhelm often arrives at the hospital with the documents prepared and ready for a signature. He knows the process can become very emotional, so he always tries to make a personal connection to help the patient through the situation.

Taking time is necessary, Estle said. The attorneys cannot just hand a form to a patient with instructions to fill it out. They have to sit with the patient, maybe cry for a minute, and then get the task done.

For one woman, battling terminal cancer, Wilhelm made a call to her house. He had prepared a will which the neighbors came over to witness.

“We did what we could for her given the circumstances,” he said, “but it was very tough.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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