Pro Bono Project spotlights Advance Directives Project, which allows students to help clients make end-of-life decisions

The following story, which originally ran in the student-written Pro Bono Project newsletter, spotlights the Advance Directives Project organized by Maria Nkonge (JD ’16) and other Wake Forest Law students.

The Advance Directives Project gives Wake Forest Law students opportunities to help clients make their own end-of-life decisions. When a patient is unconscious or otherwise incapacitated and unable to make end-of-life decisions, such as to have a feeding tube or not, families are often put in the position of having to make these decisions for their loved one. Volunteers educate the community on what options they have to make these decisions for themselves before facing such a situation. “Legal documents inform caregivers of the type of healthcare treatments you want to receive if you become too sick to speak for yourself,” said Project Coordinator Maria Nkonge (JD ’16).

Volunteers also help clients fill out Living Wills, where clients decide exactly what they want, and Health Care Powers of attorney, where clients decide who they want making these decisions in their place. North Carolina statutes designated a chain of command for who is able to make end-of-life decisions, so a health care power of attorney bypasses the statutory mandate and allows clients to name who they want instead. “Many in the community are not able to hire attorneys to assist in this process and this provides an avenue for assistance to those individuals,” said volunteer Jared Adams (JD ’17).

Students volunteer along side area attorneys at the Downtown Health Plaza twice a week, every week, throughout the semester. Every other week on Fridays, students go to Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Hospital. “The project also hosts 4-5 community events each year to further speak awareness about the work of the Advance Directives clinic, including the PRIDE Festival and VALOR’s veteran clinic,” Nkonge added.

Through Advance Directives, Wake Forest Law students “gain experience in speaking with others about difficult situations, perhaps the most difficult of situations; how does one want to spend the last few moments of their lives,” Adams said. “This is a great project for students who are interested in healthcare law or any area that involves close client contact and sensitive subjects.”

Nkonge relayed that “asking a patient to think of two people who can act as their healthcare agent, to make healthcare decisions on their behalf, almost feels like asking a person to decide which family member they love and trust the most.” Nevertheless, the peace of mind patients receive by knowing they chose who will speak for them is invaluable, she added.

“These discussions may be some of the hardest you’ll have in law school, but they will also be some of the most important for those you are having them with. The comfort provided through Advanced Directives and knowing how you want to spend the end of your life is invaluable for both the individual and their family,” Adams added.

“Students quickly learn how to express empathy while explaining the law, gathering enough information to fill out the advance directives forms while maintaining sensitivity. There is an art to being an effective and compassionate attorney.”

Volunteering with the Advance Directives Project also helps students understand that we will all be facing these decisions at some point and ”how important end of life planning is, not just for myself, but also for those in my life I care the most about,” as Adams put it. “Since I began volunteering with the Project,” Adams continued, “I have had many discussions with my wife and family about what I want to happen if I am every in a medical situation where I cannot make decisions for myself. Through these discussions, I am not only more aware of the needs and end of life requests from my family, but they are more aware of mine.”

Nkonge similarly experienced that her end-of-life wishes were very different than the wishes of her family.

“This project has impacted me by the overwhelming gratitude often given after meeting with a client,” Nkonge concluded.  ”The fears and hesitations brought into our meetings are answered through our discussion of the documents, and the client departs knowing they have articulated their hopes in the uncontrollable.”