By Special to The Oregonian
August 15, 2012
She was supposed to pick him up at the airport for Thanksgiving; instead, the postman delivered his ashes to her doorstep.
On Nov. 3, 2008, the father of Vancouver resident Dorothy Rodriguez-Anderson died alone in a Sacramento-area hospital because his wallet and emergency contact information had been locked up upon his admission to the hospital.
Several weeks later, she came home to find his ashes in a box on her entertainment center. “I just held onto the box and cried and cried,” recalls Rodriguez-Anderson, 47.
She had found out about her father’s death after his neighbor gained entrance to his apartment and found her phone number. Upon trying to get answers from the hospital, “they kept telling me they couldn’t check his wallet if I wasn’t there,” she says. “How are you supposed to be there if they don’t call you?”
Six months after her father’s death, the president of the hospital called Rodriguez-Anderson to express his regrets and apologize after he was notified of her situation. That night, she had a dream in which her father visited her and encouraged her to help sick and dying people get in touch with loved ones. When she woke up, she rushed to her laptop and started buying domain names for what would become her online registry service.
With the help of the hospital president and others, she founded a nonprofit, My Life Directive, which manages an online database that relays personal contact information and end-of-life wishes to medical professionals.
Those who sign up with My Life Directive’s free service wear a bracelet or other adornment on which a code is engraved. Medical professionals input that code to look up whatever information the user chooses to upload, from emergency contact information to POLST agreements.
A POLST — short for “Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment” — outlines an individual’s end-of-life wishes and binds medical professionals to its guidelines. The POLST is found in many states, including Washington, but it is available only in paper form in Washington.
“You have to rely on it getting passed from one person to another … it’s not exactly practical,” Rodriguez-Anderson says. People who move from place to place are at risk of slipping through the cracks, she says.
To help address this, Rodriguez-Anderson plans to visit area homeless shelters with a portable engraver and sign people up.
“It makes it simple for them, so they don’t have to end up being a John or Jane Doe,” she says of homeless individuals. People have the option to list a charitable organization as a point of contact with My Life Directive.
Friends and family are volunteering to help Rodriguez-Anderson with the nonprofit, which she says she has funded primarily with her own money, including three years’ worth of income tax refunds.
“I see this as a fantastic answer to a lot of uneasiness to the process of death and dying in hospitals,” says Harlyn Thompson, a Vancouver-area patient-care advocate and retired nurse. “It’s dying with dignity when you can’t speak for yourself.”
Thompson and Rodriguez-Anderson met at a mutual friend’s dinner party after Rodriguez-Anderson had started My Life Directive. Since then, Thompson has advised Rodriguez-Anderson on how hospitals handle terminally ill patients.
In 17 years working in intensive care units and trauma centers, Thompson saw many patients die.
“I’m appalled that this happened,” she says of the solitary death of Rodriguez-Anderson’s father. “It happens frequently. I feel something has to change. … I’m so glad that Dorothy is bringing to light something that is so critical to have in our country.”