Empath Health Community Partnership Specialist Josie Flores

The course of Josie Flores’s life changed the day she decided how her mother would die.

Josie is a Community Partnership Specialist at Empath Health, helping to increase access to full life care and services in the Hillsborough County Hispanic community.

But when she was 23, Josie was studying to become a marine biologist. She lived with her mother, Ana Maria Flores, who was also her best friend. One Sunday in 2000, an otherwise healthy Ana Maria experienced a severe headache. Within the week, the 53-year-old was declared brain dead due to an aneurysm.

“They did everything they could,” Josie said of her mother’s doctors. “They came to me and told me, ‘You’re going to have to make some decisions,’ and I fainted about six times during the day.”

The only thing Josie knew about her mother’s end-of-life wishes was that she didn’t want to be hooked up to a machine. All of a sudden, doctors were asking Josie about keeping her mother alive long enough to recover her organs.

Josie deliberated for about 12 hours before deciding her mother would have wanted to donate her organs. It ended up saving three other lives.

“She was by far the kindest person I’ve ever met in my life. She was always giving. I thought this would be the right choice. That decision changed my entire life,” Josie said. “I’ve spent all these years thinking, ‘Did I make the right choice? Is this really what she wanted?’ I wish I would have known what she wanted.”

April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day, a time to inspire, educate and empower people to make advance care plans. Advance care planning involves discussing and preparing for future decisions about medical care that can be implemented if someone becomes seriously ill and unable to communicate.

According to a study from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, a majority of people in the United States know the types of end-of-life care they wish to receive, but only 22 percent have documented their wishes.

Josie is at the forefront of the effort to improve those statistics at Empath Health. As a result of her mother’s experience, she has made a career of helping people prepare for end-of-life decisions, first as an organ and transplant advocate and now as an advance care plan facilitator.

“I always tell people the worst thing that ever happened to me was that I lost my mother, but the best thing that ever happened to me is that I lost my mother,” Josie said.

Empath provides facilitations, workshops and consultations that guide and empower individuals, families and healthcare providers to communicate, document and honor healthcare wishes.

Facilitators can help individuals develop plans that reflect their goals, values and beliefs. Personal appointments are available, or groups may schedule a free presentation at a place of business, congregation, civic group, adult living facility, neighborhood meeting or book club. Families can have the presentation together.

The two most common forms of advance directives are the living will and the designation of a healthcare surrogate.

The living will is a legal document that informs doctors and other healthcare providers which treatments a person wants, which treatments they don’t want, and in what conditions those treatments apply. Common questions include whether the person wants CPR, to be placed on a ventilator or to use a feeding tube. Completed living will forms do not need to be notarized, as a signature makes it a legal document.

A healthcare surrogate is a person designated to carry out the living will should the patient be unable to communicate. Choosing a surrogate is an essential part of the advance care planning process.

Josie knows her mother would have chosen her as a healthcare surrogate. But the decisions she ultimately had to make would have been so much easier if they had the discussion about what her mother wanted.

“I think it’s important we talk to our loved ones, no matter how hard the conversation is,” Josie said. “When you’re faced with that choice and not know what to do, you struggle and you struggle for years with your response.”

For more information on advance care planning, visit EmpathHealth.org/Advance-Care-Planning or call (727) 467-7423 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties or (941) 893-6589 in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties.