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Glossary of Medical Terms for Advance Directives

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Legal documents that allow you to indicate the medical treatments you would want to receive if you are not able to communicate for yourself are known as advance directives. This glossary includes some common medical terms that are often used in connection with advance directives. Click here for a glossary of general and legal terms for advance directives.

Artificial Nutrition or hydration – This process allows the patient to receive food, water, or other nutrients even if he is not able to eat or drink normally. Artificial nutrition and hydration can be considered life-sustaining treatments.

Autopsy – This is an examination of the body that is done after death. Autopsy may include surgical procedures to examine organs and other structures to determine the cause of death. In cases where a patient died outside of a hospital and not under the direct care of a doctor, some state laws require that an autopsy be performed before a death certificate can be issued.
Brain Death – This is the condition when the brain stops functioning. Most states include a designation of brain death as part of the definition of death.
Comfort Care – This type of care is provided to make a patient as comfortable as possible without providing actual treatment for illness or injury and without attempting to keep the patient alive. Comfort care includes bathing, repositioning, and keeping the lips moist.
CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) – CPR is treatment that is given when the patient is not breathing or the heart has stopped beating. The purpose of CPR is to keep oxygen and blood moving in the body and to try to restart normal breathing and heartbeat. CPR may consist of mouth-to-mouth breathing or chest compressions. Electric shocks and drugs are also used to try to get the heart to start beating.
Hospice – This end-of-life care provides a team approach to making sure a patient is as comfortable as possible during the final days or weeks of a terminal illness. Medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support are all included in hospice care. Support is also available for the family of the patient.
Intubation – In this procedure a tube is placed through the mouth or nose and into the windpipe. The purpose of intubation is to provide a clear passage for air to enter and exit the lungs. Intubation may be needed in order to provide an airway for a ventilator (see below) or may be needed in case of excessive swelling in the airway that is blocking the flow of air.
Life-sustaining Treatment – These medical treatments replace or support a natural function of the body that is necessary to sustain life. Some examples include CPR to replace a normal heartbeat, ventilation or intubation to help with breathing, dialysis to aid kidney function, and artificial nutrition or hydration in place of normal eating and drinking.
Palliative Care – This type of care tries to provide the best possible quality of life for someone who has a serious illness or injury. Palliative care is an inclusive plan that includes physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional care to help relieve suffering, pain, and other symptoms.
Persistent Vegetative State – This condition occurs when a person is unconscious and there is little or no hope that he or she will ever wake up no matter what medical treatments are given. Patients in a persistent vegetative state may be able to open their eyes, blink, sleep, cry, and even track objects with their eyes. But the brain activity that results in these actions is simply a response to something happening around them. There is no ability to think or to react directly to stimulation or out of choice. There is no medical treatment to wake a patient from a persistent vegetative state. The longer the condition lingers, the lower the likelihood the patient will ever wake up. After one year, it is very unlikely that the patient will wake, and if he does, he will probably have severe disabilities.
Respirator – see ventilator
Respiratory Arrest – When a person stops breathing, he is said to be in respiratory arrest. If the patient does not start breathing again soon, or if medical personnel do not provide air through CPR or a ventilator machine, the patient’s heart will stop beating and he will die.
Terminal Condition – This is an ongoing serious injury or illness that cannot be cured. Even with the best available medical treatment doctors anticipate that the patient will die due to this condition. Life-sustaining treatments may allow the person to live a short time longer which may only mean prolonging the process of dying.
Tracheotomy – This surgical procedure is used to make an opening in the front of the neck so a tube can be inserted that will provide air to the lungs and allow secretions to be removed from the lungs. This tube is called a tracheotomy tube or trach (pronounced “trake”) tube.
Ventilator – A machine that moves air in and out of the lungs when a person is not able to breathe without help. The ventilator, which is also called a respirator, may be attached to a tracheostomy tube (see above) or may be attached to a tube that is inserted through the mouth and down the airway to the lungs. This is called intubation. A person with a tracheostomy tube may be able to eat normally. A person who is intubated will not be able to swallow and will need to be fed using another method.

Further Reading: Glossary of general and legal terms commonly used in advance directives

American Academy of Family Physicians
Cariing Connections
National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.