The important things in life

Dec. 1, 2005
It is important to think in advance about what you would do if faced with making a very difficult decision.

It is important to think in advance about what you would do if faced with making a very difficult decision.

This is the time of year when everyone’s focus shifts to never-ending holiday celebrations full of family, friends, loved ones, food, drink, and merriment. Lots of gifts, thoughtfully purchased or lovingly prepared, exchange hands. These gifts are made possible in large part because of the abundance in our lives.

Without a doubt, most in our profession live in a very grand manner when compared to the rest of the people on the planet Earth. Still, the storms that hit the Gulf Coast this fall have left many in our profession struggling to rebuild their lives and move forward to a better time.

Weather events are difficult if not impossible to forecast. Tornadoes and earthquakes are sudden, often unavoidable phenomena; however, there is a certain amount of opportunity to prepare for the devastating effects of a hurricane. Personal events like sudden death, critical illnesses, or financial difficulties are also difficult to predict in some cases, and clearly looming on the horizon for others.

It is certainly easy to disconnect from the threat of a disaster, whether it is natural or man-made. Most of us go about our daily lives without giving much thought to what we would do if faced with a radical change in circumstances.

Twenty years ago, Hurricane Alicia was headed toward Houston. I have vague memories of that evacuation. My home was spared any real damage. The only things I remember taking were boxes of family photographs. I’m not sure what else was important to me at that time.

In late September, Hurricane Rita was lumbering toward the upper Texas coast. Katrina had just left her disastrous calling card along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. Three days before landfall, Houston and Galveston were at the bull’s eye for a category five storm that filled up the entire Gulf of Mexico.

While the exact path of these types of storms is impossible to determine days in advance, it was certainly time for all of us living on the Gulf Coast to take notice and implement an action plan. People in Galveston had to prepare for the worst possible outcome. If a storm surge exceeded the height of the existing seawall, their homes could be totally destroyed. Homes 50 miles inland were still at risk for flooding, damage from high winds, falling trees, loss of power, or tornadoes. Katrina’s reality check had heightened our level of awareness about the ultimate power of Mother Nature. Even more poignant were the heartbreaking stories of dental hygiene colleagues who suffered extensive losses and challenges from Katrina.

People went through their homes searching for items too precious to leave behind. What could they afford to lose and what would make their lives tolerable if everything was wiped out? They gathered important insurance policies, financial records, car titles, mortgage papers, laptop computers, passports, essential prescription medications, clothes, and professional licenses.

The experience was surreal. We left with our most precious belongings, our family members, including our furred and feathered charges. Most of us realized the remaining things in homes were just stuff, things that make our lives more pleasant, but still were things that we could ultimately live without. We put the rest of the stuff up as high as possible, left town, and prayed.

Rita ultimately lost some power and came ashore in a much less densely populated area of the Texas/Louisiana coast. Houston and Galveston were spared from severe storm damage, but residents were exhausted from the ordeal. The important people in our lives were safe and we had the few material possessions that make daily life run more smoothly. We were fortunate. We had the time to make a plan and put it into action.

Life changes often happen when you are busy doing other things. It is important to think in advance about what you would do if faced with making a very difficult decision. Life events include natural disasters, serious sudden illness, accidents, marital breakups, long-term or permanent disabilities, financial crises, or job loss.

There are many things to think about with each type of life situation that crops up. The better you prepare, the easier it will be to face a given event and make clear decisions. For many of us, the holidays mean extra time off from our regular work schedule. Even though it might not be your first choice of how to spend that extra time, why not take a few hours or a day or two to think about what you would do if faced with a change in circumstances?

For example, make a list of what you would take in the event of an impending disaster. List family members and key friends who should be contacted. Make copies of all-important legal and financial documents. Keep a set of copies at home, and store another set in a safety deposit box. Give another set to your attorney and/or a trusted friend or relative.

Prepare a living will that includes a durable power of attorney so your personal wishes will be honored if you become seriously ill and can’t speak for yourself. Encourage your friends and family to do so as well. Having personal thoughts and wishes documented in an organized fashion will prevent unnecessary stress in the event of a medical crisis. Remember to include permission for organ donation so your family will not have to second-guess your wishes.

A number of years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided grant money to introduce and distribute The Five Wishes, a popular document that is legal in 37 states. This unique living will and health directive includes a person’s personal, emotional, and spiritual wishes, as well as medical requests. Even if it is not a binding legal directive in your community, it will still give your family much needed guidance during a very stressful situation. Information is available at

Remember to take care of yourself. Take an honest look at your life. Are you overdue for your mammogram or other necessary health screening? Do you take time out to rejuvenate your spirit? Exercise and meditation are perfect antidotes to a worn-out psyche. Are your personal needs always last to be met? If you always put yourself at the bottom of the heap, then you’ll never have the physical and emotional reserves to help your family and others who are so important in your life.

Look over your current financial situation and your long-term economic goals. Do you have adequate liquid cash reserves in case of an emergency? Are you paying the minimum monthly credit card payment on accounts that are close to being maxed? Have you protected yourself with adequate disability coverage in the event that you can’t practice due to an injury or illness?

What about retirement? Are you funding a savings plan with every paycheck and contributing the maximum to your retirement fund? You are never too young to be investing wisely in your future.

While these thoughts may seem far from the current holiday spirit, thinking about the future, preparing for unexpected events, and considering how you will act and react when standing at the crossroads of life can be some of the most priceless gifts that you will ever give those that you love.

Right now, we are fortunate to enjoy lives full of abundance. Acting responsibly about our future creates a priceless comfort zone. Happy holidays!

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is an international speaker, has published numerous articles, and authored several textbook chapters. Her popular programs include ergonomics, patient comfort, burnout, and advanced diagnostics and therapeutics. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award, Anne is an ADHA member and has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas, since 1971. You can reach her at [email protected] or (713) 974-4540 and her Web site is