Lesbians Sue When Partners Die Alone

Lawsuits by two lesbians could shape how hospitals treat same-sex couples.

May 20, 2009, 9:29 AM

May 20, 2009— -- Lisa Pond was playing basketball with her three children when she collapsed from an aneurysm on the first day of a 2007 anniversary cruise ship vacation.

But after the 39-year-old was rushed by ambulance to a Florida medical center, she fought for her life alone.

Her partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn, said she was not allowed to see Pond for eight hours as she lay dying, and their children were never given the chance to say goodbye.

She said pleas to be at her partner's deathbed were not granted because the Lacey, Wash., couple were lesbians.

Langbehn has sued Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital and three medical professionals, alleging they "ignored" her needs and that of their legally adopted children and prevented her from making healthcare decisions.

"No one should die alone," Langbehn told ABCNews.com.

Langbehn said a social worker at the hospital informed her, "I need you to know this is an anti-gay city and a anti-gay state, and you are not going to get to see her or know her condition."

"I felt like I was being put on notice," said Langbehn, now 40 and a social worker herself. She immediately called a friend to fax health care proxies and a durable power of attorney but the hospital disregarded the documents.

The hospital, through its lawyers, denied that their social worker made any such comment and said that saving Pond's life was the doctors' top priority at the busy trauma center that serves the entire county. They said the couple was treated no differently than any other family in such circumstances.

Lesbian Files Lawsuit Against Hospital

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Southern Fla., alleges that the hospital staff was "motivated by anti-gay animus."

"From the moment Langbehn and the children arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital, they encountered prejudice and apathy," the suit claims.

Langbehn is being represented by the gay activist group Lambda Legal, which said the case could determine the way hospitals treat not only gay and lesbian patients, but unmarried heterosexuals and single people who rely on friends.

"Hospitals have policies that define how patients are treated," said Lambda's lawyer Beth Littrell. "Hospitals are to treat patients with dignity and not discriminate and allow the patients to define their own families."

But, with same-sex marriage legal in only five states, gay couples can receive inconsistent access to hospital visitation and decision-making rights, according to the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

And in Langbehn's case, even though the hospital may have open visitation, gatekeepers can interpret those policies differently.

"Due to a patchwork of state laws and differing hospital policies across the country, there are still many challenges in guaranteeing equal health treatment for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community," he told ABCNews.com.

Lesbians Denied Visitation

Pond had been the stay-at-home mother for their four adopted children, one of whom was not with them on vacation because he is living in a facility for disabled adults.

The family had just eaten lunch while the ship was still in port when Pond collapsed on the top deck while taking photos of the children, ages 9, 11 and 13.

Pond was rushed by ambulance to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial and the rest of the family followed in a taxi, arriving at the hospital at 3:30 p.m.

"But as soon as I pulled up [to the hospital] and got out with three young kids and seven pieces of luggage, I was stopped at the door: 'You need to take a seat,'" said Langbehn. "'Go through another door and park your luggage in a small waiting room.'"

There, the family sat during Pond's dying hours, except for two brief encounters with the doctors -- one to ask about a brain monitor and the other to report there was no hope left for Pond.

Langbehn was also allowed in Pond's room for five minutes to watch a priest give her the last rites, but she said her pleas to let the children see their mother were unsuccessful, even when she provided birth certificates.

"As that was happening, I kept thinking, I've got to get the kids back to her," said Langbehn. "They need to say goodbye to their mom."

When Pond's "real relative" -- her sister -- arrived just before midnight, Langbehn and the children were able to see her, though she was brain dead.

Despite providing legal health directives, Langbehn said, "Short of being straight, I don't know what I could have done differently."

But hospital officials argue they did treat Langbehn as Pond's legal partner, allowing her to make medical decisions, including organ donation.

They also said the hospital's general visitation policy does not discriminate against same-sex couples.

"It doesn't matter and no distinctions are made," said Robert Alonso, spokesman for the public trust that runs Jackson Memorial.

But in its Ryder Trauma Center, where Pond was treated, "there is no automatic visitation for anybody, no matter who you are," he told ABCNews.com.

There, visitation is restricted because of the nature of the level 1 trauma center -- the only one in Miami Dade County -- where doctors treat gunshot wounds, stabbings and other "horrific injuries," according to Alonso.

Same-Sex Couples Struggle

"Clearly, we embrace visitors in the health process," he said. "If there is any delay in a unit as intense as this one, care is delivered to the patient. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs or sexual orientation or background."

"There are some extreme allegations made that [doctors and staff] deliberately tried to harm people emotionally," said Alonso. "That is the only story being told. They were there trying to save her partner's life."

But in states like Florida, where same-sex marriage was outlawed last year in Constitutional amendment, many gay couples say they have to argue with hospital officials to visit their loved ones.

The Joint Commission, the national body that accredits hospitals, does not specifically address visitation policies, but it sets standards for addressing the "comfort and dignity" of both the patient and family in end-of-life care, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Zhani.

Standards also include respecting a patient's "cultural and personal values, beliefs and preferences."

Lambda lawyer Beth Littrell said hospitals need to recognize the legitimacy of same-sex relationships so that "loved ones are not kept apart when they need each other most."

Such was the case with Sharon Reed, another Washington resident who said she was repeatedly told to leave her dying partner's hospital room by a "temporary" night nurse in 2005.

Reed, who, like Langbehn, had all the legal directives to serve as her partner's health proxy, has filed a lawsuit against the employment agency that hired the nurse at Seattle's University of Washington Medical Center.

Her partner of 17 years, Jo Ann Ritchie, had been frequently hospitalized for a blood ailment and Reed had been allowed to stay at her side -- even in the intensive care unit, where she once spent the night.

"We were not strangers to the hospital," said Reed.

"The day before Jo died, she told me, 'I'm scared, don't leave me,'" said Reed, now 70 and a psychotherapist. "I promised I would stay with her, but every time I tried to see Jo [the nurse] would scream at me to get out of the room, 'You don't belong here.' She was very hostile from the beginning."

The hospital has liberal "24/7" visitation policies, according to Reed's lawyer, Judith A. Lonnquist, who filed a "torte of outrage" in King County Superior Court. "But this woman was from Tennessee and knew nothing about the cultural norms of the Northwest."

Today, Reed told ABCNews.com that she felt she had let her partner down at the end of life.

"Ours was the kind of relationship had been a dream of a lifetime for both of us," said Reed. "We had spent the last 17 years, buying a home, raising a child, being successful in our careers, having loyal friends and sharing time with our families."

"We absolutely adored each other and everybody knew it," she said.

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