Kept From a Dying Partner’s Bedside
Karie Hamilton for The New York Times
Aggrieved Janice Langbehn, with her children, Danielle, 15; David, 13; and Katie, 12 (back to camera), has sued the hospital that treated her partner.
By TARA PARKER-POPE
Published: May 18, 2009
When a loved one is in the hospital, you naturally want to be at the bedside. But what if the staff won’t allow it?
That’s what Janice Langbehn, a social worker in Lacey, Wash., says she experienced when her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond, collapsed with an aneurysm during a Florida vacation and was taken to a Miami trauma center. She died there, at age 39, as Ms. Langbehn tried in vain to persuade hospital officials to let her visit, along with the couple’s adopted children.
“I have this deep sense of failure for not being at Lisa’s bedside when she died,” Ms. Langbehn said. “How I get over that I don’t know, or if I ever do.”
The case, now the subject of a federal lawsuit in Florida, is being watched by gay rights groups, which say same-sex partners often report being excluded from a patient’s room because they aren’t “real” family members.
And lawyers say the case could affect the way hospitals treat all patients with nonmarital relationships, including older people who choose not to marry, unmarried heterosexual couples and single people who rely on the support of close friends rather than relatives.
One point of contention in the lawsuit is whether a hospital has a legal duty to its patients to always give visiting rights to their designated family members and surrogates.
Robert Alonso, a spokesman for the public trust that runs the Miami hospital, Jackson Memorial, said it typically did not comment on pending litigation, but added that the hospital grants visitation if it doesn’t interfere with other emergency care. “The primary legal point is that the amount of visitation allowed in a trauma emergency room should be decided by the surgeons and nurses treating the patients,” he said.
A similar lawsuit is under way in Washington State, where Sharon Reed says she was denied access to her partner of 17 years, Jo Ann Ritchie, who was dying of liver failure. Although the hospital had liberal visitation policies, a night nurse from an employment agency insisted that Ms. Reed leave her partner’s room, the lawsuit says.
“One of the things her partner said to her was, ‘I’m afraid of dying. Don’t leave me alone,’ ” said Judith A. Lonnquist, a lawyer for Ms. Reed. “That’s why the suffering was so enormous — she felt as if her partner was thinking she had betrayed her trust.”
In both cases, the couples had prepared for a medical emergency, creating living wills, advanced directives and power-of-attorney documents.
As recounted by Ms. Langbehn, the details of the Miami episode are harrowing. It began in February 2007, when the family — including three children, then ages 9, 11 and 13 — traveled there for a cruise. After boarding the ship, Ms. Pond collapsed while taking pictures of the children playing basketball.
The children managed to help her back to the family’s room. Fortunately, the ship was still docked, and an ambulance took Ms. Pond to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial. Ms. Langbehn and the children followed in a taxi, arriving around 3:30 p.m.
Ms. Langbehn says that a hospital social worker informed her that she was in an “antigay city and state” and that she would need a health care proxy to get information. (The worker denies having made the statement, Mr. Alonso said.) As the social worker turned to leave, Ms. Langbehn stopped him. “I said: ‘Wait a minute. I have those health care proxies,’ ” she said. She called a friend to fax the papers.
The medical chart shows that the documents arrived around 4:15 p.m., but nobody immediately spoke to Ms. Langbehn about Ms. Pond’s condition. During her eight-hour stay in the trauma unit waiting room, Ms. Langbehn says, she had two brief encounters with doctors. Around 5:20 a doctor sought her consent for a “brain monitor” but offered no update about the patient’s condition. Around 6:20, two doctors told her there was no hope for a recovery.
Despite repeated requests to see her partner, Ms. Langbehn says she was given just one five-minute visit, when a priest administered last rites. She says she continued to plead with a hospital worker that the children be allowed to see their mother, even showing the children’s birth certificates.
“I said to the receptionist, ‘Look, they’re her kids,’ ” Ms. Langbehn said. (Mr. Alonso, the hospital spokesman, says that except in special circumstances, children under 14 are not allowed to visit in the trauma unit.)
Ms. Langbehn says she was repeatedly told to keep waiting. Then, at 11:30 p.m., Ms. Pond’s sister arrived at the unit. According to the lawsuit, the hospital workers immediately told her that Ms. Pond had been moved an hour earlier to the intensive care unit and provided her room number.
At midnight, Ms. Langbehn says, her exhausted children were finally able to visit their unconscious mother. Ms. Pond was declared brain-dead at 10:45 that morning, and her heart, kidneys and liver were donated to four patients.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Langbehn is being represented by Lambda Legal, a gay rights group. “We want to send a message to hospitals,” said Beth Littrell, a lawyer for the group. “If they don’t treat families as such, if they don’t let patients define their own circle of intimacy and give them the dignity and care to be with their loved ones in this sort of crisis, then they will be held accountable.”
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