Visitation rights: Lacey resident wants equality in hospitals after death of her partner
VENICE BUHAIN; The Olympian |
It’s been more than two years since Lacey resident Lisa Pond died of a brain aneurysm in a Florida hospital, but her life partner, Janice Langbehn, cannot let go of the circumstances surrounding that day.
Langbehn and Pond, who had been a couple for 18 years, were with three of their four children in Miami, getting ready for a cruise when Pond suddenly collapsed.
For the first eight hours that Pond was being treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Langbehn says, she and the children were barred from spending time with Pond. That changed when Pond’s sister arrived from Jacksonville.
“I’m still deep in grief,” Langbehn said.
“I play it over and over in my mind – from the ship when she collapsed to when she was in Jackson Memorial. How the hell did I not get back there? She was in a coma by the time I saw her. I feel like I did such a disservice to her.”
Langbehn’s story and cause have been taken up by gay rights advocacy groups. She and her three children also have enlisted Lambda Legal, which advocates for gay rights, to file a federal lawsuit against the hospital, saying that the hospital staff’s refusal to allow visitation caused emotional damage to Langbehn and the children and exacerbated Langbehn’s multiple sclerosis symptoms.
The hospital says it has a nondiscrimination policy. The lawsuit is still pending in federal court.
There is no monetary value attached to the suit, said Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell, but if Langbehn wins the case, it could force hospitals to recognize same-sex couples as family.
“This would be a precedent-setting case for Florida and we would hope that a good ruling in our favor would extend beyond the state border of Florida,” Littrell said.
Pond’s sudden death at 39 shocked Langbehn, who had met her partner while they were students at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. They committed to each other in a church in 1991.
Pond had been healthy and active and worked as a Girl Scout troop leader, a special-education assistant at Lacey’s Woodland Elementary, and a first communion teacher at St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia.
“In 16 years, she went to our doctors three times,” Langbehn said.
“That a 39-year-old healthy person could suddenly die and have absolutely no symptoms,” she said. “Some of her closer friends. … They are still rocked by it.”
Langbehn and Pond had made a home in Lacey, fostering 22 children and adopting four: Katie, now 12; David, now 13; Danielle, now 15; and Michael, a young adult.
Langbehn says their South Sound community has shown a lot of support since Pond’s death.
Families from Olympia Waldorf School, where two of their children still attend, continue to help the family out as Langbehn battles with complications from MS.
“People from other classes than Katie’s and David’s are helping. One person sends out a Google calendar – I need someone helping with cooking – and all the days are signed up already. Waldorf has stuck by my side and the kids’ side and it’s just been amazing,” she said.
The family also has received support through a new-found community of people who heard their story through the media or through her speeches to rights groups.
“I’m humbled that people care, even two years later. And they express their sympathy, not just to Lisa, because she died alone, but also to the kids, for not being able to say goodbye,” she said.
Langbehn said some well-meaning well-wishers ask her why she didn’t tell the hospital that they were sisters when Pond fell ill.
“I’m sorry – Lisa and I never lied about our relationship in 18 years,” Langbehn said. “It didn’t even occur to me to lie about it.”
The civil suit alleges that the hospital staff declined to recognize Langbehn as Pond’s family when they first arrived, did not advise the family that Pond was transferred to another unit until Pond’s sister arrived, and did not give updates or provide any assistance to Langbehn or their children.
Langbehn said the hospital allowed her to make medical decisions for her partner, but the family was not allowed to visit until Pond’s sister came to the hospital. The suit says that the hospital has provided no medical reason for the lack of access.
Hospital spokeswoman Lorraine Nelson said in an e-mail last month that Jackson Health System does not comment on pending litigation, but she said that the hospital has nondiscriminatory visitation policies.
“I can tell you that JHS has no policy restricting visitation on account of a person’s sexual orientation,” she wrote. “Jackson grants visitation to ALL individuals equally, no matter who they are and regardless of their relationship to the patient. Visitation is limited only by the nature of the medical care being provided to the patient or other patients in the area, and all patients’ privacy concerns.”
Nelson said that access to patients is limited in some hospital units because of the type of care being provided.
Littrell, the Lambda Legal attorney, said married couples don’t need to carry around their marriage certificates. But for same-sex couples, being treated as family by hospital staff sometimes is a matter of having all their legal ducks in a row.
“Instead of saying that’s my wife or that’s my partner, and having the doors open, you need all these documents – and getting in front of the right people,” Littrell said.
Langbehn said she had legal paperwork with her in Florida proving that she and Pond were the parents of their children, and she had a friend send by fax the documents showing that Pond had authorized Langbehn to make medical decisions on her behalf.
Though Langbehn’s case is about only hospital visitation, Littrell said that if same-sex couples had marriage equality, then many of the issues that the family faced that February day in 2007 would not have occurred.
“Janice would have been escorted back to be by her life’s love’s side, as happened with the other heterosexual couples that day and every day, without question,” Littrell said. “Lisa would not have died alone, and Janice would not forever feel the guilt and pain that followed from her inability to ease her partner over to the other side and to make sure that her voice, and the voice of Lisa’s children, were able to ease Lisa’s suffering.”
Right now, seven states, including Washington, have domestic partner laws that give at least some legal recognition to registered same-sex partners. Four states either do or soon will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. New York recognizes same-sex marriages, though same-sex couples cannot get married in that state.
Eight of those laws were adopted since 2007.
But 43 states, including Washington and Florida, have statutes or state constitutions that define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
And last year, voters in California, Florida and Arizona passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriages. All three ballot measures were approved well above the margins needed to pass those amendments.
In a motion to dismiss Langbehn’s suit, Jackson Memorial’s lawyers argue that even if the hospital staff wanted to recognize Langbehn as a spouse, it is barred by a Florida law that disallows the recognition of same-sex marriage “for any purpose.”
“[T]he alleged statement that Florida and the City of Miami are ‘anti-gay,’ is an accurate characterization of Florida law in the context of health care advance directives,” the motion argues. “Indeed, Florida is one of only four states that categorically refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.”
The suit is winding its way through the federal courts. And in the meantime, Langbehn has been invited to tell her story to many high-profile groups that aim to end discrimination against gays and lesbians, including the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, the Family Equality Council, and the St. Petersburg Pride Parade.
“Ultimately, however you define your family, what happened to our family should never happen to another family again,” Langbehn said. “And that’s my goal.”