this past monday I was invited to speak at SU Law school by Jason Lantz. A wonderful bright young man from Kansas that had heard my story and wanted me to speak during the Law and Justice week. Below – as I traditionally do – is my speech. It was probably the most difficult to give – since the negative ruling in our case but I knew I needed to do it. More than anything I hope I changed some hearts and minds of those young law students to realize what can happen in our own country when 2 people just want to love one another. Again thank you to Jason for inviting me and thanks to Judi O’Kelley from Lambda for helping and supporting me while I spoke.
Good Afternoon, I am Janice Langbehn. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you during your Law and Justice week. In trying to prepare for today’s speech and express to you how family equality is essential I am saddened to think the only reason I am speaking today because my partner died.
Some of you may have heard our story. On October 12, 2006 – 3 yrs ago today, Lisa and I were celebrating our 15th Holy Union anniversary and nearly 18yrs together as a couple. As a surprise for Lisa and the kids, I bought a cruise with Rfamily (Rosie O’Donnell) to celebrate.
In February 2007, my partner, Lisa Pond, and I arrived in Miami, Florida with three of our adopted children to realize a family dream – a weeklong vacation on RFamily Cruises. As we boarded the Norwegian Jewel, Kelli O’Donnell greeted us and had our picture taken. None of us realized it would be one of our last family photographs. We also did not anticipate the unimaginable homophobia and inhumane treatment we would be faced with just a few hours later. While I unpacked in our cabin, Lisa, my partner of 18 years took our kids Danielle, David and Katie up to the top deck to play basketball. Just a short time later the kids were banging on the stateroom door saying, “Mommy was hurt!” I opened the door, and took one look at Lisa and knew the situation was very serious. As a medical social worker for many years, I have seen people in critical condition. I knew that my life partner was gravely ill. As the ship was about to leave, we had no choice but to seek medical help in an unfamiliar city. After local medics arrived, we hurried off the ship to the closest hospital in Miami, Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The kids and I, hauling a week’s worth of luggage for five, arrived just before the ambulance carrying Lisa. I tried to follow the gurney into the trauma bay but was stopped by the trauma team meeting Lisa and told to go to the waiting area. I did as I was told and a short while later a social worker appeared to inform me that I was – and I quote – “in an anti-gay city and state.” He explained that this meant that I would not be allowed to see Lisa or make decisions about her care without a Health Care Proxy. I asked for his name and fax number and within 20 minutes I had contacted close friends in Olympia, WA who raced to our house, found all our legal documents including our Durable Power of Attorney, Living Wills and Advance Directives and fax them to the hospital. I never imagined as I paced that tiny waiting room that I would not see Lisa’s bright blue eyes again or hold her warm, loving hands.
Feeling helpless as I continued to wait, I attempted to sneak back into the trauma bay but all the doors to the trauma area had key codes, preventing me from entering. Sitting alone with our luggage, our children and my thoughts, I watched numbly as other families were invited back into the trauma center to visit with their loved ones. I was still waiting to hear what was happening with Lisa, realizing as the time passed that I was not being allowed to see her and if the social worker’s words were any indication it was because we were gay. Anger, despair and disbelief wracked my brain as I tried to figure out a way to find out what was going on with Lisa. I finally thought to call our family doctor back in Olympia to see if she could find out what was happening. While on the phone with our doctor in Olympia, a surgeon appeared. The surgeon told me that Lisa, who was just 39 years old, had suffered massive bleeding in her brain from an aneurysm. The surgeon asked me for consent to place a pressure monitor in her brain. It was only then, hours after the documents had been faxed, that I knew that they had been received by the hospital. A short while later, two more surgeons appeared and explained the massive bleed in Lisa’s brain gave her little chance to survive and if she did it would be in a persistent vegetative state. Lisa had made me promise to her over and over in our 18 years together to never allow this to happen to her. I let the surgeons know Lisa wishes, which were also spelled out in her Living Wills and Advance Directive. I was promised by the doctors that I would be brought to see Lisa. Yet I was still waiting when a hospital chaplain appeared. I politely requested a Catholic Priest be brought in to administer Lisa’s Last Rites. The chaplain offered to pray with me, and I remember staring at her wondering – what did she think I had been doing for the last several hours but praying? The true tragedy really came over the next five hours. With the priest, I recited the ritual of the Last Rites and prayed for Lisa and held her hand for the first time since she arrived at Ryder Trauma Center. Following my few minutes with Lisa, the priest ushered me out to the waiting room again. After finally seeing Lisa, I knew our children and I needed to be with her and I asked over and over if we could go back again and was repeatedly told by hospital staff, “No”. In those five hours, Lisa lay at Ryder Trauma Center moving toward brain death and yet no one was there to hold her hand and talk to her and tell her how much she was loved. Jackson Memorial Hospital, in their inability or unwillingness to recognize us as a family with legally adopted children, forced Lisa to be alone in her last moments of life. I used every tactic I could think of to be with her, to bring our children to her yet five hours after they stopped life-saving measures we still sat in that small waiting room. I showed hospital staff our children’s birth certificates with Lisa’s name on them and was told they were “too young to visit”. I thought to myself “how old do you need to be to say goodbye to your mother”? In those hours of waiting and trying to calm our children, explaining to them that their “other” mom was dying and would go to Heaven, I felt like a failure. It wasn’t until Lisa was officially declared brain dead on Monday February 19, 2007 at 10:45am and individuals from the Organ Donation Agency became involved did I finally feel validated as a spouse and partner. They talked directly with me and allowed me to choose which organs would be donated and allowed me to sign all the consent forms. From her death – she saved 4 lives through organ donation, and the children and I were so fortunate to meet Jerry, the man with Lisa heart with the help of Lambda Legal.
It is only now, two and half years after Lisa’s death that I can gain more perspective and with that insight has come anger and disbelief at how we were treated. Lisa and I were together 18 years, had become foster parents for the State of Washington when we were just 23 and 24 years old. We fostered 25 children and adopted 4 special needs children from WA State foster care. Lisa was a “stay-at-home mom” and very involved in our children’s lives from teaching all our children’s first communion classes to volunteering at their schools, sitting on the PTSA for 2 years and serving as our daughters’ Girl Scout leader for 8 years. Her troop was so popular it swelled to 26 girls at one point. Lisa was a saint on this earth.
Truly until February 18, 2007, I cannot think of many times we felt out of place as a gay household. However, I now believe that any family – however they may define themselves – has the human right to be together is at the time of death. Yet, in our situation not only were we not validated as family we were actually shunned. All because, as the social worker made very clear, I was in an anti-gay state. It was through this helplessness and my pleas for an apology for 6 months fell on deaf ears at Jackson Memorial that I turned to Lambda Legal for advice. Making the call to LAMBDA legal was a life changing experience for the children and Without Lambda legal, our story may have been only a one-time headline and likely little would have changed. It was through their wisdom and determination that we filed a lawsuit in Florida South District Federal court in June 2008. Already, my own health plan here in WA state – Group Health Cooperative, has written a letter to our family saying they reviewed all their internal policies to make sure that what happened to our family in Miami would never happen in a Group Health Facility to another family.
My hope for bringing the suit against JMH was to shed light on how LGBT families are treated even with the proper paperwork, that we often are second-class citizens. I have tried since Lisa’s death to raise awareness that holding your loved one’s hand as they are dying is not a “gay” right but rather a basic human right. Jackson Memorial stole that time from Lisa, our children and me. I speak out for family equality and basic human rights. I believe with all my heart, that at the hour of Lisa’s death, no one should have been able to deny our children and myself the ability to say goodbye to Lisa and let her know – if only be holding her hand – that she was so loved. That should not be a privilege in our country but a basic human right of every family regardless of how they define themselves.
Last week, our family was dealt a huge blow when Judge Jordan sided with the hospital and dismissed our lawsuit. It has stunned me and left me to question if I have done the right thing by speaking out about the horrible treatment we received. After consulting with the amazing team of attorneys on our case, it was decided that we will not appeal to the 11th circuit court given it’s extremely narrow views and the fear of negative precedent that court may set.
In Judge Jordan’s opinion he did say the following
“If the plaintiffs’ allegations are true, which I assume that they are when deciding the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the defendants’ lack of sensitivity and attention to Ms.Langbehn, Ms. Pond, and their children caused them needless distress during a time of vulnerability. The defendants’ failure to provide Ms. Langbehn and her children frequent updates on Ms. Pond’sstatus, to allow Ms. Langbehn and her children to visit Ms. Pond after emergency medical careceased; to inform Ms. Langbehn that Ms. Pond had been transferred to the intensive care unit, and to provide Ms. Langbehn Ms. Pond’s medical records as she requested, exhibited a lack of compassion and was unbecoming of a renowned trauma center like Ryder. Unfortunately, no relief is available for these failures based on the allegations plead in the amended complaint.”
If you remember nothing else from today, I hope you have come to understand that even with legal paperwork it is a reality that someone can leave this earth completely alone even though their loved ones are just 20 feet away. No family should have endured what we did that night in Miami at Jackson Memorial Hospital. It was wrong, insensitive and a defining moment for my family that can never be replaced or forgiven. And the justice we sought through our country’s legal system has failed our family.