Imagine having only five minutes to say goodbye to your dying husband or wife of nearly two decades. Imagine being a 10-year-old girl and being physically blocked from saying a last, “I love you,” to your mother, who is just down the hall at the hospital. This may sound unconscionable, but it happened, just as described, to the Langbehn-Pond family at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
As reported in The Miami Herald by Steve Rothaus, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed the lawsuit filed against Jackson Memorial Hospital by the family. As a society, we should not dismiss it. Their story is about the fragility of human rights. It underscores how vulnerable and unprotected gay people are in society.
Lisa Marie Pond and Janice Langbehn were together for 18 years, the majority of their adult lives. They were two moms raising four children. They were a loving family.
In honor of their anniversary, Janice surprised her family with a cruise. On Feb. 18, 2007 they boarded the Norwegian Jewel in the Port of Miami. Shortly after boarding, Lisa, a healthy 39-year-old, suffered a brain aneurysm and had to be rushed to a local hospital.
The admitting clerk and a hospital social worker refused to let Janice and the children see Lisa. Janice has stated that a hospital social worker told her “that she should not expect to be provided information or access because she was in an anti-gay city and state.”
Doctors at the hospital told Janice that there was no medical reason why she could not be with Lisa. For eight grueling hours, she was repeatedly denied details and visitation. There should have been no doubt that Janice was Lisa’s family, and the hospital had the legal documents with Lisa’s directives.
Lisa was allegedly semi-conscious and responsive at the time of her arrival at Jackson and for several hours afterward. She had to be put in restraints because she did not have a family member with her. When a priest arrived to administer Lisa’s last rites, Janice was allowed to spend five minutes holding her partner’s hand.
This is a heartbreaking and inhumane story that highlights the need for tolerance and understanding over prejudice and discrimination. As a mother, a partner and a social worker, I feel deeply affected by this case particularly because the events mirror my own experiences. Coincidently, I was on that cruise with my family. It was an RFamily cruise sponsored by Rosie and Kelly O’Donnell to celebrate gay families.
Ten years ago, my life partner had a similar head trauma when we were on a family ski vacation in Colorado. She fell while snowboarding and suffered a subdural hemorrhage, the same head trauma that killed actress Natasha Richardson. The emergency-room nurse let me in without hesitation. It never crossed my mind that I might be denied access to my partner because we were gay. I was able to hold her hand as she asked me to make sure our nine-month-old son would be OK.
My partner survived. I am so sorry Lisa did not. I am horrified by what her partner and their children had to endure. She and her family will be forever in my thoughts and prayers.
Unable to make any progress with the inhumane gatekeepers at Jackson the night Lisa lay dying alone, Janice described going outside and screaming into the Miami night. I look out at that same night sky now and think of Janice.
These are Janice’s own words from a speech she gave last year in California: “No one should have been able to deny our children and [me] 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.”
Joanna Grover lives in Miami.