The April 9 incident of a Missouri man, Roger Gorley, being forcibly removed from the hospital bedside of his husband, Allen Mansell, once again brings into focus the consequences of laws such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 federal law restricting marriage benefits and cross-state marriage recognition to same-sex couples.
Same-sex married couples are denied more than 1,000 federal rights and benefits—including many medical benefits and protections —afforded to opposite-sex couples.
According to reports, Gorley was visiting his husband, a patient at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., when a family dispute occurred involving Gorley and his brother-in-law. Even though Mansell requested his spouse’s presence, and Gorley possesses medical power of attorney, security and police were called. Gorley was handcuffed and forcibly escorted from the premises. Gorley cites the couple’s sexual orientation as the cause for his removal. The American Civil Liberties Union is looking into the situation.
The Research Medical Center posted a public statement via their Facebook page stating, “In accordance with HIPAA, all Research Medical Center can report is that this is NOT a Gay Rights issue but an issue of disturbance where a patient was not able to get the care he needed.”
In February 2007, Janice Langbehn suffered a similar experience with her wife, Lisa Pond. The Washington residents and their children were on an R Family cruise when Pond suddenly collapsed and was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla. The 39-year-old—a Girl Scout leader, PTA volunteer and active participant at their local church—suffered a traumatic brain bleed. Langbehn, Pond’s partner and wife since 1988, was denied visitation. Pond died the next morning.
In direct response to the Langbehn-Pond family’s experience, President Obama sent a memo to the Secretary of Health and Human Services in April 2010 directing HHS to address hospital visitation and other health care issues surrounding the LGBT communities. The following November, HHS announced new regulations that broadened hospital visitation and banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, etc. The revised federal regulations took effect in January 2011.
However, with the Defense of Marriage Act on the books codifying the definition of marriage to exclude same-sex couples, it weakens efforts to safeguard rights such as hospital visitation. The U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating a portion of DOMA now, and a ruling expected in June.
Langbehn shares the details of her experience and thoughts regarding the future of LGBT rights.
Windy City Times: What was the situation when you arrived at the hospital?
Langbehn: It was me, our three kids (then ages 9, 11 and 12) and seven pieces of luggage. I went to admissions and asked the woman, “They just brought my partner in. Are there forms to fill out?” She told me to just sit down and wait. Being a medical social worker myself, I figured they were still getting things settled. About 10 minutes later, a gentlemen came out, Garnett Frederick, a social worker. He said in a warning tone, “Just so you know, you’re in an anti-gay city and state. You will not get to see her under any condition.”
[Langbehn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. Due to her medical situation, she and Lisa knew the importance of having advance directives, living wills, etc. They already possessed all the appropriate legal documents and Langbehn had them faxed to the hospital within 20 minutes of Frederick’s comments.]
WCT: How long before someone came to discuss Lisa’s status?
Langbehn: At about two hours in, a surgeon came out, scrubs and cap on, and said Lisa had a massive bleed in her brain and they needed to put a pressure monitor on her … I said to do it. He left and I didn’t see him again.
About an hour and half later, two surgeons came out and explained that she had a massive bleed that had pushed one side of her brain into the other. One pupil was already dilated, which meant there was already some brain death. They explained that surgery could drain some blood and we could wait and see, but they felt it likely wasn’t survivable with any quality of life. They received a page, left and came back to say that her other pupil had blown and the major part of her brain was dying.
In her living will, she didn’t want heroic measures, but she was an organ donor. I said that I needed to see her. I was making decisions in a vacuum. I needed to lay eyes on her to know that it was as dire as they said. The doctor told me they’d get me back there and then left. I never saw them again either.
WCT: When were you finally able to see her?
Langbehn: At about five and half hours into this ordeal, I said that I needed a priest to do last rites, what they now call anointing of the sick. I also wanted to see her first before the children so I would know what to explain and so they wouldn’t be terrified by the machines. When I finally saw her, I was trying to take everything in. Lisa was restrained to the bed, unconscious and on a ventilator. The trauma room/OR wasn’t busy. It was fairly quiet. After last rites were done, the priest gently guided me back to the waiting room and I never saw him again either.
By then I was getting a little frantic because I knew how serious it was. I kept saying that the kids needed to see her. The receptionist, who’d been telling me for six and half hours to sit down, became even more forceful and said, “Honey, they’re too young to see her anyway.” She told me to go sit down and they’d get me if I was needed.
At seven hours in, around 11:30 p.m., I finally let myself quietly cry a little. I felt so defeated.
[Lisa’s sister and brother-in-law drove from Jacksonville immediately after Langbehn notified them of Lisa’s collapse. They met Langbehn at reception and were told that Lisa had been moved to ICU over an hour earlier. No one had informed Langbehn.]
WCT: Did the hospital administration’s attitude change after Lisa’s sister arrived?
Langbehn: I really don’t know what would have happened if her sister hadn’t arrived or if I would’ve had to wait until her dad arrived the next day.
At 12:15 p.m., that was the first time I was able to hold her hand and stand next to her. It was the first time the kids saw her since 3 p.m. that afternoon.
Lisa was pronounced (brain) dead at 10:45 a.m. the next morning.
WCT: You’ve been a tireless advocate and spokesperson to raise awareness. Are most people shocked to learn this happened so recently?
Langbehn: There is a sense of disbelief that this could happen in 2007, that somebody—multiple people—could be that cruel. Holding the hand of your loved one as they’re dying is not a gay right, it’s a human right. Lisa should have been able to feel and perceive us as much as possible so we could make her last moments peaceful. What remains in my mind is that she was alone and restrained to a gurney. How horrible. That’s how I remember her last moments.
WCT: Lambda Legal, an organization that works on behalf of civil rights for the LGBT communities, filed suit against Jackson Memorial Hospital in 2008. The federal court dismissed the lawsuit. What was the reason for the lawsuit’s dismissal?
Langbehn: In the judge’s opinion, he cited that because of the five minutes I saw her with the priest (during last rites), that was all the duty of visitation the trauma center owed me since we weren’t a legally married couple. Also, because the surgeon consulted me about possible surgery while in the quiet room, that was all that was owed me and therefore did not violate power of attorney. However, he also said that, by all accounts, what happened to us was unbecoming of such a renowned institution.
WCT: Many states, including Washington, already have legislation that protects couples against experiencing your medical situation with Lisa. Especially considering the Supreme Court hearing regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, why is it important to have more universal standards?
Langbehn: We live in a society of planes, trains and automobiles. We’re a movable society. What (rights), domestic partnerships and so on that might be recognized in a state such as Washington, may not be recognized somewhere else such as Florida. As soon as you go to another state on vacation, your rights stop at the border. This patchwork of rights throughout the United States is crazy. When DOMA is finally stripped down, it will mean that when you say “this is my wife” here (in Washington), it will mean the same thing (legally) in Kansas, Alabama and California.
In October 2011, Langbehn was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, nation’s second-highest civilian honor for her ongoing advocacy.