Posted by: The Last Liberal Gwinnettian | May 19, 2009

Love makes the world go ’round…Unless you’re in the hospital.

We too often hear about gay and lesbian partnerships that are ripped to shreds when a person becomes ill and his or her partner is banned from the bedside. It is an atrocity that occurs regularly in hospitals across the country. I feel that homosexual couples ought to be guaranteed the same legal rights as any heterosexual couple. However, gay and lesbian couples are not the only ones who suffer from hospital definitions of “family”.

Currently, there is a pending law suit in Florida dealing with the plight of Janice Langbehn, whose partner of 18 years passed away roughly two years ago:

Just as Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond were about to depart from Miami on a family cruise with their three children, Pond suddenly collapsed. From the moment Langbehn and the children arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital, they encountered prejudice and apathy. Even though Langbehn held Pond’s durable health care power of attorney, the hospital refused to accept information from Langbehn regarding Pond’s medical history. The hospital also informed her that she was in an antigay city and state and that she could expect to receive no information or acknowledgment as family. A doctor finally spoke with Langbehn, telling her that there was no chance of recovery. Despite the doctor’s acknowledgment that no medical reason existed to prevent visitation, neither Langbehn nor her children were allowed to see Pond until nearly eight hours after their arrival. Soon after Pond’s death, Langbehn attempted to obtain her death certificate in order to get life insurance and Social Security benefits for her children. She was denied both by the state of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner. Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against Jackson Memorial Hospital, on behalf of Janice Langbehn and her three children.

This is a story that we have all heard time and time again – the tragedy of such circumstances does not diminish with repetition. However, it is time to recognize that this is a plight shared by non-married heterosexual couples and single men and women of all sexual preferences. As this New York Times article phrased it, “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.”

This is an issue that is very close to my heart.

In June 2008, my best friend and live-in boyfriend had an accident that resulted in a Traumatic Brain Injury. He had a simple fall and hit his head, causing his brain to swell dramatically. I was with him at the time of his accident, I followed the ambulance to the hospital, and I was the one to contact his family. From the moment his parents arrived at the hospital, I was completely and utterly shut out of everything. Because we were not married, I made no attempts to interfere with the medical aspects of his treatment – though I felt that I knew him best and would have been qualified to make his decisions for him, I recognized that I had no legal rights in that arena. I also recognized his parents’ pain and did not wish to make the situation any more difficult for them. All that I asked was that they keep me informed regarding his progress, or lack thereof.

Instead, I was treated with contempt. When my boyfriend underwent emergency brain surgery to remove a flap of his skull and some necrosed parts of his brain, I was told that he was resting and stable. I actually went to the hospital, having no idea that he was in the operating room. I had no intention of attempting to visit him against his parents orders, and I simply wanted to sit in the waiting room so that I could be closer to him. His mother watched while his aunt forcibly removed me from the waiting room — which, last I checked, was a public place. I didn’t hear of his surgery until a full 24 hours later. From that point on, I was not allowed any medical updates or visitation for over three months. Even after I was allowed to visit him, I was never given any medical information.

While much of this was the direct result of his parents’ attitude toward me and the life that their son led, the hospital was entirely complicit in this. I was the one that his parents had to ask about their son’s eating habits, sleeping habits, drinking habits, and so on, yet I was never once able to speak to one of his doctors. Once I was finally allowed to visit him, I befriended one or two of the nurses in the nursing home, yet even they were under strict orders not to share anything with me. I am aware that medical staff are restricted by incredibly tight privacy laws, but sometimes a protecting a patient’s privacy can cause indirect harm to the patient by cutting loved ones out of the recovery and treatment process.

I knew this man for ten years. I had lived with him for a year. We were financially and legally tied together in several accounts and a lease. We were incredibly emotionally close, and we depended on each other in every way. I had planned to spend my life with him, and his family couldn’t find it in their hearts to tell me how bad his prognosis really was.

He spent ten months in a coma. He passed in April, and I wasn’t even allowed at his funeral – though the staff from the nursing home (none of whom had ever met him prior to his accident) all attended.

Now, my situation was made terrible by a family that refused to understand that their son was an adult with a family of his own – a family made up of incredibly close friends, which is unfortunately not good enough to be recognized by any hospital. But how many people have fallen ill or been involved in accidents and then been unable to see the people they care for most? How many single people rely on their close friends for emotional support rather than their blood relatives? How many people share their lives with people who they are not legally tied to?

At the risk of sounding a bit like an unwashed hippy, why isn’t love enough? Why must “family” have a legal definition? Why can’t “family” be defined by the love two people feel for one another rather than by a sheet of paper?

I hope that this court case is successful, not for me or others like me, but because people who are ill or injured deserve to be visited by everyone who cares for them.



  1. A Note from the Author:

    I recognize that this leaves the question of where the line should be drawn. That is an issue for another day, AFTER the courts recognize that our current system is inadequate.

  2. These situations are so disturbing… particularly the Miami case.
    I’ve seen cases such as yours, where someone has a relationship, but when ill and unable to speak for him/her self has family – sometimes estranged and homophobic – come take over decisions.

    My experience with our intown Atlanta hospitals has been more positive, but in these situations the patient was at least initially able to speak for themself and specify who was authorized to be informed, etc.

    I’m shocked this Miami case happened at JMH– sounds more like what I’d expect from some Podunk County General. Apparently I don’t have quite the right picture of Miami.

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