As Lisa Pond lay dying from a brain aneurysm in a Florida hospital, Janice Langbehn and their young children were kept from Pond's side.
The uncaring and unaccepting hospital staff refused to recognize Langbehn and Pond’s 18-year relationship as lesbian partners.
Langbehn, a Lacey resident, recently received a telephone call from President Barack Obama as he was flying aboard Air Force One. The president told Langbehn that he is ordering most hospitals to recognize gay and lesbian partners and allow them hospital visitation rights and the ability to make medical decisions.
The president’s directive is a positive step forward that recognizes the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.
According to the Washington Post, the president was moved by the Langbehn-Pond family’s ordeal. Obama personally called Langbehn to offer his condolences and announce the new policy.
The president said he has instructed Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius to draft rules requiring hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments to grant all patients the right to designate people who can visit and consult with them at crucial moments. Obama told Sebelius that the designated visitors should have the same rights that immediate family members now enjoy. Hospitals may not deny visitation and consultation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The new policy is a victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans who have been treated as second-class citizens.
“This is a critical step in ending discrimination against LGBT families and ensuring that, in the event of a hospital stay, all Americans have the right to see their loved ones,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
That wasn’t what happened to Langbehn in February 2007.
At that time Langbehn, Pond and their children Katie, David and Danielle, ages 10 to 13, were set for a relaxing cruise from Miami to the Bahamas. While on board the ship, Pond suddenly collapsed.
For the first eight hours that Pond was being treated at University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital, Langbehn said, she and the children were barred from spending time with Pond. The hospital refused to recognize Langbehn or their jointly adopted children as part of Pond’s family. They were not allowed to be with Pond in the emergency room, and Langbehn’s authority to make decisions for Pond was not recognized. Pond lapsed into a coma before the family was reunited.
Circumstances changed only after Pond’s sister arrived from Jacksonville and gave her permission for Langbehn and the kids to be at Pond’s side. Hospital officials also recognized Langbehn and Pond as a couple when they accepted Langbehn’s signature on the organ donation consent forms.
“I want people to be able to hold their partner’s hand in their moment of death,” Langbehn said after returning to Lacey. “It never would have been on my radar that we wouldn’t be allowed to say goodbye. When I was an emergency room social worker at Mary Bridge (Children’s Hospital and Health Center in Tacoma), if someone had said they were an aunt or a partner, I would have let them say their last goodbyes.”
Langbehn’s story and cause were taken up by gay rights advocacy groups. She and her three children enlisted Lambda Legal, which advocates for gay rights, to file a federal lawsuit against the hospital.
Echoing what happened to Langbehn, Obama said: “Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides — whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay. Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend.”
“Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans, who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.”
Without the expanded visitor-designation rights, Obama said, “all too often, people are made to suffer or even to pass away alone, denied the comfort of companionship in their final moments while a loved one is left worrying and pacing down the hall.”
Langbehn and her children can take a small amount of self-satisfaction from the knowledge that their plight and separation from their loved one has helped change a national policy so no other family will have to go through the same situation. For that, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude.