February 9, 2009
Doctor: Is she your sister?
Willow: She’s my everything.
–Buffy the Vampire Slayer 5:19, “Tough Love”
Nearly a year ago now I spent a week in the hospital with my mother as she underwent cancer treatments. Every morning I went downstairs to retrieve a wheelchair with which I would deliver Mom to her appointments. Mom had introduced me as her daughter to just about everyone we encountered upon our arrival and afterward, and our relationship was accepted as a given. No one ever asked me what I was doing pushing an empty wheelchair into an elevator or walking to the food court by myself. I never had to prove my relationship with my mother – which was rather handy, considering that we have different last names and I don’t generally travel with my birth certificate.
I thought of that hospital experience I came across this story over the weekend. It is the sort of story that is becoming terribly, heartbreakingly, familiar:
As her partner of 17 years slipped into a coma, Janice Langbehn pleaded with doctors and anyone who would listen to let her into the woman’s hospital room.
Eight anguishing hours passed before Langbehn would be allowed into Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center. By then, she could only say her final farewell as a priest performed the last rites on 39-year-old Lisa Marie Pond.
Jackson staffers advised Langbehn that she could not see Pond earlier because the hospital’s visitation policy in cases of emergency was limited to immediate family and spouses — not partners. In Florida, same-sex marriages or partnerships are not recognized. On Friday, two years after her partner’s death, Langbehn and her attorneys were in federal court, claiming emotional distress and negligence in a suit they filed last June.
My knee-jerk reaction to this story was: this is why we need same-sex marriage. Upon further reflection, though, it’s clear to me that the situation is far more complex than that. I think the root of the problem really lies with a limited definition of family – generally restricted, as it was at Jackson Memorial Hospital, to “immediate family and spouses.” That definition excludes more than just long-term partners – what about, for example, situations in which a grandparent or aunt or uncle stepped in as a child’s primary caregiver, and that child is now an adult? If the (adult) child is in a car accident, shouldn’t that grandparent or aunt or uncle be allowed to see their loved one? Furthermore, what about step-parents, or people whose family aren’t related to them by blood or romantic relationships?
I also thought about identification in emergency situations. As a general rule, if someone says, “You have to let me see him; he’s my husband/brother/father,” do people at the hospital take them at their word, or do they ask to see some sort of ID? What if, as I alluded to before, the last names are different? If Janice Langbehn had just told the people at the hospital that Lisa Marie Pond was her sister, would that have solved the problem?
I appreciate that hospitals have these policies because they want to protect their patients (at least ostensibly). I don’t have any suggestions as to how hospitals could accommodate expanding definitions of “family” while still keeping patients safe and un-harassed (though that begs further questions: what if the patient is estranged from their immediate family? What if their spouse is abusive?). Still, I can’t help but feel that these policies – or at least their enforcement – have a judgmental feel to them, that hospital officials consider themselves the arbiters of what is and isn’t family. And it seems to me that the only people that ought to be making that decision are the family members themselves.