Obama 'Understood' Says Woman Behind Patient-Visit Memo : The Two-Way While the president enlarges the class of people who could potentially be positively affected by his hospital-visit order to not just gays but elderly straights without family members as well as members of religious orders, a case known to have be...
NPR logo Obama 'Understood' Says Woman Behind Patient-Visit Memo

Obama 'Understood' Says Woman Behind Patient-Visit Memo

In NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro's Morning Edition report on President Barack Obama's signing of a memorandum that orders hospitals receiving federal Medicaid and Medicare dollars to allow same-sex visiting rights to patients and their significant others, Ari rightly notes that the document's language has more pathos than one typically finds in the Federal Register.

"The language in the memo is not boilerplate government bureaucrat-speak," Ari says.

Indeed, the memo not only describes in human terms the plight of same sex couples but of patients who happen to be childless widows and widowers and members of religious orders who also have been denied visits from friends, the Obama memo says.

There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean — a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them.

Yet 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. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. 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.

While the president enlarges the class of people who could potentially be positively affected by his hospital-visit order to not just gays but elderly straights without family members as well as members of religious orders, a case known to have been on his mind was that of Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond family, a gay couple from Washington State who had tragedy befall them during a 2007 Florida vacation.

Lambda Legal provides a good summary of the case:

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.

A court dismissed the lawsuit.

On a Langbehn's blog, she recounts the phone call she received Thursday from Obama on Air Force 1, more evidence that her family's case played a significant role in the memo coming to pass:

Well it is no joke from the days of the West Wing that if POTUS calls, you take it. Fortunately today I had a small window of a heads up from Lambda Legal — those people who have been in this fight for dignity since nearly the beginning.

And sure enough at 4:32 Pacific time, my cell rings, it says unknown — I was briefed to expect that — b/c what does the phone from Air Force 1 actually come up as? A gentleman introduced himself and asked if I had time to speak with the President. This is where I had been coached to not assume it was a crank call or a telemarketer. And sure enough the next voice I heard was the President himself. Humility surrounds me and the next 3 minutes of my life. For the past 3 years I have been speaking at large and small events — posting here on the blog and have been saying over and over — that holding someone's hand as they die is NOT a GAY right it's a HUMAN right — and today — President Barack Obama agreed with me. He knew Lisa's name, and he knew our story and offered the long awaited apology — that Jackson Memorial STILL refuses to give — why is that? — the President could.

In those short minutes of speaking with our President, it was clear he got the issue, and now in reading his memorandum, he understood what happened to Lisa, the kids and I was wrong on many level - especially on the HUMAN level. None of this brings Lisa back. But what it does do — for the next gay couple — is that hopefully if your partner is dying you wont be locked behind a door for 8 hours as they slip from this earth and not be allowed to say goodbye.