OLYMPIA — Four months ago, Lacey resident Janice Langbehn, her partner Lisa Pond and their children Katie, David and Danielle, ages 10 to 13, were set for a relaxing cruise from Miami to the Bahamas.
But Pond, Langbehn’s partner for nearly 18 years, was stricken in Miami with a brain aneurysm and died. The family says the way they were treated by hospital staff compounded their shock and grief.
Langbehn, a social worker, said officials at the University of Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital did not recognize her or their jointly adopted children as part of Pond’s family. They were not allowed to be with her in the emergency room, and Langbehn’s authority to make decisions for Pond was not recognized.
“We never set out to change the world or change how others accept gay families,” Langbehn told the crowd at the Capital City Pride on Sunday. “We just wanted to be allowed to live equally and raise our children by giving them all the same opportunities their peers have.”
While Washington is one of a half-dozen states to recognize same-sex partnerships in some fashion, Florida is not.
Compelled to speak out
Langbehn said that the pain from losing Pond is still fresh, but she spoke at the gay pride event Sunday because the issue of legal recognition of homosexual families was too important to let go.
“I want people to be able to hold their partner’s hand in their moment of death,” she said.
Pond suffered the aneurysm just before the R Family Vacations cruise ship left Miami for the Bahamas in February, Langbehn said. After Pond was taken to the emergency room, Langbehn said she was informed by a social worker that they were in an “anti-gay state” and that they needed legal paperwork before Langbehn could see Pond.
Even after a friend in Olympia faxed the legal documents that showed that Pond had authorized Langbehn to make medical decisions for her, Langbehn said she wasn’t invited to be with her partner or told anything about her condition.
She said she wasn’t allowed to see Pond again until a priest arrived to give Pond the Anointing of the Sick, also commonly known as Last Rites.
“I was shocked. It never would have been on my radar that we wouldn’t be allowed to say goodbye,” Langbehn said. “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 says she still has not been given Pond’s medical records from the hospital nor her death certificate directly from the county or the state, which affected their children’s Social Security benefits.
But she has received support from the local community and from former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, who has e-mailed her to offer support and said she was angry over the way the family was treated. O’Donnell’s partner, Kelli O’Donnell, is a co-founder of R Family Vacations.
Capital City Pride co-chair Anna Schlecht said that Langbehn’s story drives home the reason why gays and lesbians continue to lobby for national legal recognition of their partnerships and families.
“When Janice told me the story over the phone, I started crying,” she said. “Death is hard enough. I can’t imagine having my children barred from me in the last moments of my life.”
Langbehn said attitudes changed when doctors in charge of organ donation recognized Langbehn and Pond as a couple. They accepted Langbehn’s signature on the consent forms, she said. They also allowed the children to visit with their mother, who was kept on life support while organ matches were found.
Pond, who was a volunteer with her church and with the Girl Scouts, as well as a foster mother, wished to donate her organs because she wanted to continue to give to people after her death, Langbehn said.
“I heard from the heart recipient last week,” she said. “Now he’s able to play with his grandkids again and he definitely would like to meet our family.”