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Jackson Memorial Faces Negligence Suit From Woman’s Partner

June 26, 2008

By Mike Clary and Bob Lamendola, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Jun. 26–The family vacation cruise that Janice Langbehn, her partner Lisa Marie Pond and three of their four children set out to take in February 2007 was designed to be a celebration of the lesbian couple’s 18 years together.

But when Pond suffered a massive stroke onboard before the ship left port and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, administrators refused to let Langbehn into the Pond’s hospital room. A social worker told them they were in an “anti-gay city and state.”

Langbehn filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday charging the Miami hospital with negligence and “anti-gay animus” in refusing to recognize her and the children as Pond’s family, even after a power of attorney was faxed to the hospital within an hour of their arrival.

The case raises questions about the way hospitals deal with same-sex or unmarried partners of patients, which has led to controversy in the past. Hospital industry officials say they are constrained by patient privacy laws that can restrict giving visiting access and medical information to nonrelatives, a stance that some patient advocates have branded as discriminatory.

Pond, 39, was pronounced dead of a brain aneurysm about 18 hours after being admitted to Jackson’s Ryder Trauma Center. Langbehn said she was allowed in to see her partner only for about five minutes, as a priest gave Pond the last rites.

“I never thought almost 20 years of love and family could be disregarded in an instant,” said Langbehn, a social worker who lives with her children in Lacey, Wash.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, charges hospital social worker Garnett Frederick and physicians Alois Zauner and Carlos Alberto Cruz with negligence and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The suit seeks damages in excess of $75,000.

“No matter what your definition of family is, this family went through terrible indignities,” said Donald Hayden, a Miami lawyer who joined the national advocacy group Lambda Legal in bringing the suit. “The partners here did everything they were supposed to do under law and were still denied visitation rights that should have been allowed.”

Jackson officials declined to comment, except to say that the hospital follows state and federal laws on patient privacy that can forbid releasing health information to those outside the patient’s immediate family.

The hospital also may limit visitors if a patient is being treated for a trauma, emergency or serious infection, said Valda Clark Christian, an assistant county attorney representing Jackson.

At a Miami news conference, Langbehn, 39, broke down when she recalled the eight hours she and her three adopted children — now ages 11, 12 and 14 — sat in a hospital waiting room with little knowledge of Pond’s condition. “As I sat there wracking my brain, I would go outside and scream into the Miami night,” she said. “I felt like a failure for not being there holding her hand.”

Pond, Langbehn and the children arrived in Miami for a Caribbean cruise with R Family Vacations, a company run by Rosie O’Donnell and her partner Kelli Carpenter that caters to gays.

Pond was stricken shortly after boarding the ship Norwegian Jewel as she watched her children play basketball, Langbehn said. She and the children were told virtually nothing about Pond and not allowed to see her — even though Pond’s sister arrived from Jacksonville and was sent straight to Pond’s room.

When Pond was declared brain dead about 10 a.m. the next day, her heart, both kidneys and her liver were harvested for donation, according to her wishes, Langbehn said.

Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, said she did not think Jackson broke any laws or rules and chided the family for seeking money from a public hospital.

“Whether [Jackson] could have been more culturally sensitive, maybe. Do the [the family members] deserve an apology? Probably,” Quick said. “But that’s tax money they are trying to get.”

Federal health privacy laws say hospitals should not disclose details about a patient except to the nearest family member or someone with power of attorney. Hospitals legally do not have to allow visitors.

Florida law spells out a priority list for whom doctors should consult about a patient’s health care: first, a guardian or health surrogate, then a spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, adult relative and finally a close friend.

Normally, hospitals honor a power of attorney but there could be legal or logistical reasons that would interfere, said William Bell, attorney for the Florida Hospital Association.

Quick said it may be time to modernize the law.

“Today’s lifestyles may require some broader interpretations of what is a family member,” Quick said.

Mike Clary can be reached at mwclary@sun-sentinel.com

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