Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Case of Harold Scull and Clay Greene, and Mr. Obama's Memorandum re: Visitation Rights of Gay Couples

I’m deeply concerned about the story of Harold Scull and Clay Greene of Sonoma Co., California.  Dan Savage’s Stranger blog has a complete account yesterday, along with a link to a pdf file of the court complaint filed on behalf of Scull and Greene yesterday.

Scull and Greene were a gay couple who had been together some 20 years.  In 2008, Scull, who was 88, fell and Greene called for medical assistance.  Though the two had filed documents giving each other the right to make medical decisions for the other and making each other the beneficiary of their respective estates, after Scull was hospitalized, Sonoma County filed for guardianship of Scull and his estate. 

Identifying Greene as Scull’s “roommate,” the county sold the couple’s entire possessions and put Greene out of their house and placed him in a nursing home against his will.  Greene was not permitted to see Scull in the final months of his life, and Scull died without Greene present.

This story horrifies me because it is exceedingly painful, and it’s one I’ve seen play out before and keep hoping that I won’t have to hear about ever again.  It’s a possibility that those of us who are gay, in long-term relationships, and aging consider constantly—and a possibility against which many of us feel we have all too little protection. 

Some weeks ago, there was a discussion of some of these issues at the Commonweal blog.*  I took part in that discussion.  I don’t remember precisely what the topic under consideration was, or what the name of the particular thread was.

At the time that the Commonweal thread was discussing the fates of gay couples when one member of the couple is hospitalized and the other denied access to him or her, I had just bumped into a neighbor of ours whom I hadn’t seen in some months.  My neighbor told me he was in a state of panic because his partner had fallen, been hospitalized, and had had surgery for the condition that caused the fall—and as all this happened, his partner was not permitted to see him in the hospital or to receive any medical information about his condition. 

As in the case of Scull and Greene, these two neighbors have long since given each other power of attorney in cases like this, and have designated each other as the decision-maker in medical decisions like the ones that doctors made when my neighbor had surgery. 

My neighbor was desperate to receive assistance—he wanted, above all, to see his partner in the hospital—and I felt helpless to assist him.  I offered to drive him to the hospital whenever he wanted (he does not have a car).  But I did not know of immediate and effective ways to help him get around the roadblock the hospital was placing in his way as he sought visitation rights and medical information.

I did not know how to assist in that matter—except to refer him to some good attorneys I know—because Steve and I had experienced something similar with the same hospital, though our experience was not so severe.  And we had felt just as helpless to alter the situation, when we were in the middle of it, as our neighbor felt when he was not permitted to visit his partner in the hospital.

I’ve recounted this experience previously on this blog.  A few years ago, Steve had a hip replacement, and on the day of the surgery and the two days following, I remained in the hospital with him to assist him.  I wanted to be sure that if he needed anything at all in the painful period immediately after surgery, when he was confined to bed, he would have his needs met.

The hospital has no regulations that forbid a friend or family member to remain in a recuperation room with a patient, and it even has fold-out chairs that permit the guest to sleep a bit in the night.  I tried to make myself at home but inconspicuous as I stayed with Steve.

But my presence clearly enraged one nurse, who happened to be on night duty the night that Steve’s pain began to spike following the surgery.  All during that night, the nurse repeatedly barged into the room, shouting in a loud voice, turning on all the lights, and waking both of us up.  The doctor had given orders that, if the pain began to spike, Steve was to receive pain medicine immediately at his request.  The doctor also told Steve not to hesitate to ask for such medication, since pain becomes harder to alleviate when it gets out of control.

Steve is stoical, so if he asks for pain medicine, that tells me he’s really in pain.  On this particular night, he told the nurse that the pain was getting intense and asked for medicine.  She refused to give it to him.  In desperation, he then called the hospital’s personnel director and reported what was happening, and he got the medicine he needed.

But the next time the nurse came into the room, she retaliated.  She took an ice-cold i.v. container directly from the refrigerator and forced it into his veins as fast as she could.  He told me later that this was one of the most painful experiences of his life.  At the time, he said nothing, so I did not know this was happening.

We did, of course, file a complaint, but only after Steve was safely out of this nurse’s care.  We did not want her retaliating again.  And we both had the very strong impression that the sole reason for her hostile behavior was that she knew we were a gay couple and did not want me staying with Steve in the hospital room.

This is a Catholic hospital, by the way—the one in which my neighbor’s partner had surgery, and where the neighbor was not permitted to visit his partner or receive information about the partner’s status.  It’s the same place Steve had his surgery.

I do not think that the two incidents I’ve just described occurred because the hospital is Catholic.  In fact, on the whole, I find this a good hospital, and everyone else who treated Steve during his period of hip surgery could not have been nicer or more welcoming.

Still, the point of this story is that gay couples around the nation confront experiences like this when one of us is hospitalized or requires medical care, and they sometimes do so in medical care facilities operated by churches that profess to deplore discrimination.  I happen to know one of the attorneys who represents Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the hospital that denied Janice Langbehn the right to visit her partner Lisa Pond when Pond was dying at that hospital in 2007.

This attorney is the chair of the board of a United Methodist University in Florida—of a university sponsored by a church that claims to abhor anti-gay discrimination!  But though this university belongs to the United Methodist church, it has no policy forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and it does not surprise me that it would also have a board chair who is a member of the legal team that has helped Jackson Memorial defend its policy of discriminating against a member of a lesbian couple as her partner died.

Church affiliation is not an automatic guarantee that a hospital or other institution will not discriminate in cases in which same-sex lives and relationships are at stake.  And we who are gay do not have strong legal protection in most areas of the country against on-the-spot discrimination that is very difficult to combat right in the midst of other traumatic experiences such as surgery. 

As Tara Parker-Pope points out today at her New York Times blog, Mr. Obama’s recent verdict that gay couples must not be denied visitation rights and the right to make medical decisions for each other is a step in the right direction, but only a first step.  The memorandum of the president to the Secretary of Health Ms. Sibelius calling for health-care providers to respect these rights has no real legal teeth to require that hospitals enforce this policy.

And so the horrifying, painful story of what happened to Harold Scull and Clay Greene is one that we may find ourselves hearing again in the future, unless stringent laws are put into place enforcing the new policy, and substantial penalties for contravening the policy are enacted.  We have a long way to go, as a society, in these areas, and getting to the point of non-discrimination at which we need to be to call ourselves a humane society is going to require continued work.

*As I think about it, this dialogue may well have occurred at America’s “In All Things” blog.