It’s about time hospitals recognized rights of gay partners, spouses

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Only four days after Peter Taylor moved in with the man he loved, he was racing him to the closest emergency room.

The following morning, his partner lay in a hospital bed and delivered the jarring news.

“I’m HIV-positive,” he told Peter. “This is an opportunity for you to leave.”

“Why would I do that?” Peter replied. “I’m here. I’m in love with you. And I’m staying.”

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Thus began the nine months they had left. They exchanged rings and planned a trip to Canada to marry, but they never made it. Sam was never healthy enough to go. (Peter asked that I give his partner a pseudonym to protect his parents’ privacy.) Sam’s disease soon exploded into full-blown AIDS, and he spent weeks at a time in two Cleveland-area hospitals, neither of which ever challenged Peter’s primary role in Sam’s life.

“We were lucky,” Peter said without a trace of irony. “The hospitals saw me as his husband and recognized that I had power of attorney.”

So did Sam’s family, with a trust that came late. His parents were retired and lived in the same small town where Sam grew up. Initially, they struggled to accept their youngest child’s homosexuality and his relationship with Peter. After Sam was diagnosed and his illness quickly overtook his daily life, they came to depend on Peter for daily updates – and his advocacy.

Peter, who is a recruiter for Case Western Reserve’s nursing school, split his time between work and caring for the man he loved. He met with the doctors, tracked Sam’s treatment and spent many nights sleeping on a cot by his hospital bed. Only after Sam agreed to hospice care did he move back to his hometown. He spent the last two weeks of his life at his sister’s house, where Peter also was invited to stay.

This scenario could have played out very differently for Peter and Sam, as it has for too many couples like them. Many hospitals across the country still refuse to acknowledge the rights of gay and lesbian partners, which compounds patients’ suffering and often paves the way for interfering relatives with their own agendas.

Even if a couple live near a hospital that recognizes their rights as partners, fear looms. One never knows when illness may strike. Every out-of-town visit to family, every vacation, every road trip, they worry whether their documents – and their very relationship – would be honored if one of them were rushed to a hospital. Anyone who ever has had a loved one hospitalized knows the crucial role a family advocate can play.

Last week, President Barack Obama finally issued an order that forces most hospitals to respect the rights of gay and lesbian partners. In essence, he told them to treat these couples like any heterosexual patient with a significant other and the necessary advance directives, such as durable power of attorney and health care proxy. As usual, what’s good for gay and lesbian Americans is good for the rest of us, too, as the change in policy also stands to help single and widowed straight people who need the “support and comfort of a good friend.”

“For all of these Americans,” the president wrote, “the failure to have their wishes respected concerning who may visit them or make medical decisions on their behalf has real consequences. It means that doctors and nurses do not always have the best information about patients’ medications and medical histories and that friends and certain family members are unable to serve as intermediaries to help communicate patients’ needs. … And it means that all too often, people are made to suffer or even to pass away alone, denied the comfort of companionship in their final moments while a loved one is left worrying and pacing down the hall.”

It’s sad to think we needed a presidential order to force more hospitals to do the right thing for Americans who want to do exactly what we encourage and celebrate in committed couples.

Peter Taylor said the sense of relief among gay and lesbian couples is palpable. He does not have HIV, but he still thinks about what could have happened if Sam had not ended up at the right hospital.

“It would have been hell on earth,” he said. “Truly, hell on earth.”

Can’t help but wonder whether, from God’s view, there wouldn’t also be hell to pay.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine.

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