BY JOHN DORSCHNER, jdorschner@MiamiHerald.com
In a case that for two years has reverberated nationwide with accusations of anti-gay bias at Jackson Memorial, nurse Natalee Wrisk retains a vivid memory: examining the chart at the bedside of Lisa Marie Pond, a 39-year-old woman who was close to death, unconscious and on a ventilator.
The chart showed that Pond's partner, Janice Langbehn, pictured above, had power of attorney to make medical decisions on her behalf. The nurse had been in a same-sex relationship for nine years at that point, she said, and when she saw the chart she realized she didn't have such a document drawn up for herself -- and she should have.
On Tuesday, Wrisk and two other Jackson employees involved in the case spoke for the first time, vehemently denying the allegations of anti-gay bias that were made in a lawsuit and in national publications like The New York Times.
``There is absolutely no way there was any discrimination,'' said Wrisk, who as the charge nurse had control over the area and which visitors should be allowed in.
Langbehn has insisted repeatedly that Jackson social worker Garnett Frederick told her she couldn't see her dying partner because they were in ``an anti-gay city and state.''
A judge threw out Langbehn's lawsuit in September, but the hospital's lawyers waited for the time for appeal to lapse before allowing the Jackson employees to speak.
On Tuesday, Frederick, a Jackson social worker for 19 years, called the accusations against him ``offensive, preposterous.''
Ric Cuming, chief nursing officer of Jackson Memorial, said he's particularly concerned because the Pond case has caused many local gays to avoid the hospital.
``As a gay man,'' Cuming said, ``I have found myself having to defend the hospital a lot against an image that's really unfair.''
STRICKEN ON SHIPThe case began when Pond, Langbehn and three of their children arrived in Miami from Lacey, Wash., to go on a cruise. Before they left port, Pond collapsed on the ship. At 3:30 p.m., she was rushed to the Ryder Trauma Center, where she was put in one of five bays, surrounded by monitors and equipment. There are no chairs for visitors to sit in the bays, and Wrisk said outsiders are rarely allowed in the area.
For the next several hours, employees said, the staff battled to save Pond's life. She had suffered a brain aneurysm. At one point, she was taken away for a CT-scan, then returned to the trauma observation area, where nine beds are separated by only a few inches.
``She was extremely unstable,'' said Gretchen Lovellette, the nurse who was at Pond's side for most of the time. Another unstable patient was nearby.
Meanwhile, in the waiting area, Langbehn was irate she wasn't being allowed to see her partner of 20 years. Frederick said he counseled Langbehn, trying to explain the gravity of Pond's condition. A major concern was deciding on medical treatment for Pond.
Frederick said he told Langbehn that Florida did not recognize same-sex marriages, and so Langbehn could not automatically make medical decisions for Pond. Langbehn said she had a power of attorney, but not with her. She arranged to get it faxed. Within 45 minutes -- at 4:15 p.m. -- Jackson had the document.
At 5:20 p.m., in the only medical decision that needed to be made, a doctor told her that they wanted to insert a catheter into Pond's brain to monitor activity. Langbehn agreed.
During the afternoon and evening when Pond was being treated, Frederick said only one family member was allowed into the trauma bays -- and that was to identify a body. But the layout of the center's waiting room is confusing, and Langbehn might have thought many visitors were going into the trauma treatment area when instead they were going to other areas.
Wrisk, the charge nurse, said she's good friends with Frederick, who knows she is gay, and has never sensed any prejudice on his part. ``He's one of the best social workers,'' she said.
Lovellette, a veteran trauma nurse, said the huge stress of having a loved one close to death can leave family members ``in a haze,'' and it's easily possible that someone might misinterpret a staff member's statement.
LAST RITESAccording to Langbehn's lawsuit, at 6:10 p.m. doctors informed her that Pond would probably not regain consciousness. She asked for a Catholic priest. At 6:50 p.m., the priest escorted Langbehn to Pond's bedside, where he administered last rites. ``Janice was immediately escorted back to the waiting area,'' according to the lawsuit.
Lovellette said the children were later allowed to see Pond, but the nurse was concerned about the trauma they might feel and so the nurse cleaned her up before allowing them in.
Langbehn is now campaigning nationwide to get laws requiring hospitals to treat same sex partners equally. Wrisk and the other Jackson employees all say they firmly support equal treatment.
Jackson officials note that state law not only doesn't recognize same-sex relationships, but also has no provisions for unmarried heterosexual couples without powers of attorney.
Last week, Martha Baker, a trauma nurse and head of the Jackson nurses' union, apologized to Langbehn at a public meeting. ``We certainly are sorry for the pain and suffering she felt.''
This week, Baker said she was not indicating Jackson workers did anything wrong. ``My personal opinion is that she was denied access'' to her partner, ``but it was for clinical reasons.''