Dorothea Nobile blends easily into the crowd of patrons at a local coffeehouse. Despite her red hair and striking blue eyes, she's just like everyone else, with a drink in hand and a cell phone by her side.
Seven years ago at the former El Dorado Hospital, Nobile didn't have the luxury of acting like everyone else. Her life partner was in serious condition, and Nobile didn't want to risk being unable to be by her side—so she fibbed and said they were sisters.
"I come into the room, and someone (had told) the social worker that I was not her sister. She (angrily) says to me, 'Why didn't you tell me the truth?' I said, 'Because I needed to see her immediately.' She said, 'Well, we have a policy to allow same-sex ... .' (I reply,) 'Is there a gigantic sign as you walk in?' Emergency, near death, I'm going to say to myself, 'Let me see what kind of policy you have here?'"
In this case, Nobile was allowed access to her partner, but in other hospital situations, loved ones have been kept apart—even after living together for many years and having power-of-attorney papers. Such was the case in 2007 at Miami's Jackson Memorial with Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond. Langbehn and their children were denied visitation to Pond, who later died.
The New York Times reported this couple's story, and President Obama was made aware of this family's heartbreak. On April 15, he released a memorandum to the secretary of Health and Human Services, requesting that steps be taken to initiate rulemaking for hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid so "designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy."
Representatives I spoke with at two local hospitals said this proclamation doesn't affect their organizations, since they do not restrict visitation. While this sounds good, Nobile believes policy implementation often comes down to the interpretation of individuals.
"I am a social worker and have medical power of attorney. One of my clients is a lesbian without family. ... Recently, I took her to the emergency room; it was urgent but not critical. ... This little clerk, I asked him some medical information and said, 'I'm medical power of attorney.' He said, 'Well, she's not incapacitated.' This is a slippery slope. ... It takes one orderly, one LPN, to say to you, 'I don't honor that.' Even with medical power of attorney, it's up to the individual to understand what it means."
It's also up to individuals to be respectful and professional in their treatment of patients, and Nobile has seen the absence of this firsthand. "I was helping a (transgender) elder in Seattle—an F to M, female to male. In the emergency room, the nurse told me to get the urine sample. I'm not kidding. 'You do it.' That's what she said. What kind of continuance of care is that?"
Nobile has educated individuals and agencies who provide service to older LGBT adults through Wingspan's Rainbow Train program. The program is on hiatus due to funding issues, but she also volunteers with Senior Pride, a group that creates social events and educational opportunities for LGBT seniors older than 50. (Senior Pride will receive an award from Wingspan for exceptional volunteer service on Saturday, May 8. They will also host a senior prom on June 12; visit www.wingspan.org for more information.)
Joyce Bolinger, a 10-year Wingspan volunteer and former board member, stresses "how important Wingspan is in building a community that is accepting and supportive." Besides providing services, she says the organization helps bring together LGBT community members.
This is especially important for LGBT elders, people she says are more likely to be poor, distant from families and isolated. "I think, first of all, most people haven't even thought about how more vulnerable LGBT elders are than straight people," she says. "We feel that some of the federal laws should change ... so same-sex couples are not discriminated against."
Nobile sums her opinion simply: "The rights that we ask for are by no means special. They are human rights. Just allow me to do what you can do. Period."
While Obama's memorandum is a step in this direction, it's up to individuals to see the common ground. Straight, lesbian, gay, bi, transgender—we're all human and bleed the same way. Decency and equal treatment should be a given in all situations and places, from neighborhoods to emergency rooms.