Those who have been there praise Obama's mandate on gay visitation rights

By Darryl Fears and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kate Fleming was dying.

But her partner, Charlene Strong, couldn't get to her. A social worker at a Seattle hospital barred Strong from the room because she wasn't a blood relative, she said.

Strong said it took 20 minutes to locate a relative on the phone. "A minute felt like a hundred hours," she recalled. Hours after she entered, Fleming was removed from life support.

"I was horrified. I thought it was so wrong," Fleming's mother, Audrey, said Friday from her home in Alexandria. Her daughter died in December 2006 after nearly drowning.

Strong and Fleming praised President Obama's mandate to give hospital visitation rights to domestic partners. Strong and Kate Fleming were nearly inseparable for 10 years. They exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony at Audrey Fleming's house in Alexandria in July 1998. They were in their Seattle home when a flash flood trapped Kate Fleming in the basement.

Susan Gregg-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said Fleming and Strong were mistaken. The hospital's policy was to treat everyone the same and allow loved ones to visit patients in trauma. Strong could enter the room, she said, but she did not have a family member's power to make life-and-death decisions for Fleming.

But Strong said she was barred from doing anything. She produced an award-winning documentary, "For My Wife," advocating domestic partnership rights in hospital visitation. When she learned of Obama's decision Thursday night, "I could not stop crying," she said.

In Baltimore, Lisa Polyak also applauded Obama's decision. Eleven years ago, Polyak said, her partner, Gita Deane, was delivering their baby at Union Memorial Hospital. But Polyak said the anesthesiologist told her to leave and that if she did not, Deane would not get anesthesia for pain relief.

Even though Polyak had medical power of attorney, she felt she could not argue with the doctor. "Having the right document doesn't mean anything in a crisis."

A hospital spokeswoman confirmed the birth but said she was unable to reach anyone who recalled the incident. "That said, I cannot underscore more emphatically, how the incident as described, counters the genuinely caring culture of Union Memorial Hospital," Debra Schindler said in a statement. "I can assure you it was not, and is not, an acceptable practice."

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