About two weeks ago, my girlfriend G had surgery. It wasn’t an emergency procedure, thank goodness, so we had plenty of time to arrange kid transport to and from school (thank you to the family and good friends who helped – our village rocks), and just generally prepare for what is a stressful experience.
In addition to the customary anxieties that accompany impending surgery, we had a unique set of concerns.
With same-sex marriage not making the legal cut in New Jersey, we wanted to make sure I’d be able to see her in the hospital, get surgical updates from the doctor and make medical decisions on her behalf in the unthinkable event that something went horribly wrong.
A few days before, G executed her living will, making me her health care proxy. We got the papers witnessed and notarized, packed an overnight hospital bag, and headed out at 4:45 am on the big day.
It turns out none of these “unique” things proved to be an issue. We got to stay together until they wheeled her into the OR, and immediately upon completion of the surgery (actually, while G was being stitched up), the doctor called me on my cell phone to say that all had gone well (you might be wondering how the doctor was able to stitch and dial at the same time…I was too.). About a half hour after that, the doctor came out to talk to me and kindly answered all my nitpicky questions.
So far so good; I got to hear directly from the doctor and there were no gut-wrenching decisions to be made.
That just left my having post-op access to G, and this is where the story gets odd.
They brought her into recovery after surgery, which is normal, but what wasn’t normal was the overcrowded state of the hospital. The dangerous flu season caused a bed shortage and made for a packed house. Family members were told we could go into the recovery room for five minutes every hour, no more.
When it was my time, I went over to the woman who facilitated recovery visitation, a gatekeeper of sorts, and asked for permission to walk the long corridor to G. She made a call to mission control and said that G’s daughter would like to come back. I looked at G’s mom, who was in the waiting room with me, because we both thought we heard the same thing. Her daughter? With all the worrying we did about our same sex-ness posing obstacles, we never even considered that we might be mistaken for a mother and daughter.
Once G was settled in a room, we settled into her very small bed to watch a DVD. When the nurse came in, she referred to us as sisters. What? I have a sister, and we’re very close, but G and I couldn’t help but wonder about the likelihood of me crawling into bed with her if she was in the hospital.
How to explain these mischaracterizations…was it the fluorescent lighting, which makes it impossible to tell if it’s day or night, a couple or a couple of siblings? Preoccupation with not getting the flu? Resistance to considering that two women lying together are in a romantic relationship or simply not having that possibility on the radar?
This was New Brunswick, after all, home of Rutgers University, a college town smack in the middle of a blue state where the doctors and nurses looked to be from every nation, race and creed.
We were virtually undetectable, and not for lack of trying.
This is good news for the same sex partners in West Virginia or Tennessee. Their access to each other in a health care setting could very well be more unfettered than they think, if the expectation is that they’re each other’s parents, children, sisters, brothers or cousins twice removed (no red state mockery intended).
Liz Kingsley lives in Westfield with her girlfriend and their five children. During the day, she teaches Special Education and Basic Skills at a local elementary school, writes poetry and columns about her family, and directs The Writers Studio. At night, she collapses from exhaustion.
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