Once upon a time, I was Libertarian enough that I didn’t really care about getting married, and I didn’t particularly want a state license for a relationship. However, I wound up in a relationship where a marriage license was important to the other person, and so we got married in June, 1996.
I didn’t really think it was a super-big thing until November, 1996 when my husband suddenly had a stroke, and I called the ambulance and followed behind in my car. I went to the check-in desk for the ER, said I was his wife, and filled out the paperwork.
This was around 2:30 in the morning.
At no point was my ID asked for. At no point did I have to provide proof of being married to him. Granted, it wasn’t a big city, and the ambulance driver was our downstairs neighbor. My husband had been a reporter for the local newspaper, so his name was known.
Mine, however, wasn’t really; I’d moved to the Northeast Kingdom (of Vermont) 2-1/2 years before.
I was next of kin. The only other legal next of kin Richard had was his eldest son, who wasn’t yet 19.
The hospital called a minister who sat with me, and was there when the ER doc gave the very frank assessment that my husband was dead, but they couldn’t declare him legally dead for some hours because they lacked expensive equipment to do more extensive tests; they had to declare based on a series of EEGs taken over a period of 12 hours. Or maybe it was 24. It seemed forever.
They’d tried to provoke any kind of reaction through deep pain, and got no EEG change. Several large bruises covered arms and upper body, and when I looked at Richard, it was clear to me that he wasn’t going to be coming back.
The ER doc asked if I’d considered organ donation, and I talked about it with the minister after the doc went back to tend to Richard. I spoke with the New England Organ Bank. Frankly, it was one of the easiest decisions I’d ever made to donate his organs, because the opportunity to help someone who was gravely ill seemed practical and humane.
What I truly wasn’t prepared for was the process. The phone call with the NEOB lasted an hour. I spoke in the middle of the night with a volunteer answering all kinds of personal questions about my husband’s sexual history, his travel history, all kinds of things that aren’t that easy to know about someone you’re not currently living with. Some of them will be easy for most people: malaria risk. Some, such as specific STD risk practices, will be more difficult to know with absolute certainty. Other people’s lives depend on the answers, so it’s important to be accurate. Organs degrade with every minute, so it’s important to be quick.
Even though I had said they could use whatever they needed, legal and ethical guidelines meant they had to go over each and every body part, including some I’d never even thought of in the context of organ donations; some of the requests were about research rather than direct donation and thus had to be addressed with separate disclaimers.
Gall bladder for experimental transplant. Check.
Saphenous veins. Check.
It’s those kinds of things that made it exhausting, above and beyond the fact that I’d been about to go to sleep when he’d had his stroke, I was exhausted even then, and now it was two or three hours later.
Further logistics happened, including the arrival of Richard’s family and friends, and the organ bank called about a helicopter. They wanted to airlift him to the transplant hospital sooner rather than later because they could declare him dead sooner and thus prevent organ decay. I okayed that, but I worried that Richard’s eldest son wouldn’t arrive in time — there was a horrible snowstorm and he was across the state in the worst possible direction as far as road travel went.
Fortunately, everything happened in the right order, and for a while the waiting room was filled with me, two of Richard’s ex-wives, and his three kids by them.
The NEOB kept in contact with me. What they didn’t say, but I’d figured out, was that Richard’s heart was failing during the process and that’s one reason they wanted to move him.
So they prepped him for his move and off he went to a transplant hospital. The only transplant I heard about that actually occurred was a liver transplant. His heart, kidneys, pancreas weren’t donatable, but his lungs and corneas were. (Those are the nine donatable organs as they enumerated them at the time, six of them — heart, lungs, liver, kidneys — are the “major” organ transplants.)
Some time later, a thank-you letter arrived from the liver transplant recipient’s son, written in ballpoint on a yellow legal pad. I still keep that letter. It shouldn’t have, but he disclosed his name and his father’s name, and thus I know that his father is still alive twelve years later. I know that his father had an incredibly rare liver disease, and the good fortune to be a tissue match for Richard’s liver when it became available.
The Current Situation for Unmarried Couples
Later, after Richard’s death, I found out that loved ones who weren’t married, even those with durable powers of attorney for health care, were frequently shut out of the process, hassled by the hospital, and blocks were put up to the loved one being able to actually do something about it.
Just recently, one partner in lesbian couple in Fresno who’d signed all the right paperwork was barred from making medical decisions about her loved one. Fortunately, her partner lived, but what if that couple had been in the situation that me and my late husband were in?
What if someone waiting for an organ (or another donation) was deprived of the opportunity of life or health because of that? Because the hospital stalled?
Being married meant I had the opportunity, at a time of need, to help someone who would have died. (It’s also possible that, had logistics permitted, his son would have stepped up as next of kin had Richard not been married. I don’t know what would have happened at that time.)
Why would anyone deprive someone of that because their loved one happened to be the same sex?
You might think another organ would come up, but I offer this final bombshell: for this rural county hospital, Richard’s liver was the first major organ donation they were able to accomplish. Many people sign donor forms, but their manner of death (e.g., cancer) does not permit donation of internal organs. Many people sign donor forms but their family overrides them. You see, at the time of donation, the donor’s wishes aren’t legally binding because the donor is dead. Only the living can perfect the donation.
And sometimes, the loved one who could make the decision if the politics were different doesn’t have the opportunity to save someone’s life.