Surgeon denies bias in visitation

He says gay man was kept from partner only because unit was busy

March 01, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The chief physician at Maryland Shock Trauma Center denied yesterday that his staff discriminated against a gay man who claims he was barred from his partner's deathbed because he was not "family."

Dr. Thomas Scalea said staff members blocked William Robert Flanigan Jr. from the 10-bed resuscitation unit for more than six hours Oct. 16, 2000, because doctors were too busy trying to save his partner's life to allow any visitors, who might have gotten in the way.

"That evening was extremely busy," Scalea said at a news conference. "While we were able to provide care for all patients, we were required to limit visitation."

Scalea apologized if hospital staff members did not explain themselves well enough to Flanigan that night. "I can understand Mr. Flanigan's concern as he sat worried and was unable to visit at that time," he said.

In a legal claim filed with a state agency Wednesday, Flanigan, a 34-year-old real estate agent from San Francisco, alleged that his housemate's final wishes not to be put on life-support machinery were violated. Flanigan said he could not express those wishes because staff members kept him out of his partner's room.

In 1996, Robert Lee "Bobby" Daniel, who was suffering from AIDS, signed a legal document that designated Flanigan as his representative for medical issues. The document said Daniel did not want any life-sustaining intervention.

Scalea, a surgeon who helped to treat Daniel, said that document was irrelevant because Daniel was conscious and alert and consented to surgery and the insertion of a breathing tube in his throat.

Two days later, it became clear that Daniel would die and the hospital removed him from life support after consulting with Flanigan and Daniel's mother and sister, Scalea said.

"The rights of a gay partner must be clearly elucidated and protected," said Scalea. "However, it is categorically unfair to accuse the men and women of the Shock Trauma Center as being anything other than caring."

David Buckel, an attorney representing Flanigan, said he doesn't believe Scalea's explanation and that he found it "disturbing" to hear that Daniel was conscious but denied the comfort and help of his partner.

"It's clear that Mr. Daniel was in rough shape, but for that reason he should have been able to be with his partner," said Buckel, who works for a gay rights organization called the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Buckel said he found it suspiciously coincidental that doctors refused to discuss Daniel's condition with Flanigan from 6:30 p.m. to about 10:30 p.m. that night, until Daniel's sister arrived from Northern Virginia.

Buckel said Scalea's apology would be meaningless unless the hospital starts treating gay partners with the same respect that it treats married couples.

"This same tragedy could happen to another gay couple unless the hospital changes the way it defines `family,'" said Buckel, whose legal complaint was filed with the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Office.

Scalea said that the men's relationship had no bearing on the staff's decision to limit visitation that night. Nurses and doctors are given discretion to keep visitors out of the often-busy, 10-bed unit if they think too many visitors could get in the way of patient care.

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