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United In Civil Union, Couple Suing Doctors Over Cancer Diagnosis Looks To The Future

by Lynne Tuohy
The Hartford Courant

July 19, 2006

NORWALK -- Margaret Mueller and Charlotte Stacey are, above all else, committed to one another.

The cancer that has scrawled its ugly signature across their lives seemed almost incidental Tuesday as they stood in front of their Norwalk ranch house, fingers intertwined, and reacted with quiet incredulity at a reporter's question about whether Marge's illness ever threatened their relationship.

It threatened her life, still does, but not their relationship.

"She's been by my side. She's kept me going," Mueller said, voice quavering, of her partner of 21 years. "She told me we'll get through this."

They were among the first same-sex couples in Connecticut to join in civil union after the law took effect last October. They are the first to seek legal compensation for loss of consortium in a medical malpractice suit filed earlier this year, but amended Tuesday to add Stacey's name as a plaintiff, in the same manner any spouse could seek damages for a major disruption to a relationship through the negligence of another.

Civil unions vest very real rights and privileges. After Nov. 12, 2005, when Stacey and Muellerexchanged vows and their relationship was legally validated, Stacey, 55, no longer had to worry about being barred from the intensive care unit after Mueller's surgery because she was not deemed immediate family. It was a day Stacey didn't think they would reach.

In March 2005, the same month that the General Assembly passed the civil union statute, vesting in same-sex couples the same rights as married couples, the 59-year-old Mueller was told the cancer ravaging her body had spread. It would be another month before she learned that, since mid-2001, she had been treated for ovarian cancer when what she really had was a form of cancer that starts in the appendix and spreads as cancerous tumors adhere to other organs. The treatment regimen for the respective cancers is very different.

Stacey recalled that when a friend called her that March to congratulate her on passage of the civil union bill, which would take effect in October 2005, she cried uncontrollably in response.

"I was saying, `Big deal. That's October. Marge isn't going to make it to October.'"Through a biopsy of the tumors, a pathologist in 2001 correctly identified Mueller's cancer as pseudomyxoma peritonel, known as PMP, a cancer of the appendix. The information in his report apparently went unread or unnoticed, as Mueller's condition worsened.

Within weeks of detection of the misdiagnosis in April 2005, Mueller underwent a 12-h\our operation at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, in which the cancerous tumors were literally stripped from her body . Her stomach, spleen and gall bladder are fused. One-third of her colon and much of her intestines were removed. Before she was stitched together, Mueller's abdomen soaked in a super-heated chemotherapy bath for 90 minutes.

Mueller's diagnosis of cancer in the summer of 2001 had one unexpectedly positive effect. It prompted the couple to come out of the closet, to disclose the relationship they had held so close to the vest.

"I said I don't care anymore who knows. My life partner is about to face the toughest thing in the world," Stacey said. The response from colleagues in their respective insurance companies was overwhelmingly supportive.

They had met at a party in 1985 in the Hartford area. Both were avid musicians - Mueller used to teach accordion and Stacey, a former music teacher, plays the organ at several area churches. "Now, I can't even lift my accordion," Mueller said.

Mueller said the loss of strength and energy is debilitating. She tried to mow the lawn Monday but got one row done before becoming exhausted. What she used to do in a day now takes a week or more, and careful planning, she said. Part way through a recent choir practice, held at their home, Mueller announced she had 15 minutes left. After that, she said, she barely reached her bed before collapsing. She used to love to swim. The colostomy and attendant bag have kept her from the water.

"There's a lot of fear I never had before. There's an awful lot of pain," Mueller said, adding she takes medications to offset the side effects of other medications.

Stacey now works for an insurance company in Manhattan. It's a two-hour commute each way, and she's up at 5 a.m. Most nights she's up at least once or twice to tend to Mueller's needs. But the improvement in Mueller's condition is buoying.

"Last year, I had a fatal disease," Mueller said. "This year, I say I have a chronic disease."

Her attorney, Joshua Koskoff, said Mueller is a testament to courage.

"I'd never bet against Marge Mueller in terms of beating something like this," Koskoff said. The lawsuit was filed against Drs. Isidore Tepler and Iris Werthein, and Hematology Oncology, a private corporation.

Standing on the lawn of their Norwalk home, surrounded by cameras and reporters, Mueller and Stacey Tuesday took their relationship so public that the closet was no longer visible. Mueller said that if even one person learned of her ordeal and sought a second opinion, it all would be worthwhile.

Later, inside the little house, Stacey sang a stanza of the song that was the recessional at their civil union at the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport. It is from "Song of the Soul" by Chris Williamson, and it brought the guests gathered there to tears.

It concludes: "Love of my life, I am crying, I am not dying, I am dancing, dancing along in the madness, there is no sadness, only a song of the soul."