It started at the airport—the nausea, the headache, the dizziness—but I didn't say anything to my boyfriend.

Terry had been fighting off a bad cold the entire time we were in Chicago for Thanksgiving, and three days of looking after our son, DJ, while Terry rested had left me exhausted. But it would seem like an awfully convenient coincidence if I started to feel sick just before we boarded an airplane that Friday night. I didn't want Terry to think I was trying to weasel out of doing the hard work that is keeping a child entertained and distracted on a long flight home.

In hindsight, I should have said something to Terry. Because then it wouldn't have come as such a shock when I started vomiting—into a plastic bag—before collapsing in the aisle on my way to the bathroom. We were somewhere over North Dakota when I passed out—the only other thing I remember about that flight is being carried off the plane by paramedics when we landed at Sea-Tac Airport.

I was taken to a nearby hospital, diagnosed with the flu, and sent home with some painkillers for the headache. Go to bed, the doctor ordered, and drink a lot of fluids.

But over the next two days, I got progressively worse. I threw up anything I ate or drank, and by Sunday morning my headache was so bad that I couldn't open my eyes or sleep. I was so dizzy that I had to have help sitting up in bed when I needed to throw up.

By late Sunday night, I was in so much pain I became delirious. Terry took me back to the hospital, where an emergency-room doctor took one look and admitted me. It wasn't the flu after all—I had bacterial meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection of the fluid in the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. While I was curled up in a ball on the bed, the doctor tried to ask me questions. But I couldn't answer, or consent to medical treatment; I didn't know where I was or what was happening. So the doctor turned to Terry—who was standing across the room, DJ at his side—and asked if he could make medical decisions on my behalf.

"I'm his partner," Terry said.

Terry quickly okayed a morphine drip (the nicest thing he ever did for me); he okayed a spinal tap (the worst thing he ever did to me); and okayed a course of powerful antibiotics. The doctors and nurses treated Terry like my spouse, like my next of kin—not just allowing him to remain at my bedside, but also empowering him to make crucial medical decisions for me in a crisis.

The next day I was sitting up, still in a great deal of pain, when the doctor came by. He directed his comments and questions to Terry, not to me; Terry was still in charge, still making medical decisions for me. The only thing I was in charge of was the button in my hand that delivered drops of morphine into my veins.

I was sent home three days later with a catheter in my chest, a cooler full of antibiotics, and a warm feeling in my heart. Wasn't I lucky to have a boyfriend who cared so much for me? And weren't we lucky to live in a place where our relationship was respected? The medical personnel didn't have to treat Terry like my spouse, but they did. Our experience at the hospital left me feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.

Then the painkillers wore off.

Back at home, once the headaches and dizziness and nausea were replaced by the head-clearing feeling of being kicked hard in the gut every time Terry administered my antibiotics through the catheter in my chest, it hit me: The doctors and nurses didn't have to treat Terry like my spouse; they didn't have to let him make medical decisions on my behalf. They chose to. It was their call, not ours, and if we had gone to some other hospital, or if a different team of doctors and nurses had been on duty when we arrived at the hospital, things could have gone very differently. What if the doctor that night had been a born-again Christian, a man who felt it violated his religious beliefs to treat Terry as my next of kin? If treatment had been delayed while the doctors tried to reach my mother or father on the phone, I could have died.

Instead of making us feel more secure, we wound up feeling less secure. Going in that night, we could not expect to be treated like spouses and we were pleased when we were; after we left, we realized we could not expect to be treated like spouses the next time we go in to a hospital—and so we worry.