Lawsuits over availability of ASL Services in Hospitals

Written by Tony LeysDesMoines Register
Posted on September 27th 2011

Polly Fullbright wants her husband to be remembered as a courageous man whose last hours were made even more stressful because of a Des Moines hospital’s lack of services for deaf people.

J. William Fullbright, 40, of Clive was suffering an inexplicable shortness of breath when his wife rushed him to Mercy Medical Center’s emergency room on a Sunday night in 2008. He and his wife both were deaf, but the hospital did not have a sign-language interpreter available to help them communicate with doctors and nurses, Polly Fullbright said.

She said she did her best to speak and write notes to the medical staff, but she struggled to keep up with what they were saying. “He kept looking at me, wanting to know what was going on. I felt so inept,” she recalled Monday. His breathing problems worsened to the point that staff members put a tube down his throat. The staff kept saying they were trying to find an interpreter, but none arrived by the time William Fullbright died five hours after arriving at the hospital.

The cause of death was a lifelong heart defect that had been undetected. Polly Fullbright said Mercy staff members gave him good medical care, but she said the lack of an interpreter compounded his fright.

The hospital agreed last week to settle a lawsuit brought by Fullbright and a similar one brought by the family of a second deaf patient. Mercy leaders promised that from now on, sign-language interpreters will be provided when needed. When feasible, the hospital may use other methods of communication, including video links to interpreters elsewhere, the settlement says. In a statement Monday, hospital leaders defended their record but indicated they decided to settle as a way to work together to improve services.

Polly Fullbright said in her lawsuit that she and an emergency-room doctor repeatedly asked Mercy staff members to get a sign-language interpreter. The staff said it couldn’t find either of the two interpreters with which Mercy had contracts, the lawsuit said. Staff members said the hospital would not pay for any other interpreters, the suit said.

Fullbright’s lawsuit said she had a similar experience after being taken to Mercy in 2009. Mercy provided an interpreter only part of the time, she said.

Fullbright, who oversees deaf services for the Des Moines school district, said her husband was less active in deaf-rights issues than she is. But she said he wanted deaf people to have as many opportunities as possible.

She hopes the lawsuit brings change. “He would have totally approved of me doing this to help other deaf people. He would have been mad at me if I didn’t do it,” she said through an interpreter at the office of her lawyer, Thomas Duff.

The second lawsuit was filed by Sherry Barnard, who said her mother, Judith Barnard, 69, of Des Moines, was not provided a sign-language interpreter after undergoing a hysterectomy for cancer in April 2008. Sherry Barnard, who works as a sign-language interpreter, said she sometimes provided interpretation for her mother at follow-up appointments. But she said in her lawsuit that she should not have been required to do so, and that Mercy failed to provide an interpreter for other emergency room visits and hospitalizations. On two occasions, the lawsuit said, hospital staff failed to provide an interpreter when Judith Barnard needed to communicate her pain levels.

Besides the promises to improve its interpretation services, the hospital agreed to pay undisclosed amounts of money to the two families. Duff, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in both lawsuits, said federal and state laws clearly require hospitals to provide free interpretation in such cases.

In a statement Monday, hospital leaders defended their services but said they agreed to settle the lawsuits so they could move forward.

“While Mercy and the plaintiff view the situation differently, we agree to resolve our differences and instead work together to ensure health care providers are able to communicate effectively with persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing,” the statement said.

“Last year, Mercy provided a monthly average of 127 hours of in-person sign language interpretation, despite a severe shortage of Iowa-licensed sign language interpreters. Mercy Medical Center-Des Moines has been recognized as a national leader in this area and already offers many services to remove language barriers. Mercy has been and remains fully committed to ensuring effective communication between deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and Mercy service providers. Through working with our deaf community to implement additional services, Mercy advances our commitment to effective, accurate conversation between all patients, family members and providers.”

Two of Mercy’s main competitors said they provide sign-language interpreters as needed. A spokesman for University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City said such interpreters are routinely available for scheduled visits, and staff obtain them as quickly as possible for emergency visits. Iowa Health-Des Moines said it usually provides in-person interpreters when they’re needed, and uses alternatives when there are delays.