Matthew Dietz, BBI Board Member, represents deaf patients in Bethesda Memorial Hospital lawsuit in Florida

July 20, 2013

Deaf patients sue Bethesda hospitals over alleged inability to communicate for proper health care

By Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH - Frightened and in pain, Sanrda Sunderland cried out, desperately trying to tell doctors and nurses at Bethesda Memorial Hospital they were hurting her. But they misunderstood what she was saying. Thinking she had to go to the bathroom, they grabbed a bed pan. No, she tried to tell them. Pain. I'm in pain.

Later, while she was in the Boynton Beach hospital's intensive care unit, recovering from having a stent put in her heart, a nurse told Sunderland's son they were having trouble communicating with his mother.

"Does she need hearing aids? Doesn't she speak English?" the nurse asked. "No," her son answered, incredulous that the nurse wasn't aware of a condition that was spelled out in his mother's chart. "My mother's deaf." Sunderland's experience convinced her that no one should suffer the same indignities, frustration and fear that marked her 12-day stay at the hospital last fall.

This week, the 67-year old Boynton Beach woman joined six other deaf people and two of their spouses in a suit filed in U.S. District Court. They are claiming that Bethesda Health Inc., which owns Bethesda Memorial and Bethesda Hospital West, violated their rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act by not providing them with a reliable way to communicate with medical professionals about critical health care decisions. They are seeking at least $75,000 in damages.

A spokeswoman for the hospital, which settled a similar suit seven years ago by agreeing to accommodate the needs of deaf patients, declined comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. Spokeswoman Lisa Kronhaus also declined to share the hospital's policy about how it accommodates deaf patients. Like others, Sunderland said hospital staff ignored her repeated requests for an American Sign Language interpreter. Instead, they offered a video relay device that brings an interpreter to a room via the Internet a computer. I said no. I want a live person," Sunderland said through an interpreter on Tuesday.

"When you're sick and not well do you want to talk to someone on a video monitor? No. It's not good for a hospital environment." Further, she said, the machine didn't work well. The image was blurry. It was positioned at the wrong angle. Things were happening in the room that the interpreter couldn't see and therefore couldn't explain, she said.

2nd suit for Bethesda

Bodil Tvede said she had a similar experience when she was taken to Bethesda Memorial in March 2011 after suffering a stroke. Through an interpreter, she said the video device was useless. "You can't see the hands of the interpreter," the 84-year-old Boynton Beach woman said. For James Liese, the machine raised insurmountable problems when he was admitted to the hospital in June 2011 for outpatient hernia surgery, suffering from macular degeneration, the 81-year-old Boynton Beach man couldn't see the images on the screen, according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Matthew Dietz, who specializes in discrimination lawsuits, said it is disheartening to have to sue Bethesda a second time. "How many times do you have to sue to get people to do what they have to do according to the law?" he said. Hospitals don't have to provide an interpreter, he said. They just have to ensure the patient is able to communicate with health care workers. As a practical matter, however, interpreters are cheaper. They charge between $60 and $80 an hour. By comparison, the video relay system costs about $6 a minute. More important, he said, the machines have to be readily available know how to use them.

His clients said often hospital staff couldn't get the machines to work. Sometimes, the machines were unavailable because they were being used elsewhere. During her stay, Sunderland said, nurses resorted to gesturing, writing or talking very slowly, convinced she could read their lips. While she can read lips, most deaf people can only catch about 30 percent of a conversation, Dietz said. Further, he said, because English is their second language, people like his clients, who were born deaf, aren't proficient at written English. They often don't understand the consent forms they are forced to sign or complex medical terms when they are written, not communicated through sign language. Sunderland said there were many questions she wanted to ask and much she wanted to tell hospital workers but she couldn't. So, she was reduced to reading signs. "Stay Calm," one nurse wrote on a paper. "Are you in pain?" wrote another. "It's unacceptable" she said. "The hospital thinks it's not a big deal. They don't want to spend the money on an interpreter."

But it's important, she said. "When a live person is there you don't have to work so hard to understand them."

Learn more about Matt Dietz