Lucila DeLoera of Nampa, Idaho, took her 75-year-old mother Maria to a local hospital for knee surgery. But Maria couldn’t understand her nurses and none of them spoke Spanish either. Because of work, Lucila couldn’t be with her mother at all times. At one point Maria needed help going to the bathroom and the nurse left her, even though she asked for help. DeLoera’s mother fell, reinjuring her knee because she wasn’t supposed to be walking alone. That accident prolonged her recovery by more than six months. Unfortunately, stories like Maria’s are all too common. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires hospitals that receive federal money (through programs like Medicaid and Medicare) to provide language access services. But the laws suggest enforcement of the law through voluntary compliance. Now, we know how far that usually gets communities of color. The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, which launched its Healthcare Equality Project recently, found that hospitals may have a few brochures in other languages on site to satisfy Title VI, and even fewer have interpreters available f to answer questions. When hospitals don’t provide interpretation, the burden usually falls on family to fill in the language gap. Very often, that person is the child of a sick parent. Amal Abduhlrahman shared her story on RaceWire last month about being her father’s interpreter while he was sick in the hospital.
At the age of 14, I was more his interpreter than his daughter. I found it hard to be around kids my age who were busy worrying about final projects or exams because I had other major issues to worry about. I worried about how I would tell my father that another part of his leg would be amputated or whether he was going to survive another surgery. Sometimes I would spare my father bad news despite the doctor’s orders. I would decide whether or not to tell the nurse if my father had eaten that day based on the pain the IV would cause him.
About 47 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, and as recently as 2006, 63% of hospitals were treating patients who needed interpretation services. And while the demand here is not that every hospital have someone on staff who speaks every language on the planet, hospitals need to have a plan based on the demographics of their locales. Our lives depend on it.