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The Language of Health: Medical Interpreters Bill Moves Forward

In California, a state where nearly seven million residents admit to speaking little or no English, having access to a professional interpreter can mean the difference between life and death in hospitals. With so many Californians at daily risk, a new bill would ensure that patients with limited English proficiency receive correct medical treatment. The law, however, will come too late for Guillermo Garcia Rodriguez. In 2011, the then-45-year-old, Oceanside father of three rushed his 42-year-old wife Elizabeth, who had suffered a massive stroke, to Tri-City Medical Center where she was intubated and put on life support.

Talking to Capital & Main through an interpreter, Garcia, who like his wife, speaks no English, describes a bewildering and frightening month-long ordeal in which he could get little information from the mostly non-Spanish-speaking nurses and hospital staff.

“I was visiting my wife every day,” he recalls, “but did not know that I was able to get an interpreter to tell me what was going on with my wife’s health. [So] I was using either my friend’s wife, who was visiting sometimes, to ask her to interpret for me. Or anytime I would see anybody with a Mexican face or a Hispanic face, I would ask them to interpret for me so I can help my wife and [find out] what was going on with her health.”

Because of the intubation, Garcia says, “she was not able to speak [easily], but she was able to speak very slow. But I’m sure she was able to understand what we were saying, and she was able to smile.” The most worrisome part, says Garcia, was being unable to convey his grave concerns over the life-support tubes, which were causing his wife to choke on her saliva and vomit.

“She would communicate by signs,” he remembers. “She would point to her mouth so people would come and help her. I would ask the nurses that were able to speak Spanish, ‘Okay, are you coming tomorrow to work? What’s your shift so I can talk to you about my wife’s care?’”

On July 13 the hospital called — Elizabeth had died. It wasn’t until the following day that Garcia finally spoke to a medical interpreter, who phoned to explain that “because of the vomiting, the vomit infected the blood, the infection reached the brain, and because of that there was brain damage, and that was the cause of death.”

What haunts Garcia is knowing that his wife died alone and helpless — that there was nobody there to alert the nurses to her vomiting, so they could apply suction before the vomit went to her lungs.

Last week in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), and Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) gathered at Northeast Medical Services in Chinatown to support Perez’s Assembly Bill 2325. If enacted, AB 2325 would prevent the kind of nightmares that Garcia and other non-English speakers have experienced by creating CommuniCal, an agency that would expand, certify and oversee the trained interpreters available in emergency situations for low-income residents that speak foreign languages, especially uncommon ones. It would create about 7,000 interpreter jobs within 10 years by accessing $270 million in Affordable Care Act funds.

“We are enrolling over a million new people into Medi-Cal,” Ting announced. “This is just the first step.”

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The Language of Health: Medical Interpreters Bill Moves Forward

In California, a state where nearly seven million residents admit to speaking little or no English, having access to a professional interpreter can mean the difference between life and death in hospitals. With so many Californians at daily risk, a new bill would ensure that patients with limited English proficiency receive correct medical treatment. The law, however, will come too late for Guillermo Garcia Rodriguez. In 2011, the then-45-year-old, Oceanside father of three rushed his 42-year-old wife Elizabeth, who had suffered a massive stroke, to Tri-City Medical Center where she was intubated and put on life support.

Talking to Capital & Main through an interpreter, Garcia, who like his wife, speaks no English, describes a bewildering and frightening month-long ordeal in which he could get little information from the mostly non-Spanish-speaking nurses and hospital staff.

“I was visiting my wife every day,” he recalls, “but did not know that I was able to get an interpreter to tell me what was going on with my wife’s health. [So] I was using either my friend’s wife, who was visiting sometimes, to ask her to interpret for me. Or anytime I would see anybody with a Mexican face or a Hispanic face, I would ask them to interpret for me so I can help my wife and [find out] what was going on with her health.”

Because of the intubation, Garcia says, “she was not able to speak [easily], but she was able to speak very slow. But I’m sure she was able to understand what we were saying, and she was able to smile.” The most worrisome part, says Garcia, was being unable to convey his grave concerns over the life-support tubes, which were causing his wife to choke on her saliva and vomit.

“She would communicate by signs,” he remembers. “She would point to her mouth so people would come and help her. I would ask the nurses that were able to speak Spanish, ‘Okay, are you coming tomorrow to work? What’s your shift so I can talk to you about my wife’s care?’”

On July 13 the hospital called — Elizabeth had died. It wasn’t until the following day that Garcia finally spoke to a medical interpreter, who phoned to explain that “because of the vomiting, the vomit infected the blood, the infection reached the brain, and because of that there was brain damage, and that was the cause of death.”

What haunts Garcia is knowing that his wife died alone and helpless — that there was nobody there to alert the nurses to her vomiting, so they could apply suction before the vomit went to her lungs.

Last week in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), and Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) gathered at Northeast Medical Services in Chinatown to support Perez’s Assembly Bill 2325. If enacted, AB 2325 would prevent the kind of nightmares that Garcia and other non-English speakers have experienced by creating CommuniCal, an agency that would expand, certify and oversee the trained interpreters available in emergency situations for low-income residents that speak foreign languages, especially uncommon ones. It would create about 7,000 interpreter jobs within 10 years by accessing $270 million in Affordable Care Act funds.

“We are enrolling over a million new people into Medi-Cal,” Ting announced. “This is just the first step.”

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