A federal lawsuit filed this month contends that Laurel Regional Hospital violated the rights of its deaf patients by not having sign language interpreters available during medical consultations and claims that several deaf patients were harmed by faulty communication with hospital emergency room staff members.
"Patients were forced to communicate through cryptic notes or lip reading," according to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. "Even the best lip readers, in an ideal one-to-one situation, have been found to understand only 26 percent of what is said."
The suit says that the hospital violates the Americans With Disabilities Act and asks that it provide sign language interpreters for patients. It also seeks an unspecified amount of money for "humiliation, embarrassment and emotional pain and suffering." Passed in 1990, the ADA requires that owners of public places offer the disabled the same goods and services as the rest of the public.
Through a spokeswoman, hospital officials declined to comment.
The suit contends that hearing-impaired patients were not able to get satisfactory answers to their medical questions or fully understand their diagnoses. Laurel Regional Hospital is in Prince George's County, which has a significant deaf population and is the closest suburb to Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington, which serves deaf students. The hospital also serves Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, according to its Web site.
The suit alleges that six patients, whose stories were detailed, did not receive adequate medical treatment because hospital staff members could not communicate with them. In some cases, the patients were offered a video conferencing technology that provides a sign language interpreter in a remote location. But they found it to be insufficient and confusing, the suit says. In each case, the patient was denied a live interpreter.
One deaf patient, Erin Whitney, who lived in College Park in April 2004, went to the hospital's emergency room when she was vomiting and fainting. Once at the hospital, she lay down on a bed and was mistreated by a hospital worker, the lawsuit claims.
"A member of the hospital staff, who did not know that Ms. Whitney was deaf, became angry with Ms. Whitney for lying on the bed, then hit Ms. Whitney in the knee, twisted her arm and dragged her off the bed," the suit alleges.
A doctor thought she might have had meningitis and performed a spinal tap procedure without her consent, the suit says. After the procedure, patients are generally told to lie flat for several hours to avoid complications.
"In Ms. Whitney's case, shortly after her spinal tap procedure was complete, and absent any instruction to remain still, Ms. Whitney moved," the suit says. "She subsequently experienced, and continues to suffer from, among other problems, headaches, nausea, faintness and imbalance."
Another deaf patient, Elizabeth Gillespie, who lives two miles from the hospital, went to the emergency room in November 2003 with her deaf husband because she had severe abdominal pain and was vomiting. The hospital staff insisted on communicating verbally rather than through written notes, the suit says. A doctor told her she had an enlarged heart and needed a CT scan.
"They did not fully understand the doctor's diagnosis or the medical treatment she was going to receive," according to the suit.
One of the lawyers who filed the suit, E. Elaine Gardner of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said that live interpreters in hospitals are a fairly new practice.
At least one area hospital, Howard County General, offers on-call live interpreters who can be at the facility within 30 minutes, hospital spokeswoman Tanya Brown said.