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May 13, 2004

Parkway Hospital Settles Suit With Family Of Deaf Patient

From: Queens Chronicle - Rego Park,NY,USA - May 13, 2004

by Robert Brodsky, Central and Mid Queens Editor

Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills has agreed to pay the family of a deaf patient, Sarah Posner, $125,000 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide a qualified sign language interpreter during an extended hospital stay in 2001.

According to the suit, which was filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, on March 23, 2001, Norman Posner, 85, brought his wife, then 77, to Parkway after she complained of dizziness, poor balance and having difficulty breathing.

The couple, both of whom are deaf, told hospital administrators that they would need an interpreter to ensure that they clearly understood prospective medical procedures and their heath risks.

Sarah Posner was later transferred to the hospital's Coronary Care Unit where it was alleged that doctors treating her communicated through lipreading and writing, neither of which proved effective.

The suit charged that from the day Posner was admitted through May 21st, when she was discharged, the hospital did not provide a professional sign language interpreter to communicate with the couple or their family, most of whom are also deaf, about the patient's medical care.

"It was very frustrating for us at the beginning with their failure to provide a qualified interpreter and because of the lack of communication between Norman and the doctors," the couple's daughter-in-law, Marlene, told the Queens Chronicle through a phone service for the deaf. "That made us think about other deaf people who were admitted to Parkway. We didn't want to see them suffering."

Attorneys for the couple charged that Mondays through Fridays the hospital utilized a full-time physical therapist, Joseph Potenza—who had only limited knowledge of sign language—as the family's interpreter.

In Potenza's absence, the suit claimed that "the nursing personnel used a pad and pencil, gestures and lipreading to communicate with Mr. Posner," because hospital policy did not provide for a full-time interpreter on staff nor the retention of an outside sign language translator.

The family repeatedly requested a qualified interpreter, but except for two days in mid-April—when an outside interpreting service was brought in for several hours during the afternoon—the hospital insisted on using Potenza.

With no other immediate family who could hear, the Posner's daughter, Rita, became the only conduit of information between the family, the hospital and the staff, the suit alleged.

Sarah Posner's condition deteriorated after she suffered a heart attack on March 28th and surgery was scheduled for a week later. Norman Posner claims that Potenza attempted to explain the risks of the procedure and asked him to sign a consent form. However, Posner claimed that he did not understand the doctor's explanation, nor the risks involved.

On April 19th, the suit contends that the hospital's nursing staff asked Norman Posner for consent to insert a catheter and start dialysis treatment on his wife. Claiming that he did not fully understand the procedure, he contacted his son, Gerald, who asked the nurse whether waiting two hours until a sign language interpreter could arrive would jeopardize his mother's health.

The nurse allegedly told him that it would not, but that the delay could place her treatment behind other available patients. Gerald Posner then advised his father to sign the form so as not to risk his mother's health.

"Norman Posner needed a qualified sign language interpreter so he could understand his wife's medical condition and make medical decisions on her behalf," said attorney Michael Silverman, who negotiated the agreement. "Parkway failed to provide a qualified interpreter, depriving Mr. Posner of his fundamental right to participate in his wife's medical care."

As part of a settlement agreement reached last week, the hospital agreed to implement several internal measures to ensure that effective communication is provided in the future for patients with hearing impairments.

Dr. Frank Mazzagatti, senior vice president of Parkway Hospital, said the facility has already installed an audio-video conference center to connect patients to a sign language interpreter. A live interpreter will be supplied upon request.

Mazzagatti added that the hospital will also begin ADA training for staff members who have contact with patients with hearing impairments.

"Norman is elated that Parkway has agreed to provide better service for deaf patients," Marlene Posner said. "It's important for deaf people to communicate with their doctors better."

Silverman said he hopes other medical facilities follow Parkway's lead and that "our agreement sets a precedent."

Lucy Birbirglia, executive director of the Queens Independent Living Center, an advocacy group for the disabled which helped the Posner family with the suit, said the settlement was a huge step forward for people with hearing impairments seeking equal access to health care.

"This is a major policy change for the hospital," Birbirglia said.

Sarah Posner died several months after her release from Parkway Hospital. Her death was not related to her treatment.

©Queens Chronicle-Central Edition 2004