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December 9, 2004

Deaf win rights as patients

From: Pioneer Press, MN - Dec 9, 2004

Service standards set after Minneapolis hospital is sued


Pioneer Press

Julie Oberley knew her deaf husband was in pain after surgery. He cried out in sign language, and she conveyed his words to the staff at Fairview University Medical Center because no deaf interpreter was present.

The next day, on March 24, 2002, she phoned the Minneapolis hospital and asked that a doctor write a note to Robert Oberley about the pain medication he would receive.

The doctor refused, saying he didn't have time to write notes to patients, according to a federal lawsuit.

The experience of the Oberleys and other deaf patients at Fairview University led to what state and federal officials said Wednesday said was a landmark agreement on services for deaf patients at five hospitals run by Fairview Health Services.

More significantly, they said the agreement is a blueprint for what all Minnesota hospitals should provide to deaf patients in order to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Fairview University agreed to a long list of requirements, including training programs for its staff, 24-hour service by interpreters who have met a national standard for qualifications, and a goal of providing an interpreter in emergency rooms within an hour of a deaf patient's arrival.

U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger declined to say if other hospitals are being investigated.

But Steven Lapinsky, an official with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, said bluntly: "We know that Fairview is not the only hospital that is failing in this regard."

Called a consent decree, the 24-page agreement will be monitored by U.S. District Judge David Doty for the next three years.

Fairview "fully cooperated from day one" after being informed of complaints last April, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory G. Brooker.

In a statement, Fairview Health Services apologized to the deaf patients and said it has complied with many of the steps called for in the agreement. These include hiring a manager for interpretive services and two sign-language interpreters, plus providing training for the hospital staff on serving deaf patients.

Among those present at the Minneapolis news conference were Linda and Michael White, a deaf couple who underwent surgery at Fairview University in June 2002, when she donated a kidney to her husband.

During surgery and for days of recovery, the Whites had to share a deaf interpreter, even though they were in different areas of the hospital. For part of their stay, one interpreter assigned to them didn't have the technical skills to communicate with them, according to the lawsuit.

The agreement requires Fairview to pay $82,000 to the Whites, $22,500 to Julie Oberley, whose husband has since died, and $63,000 to Michael and Ariana DeMarco, another deaf couple.

Speaking through an interpreter, Michael White said people with the ability to hear should compare his experience to what they might feel if they were hospitalized in a foreign country and didn't speak the local language.

According to the lawsuit, Fairview failed to provide an interpreter to Ariana DeMarco when her surgeon met with her to discuss post-surgical care and treatment in 2003. The lawsuit said an interpreter assigned to the Oberleys once told Julie Oberley that his "group" could cure her husband by a ritual commonly called "laying on of hands."

As part of the agreement, Fairview will pay $40,000 in civil penalties.

The agreement's provision requiring interpreters to meet a specific standard is the first in the country to be established under court supervision, Heffelfinger said.


• Hospitals covered are Fairview University Medical Center, Minneapolis; Fairview Southdale Hospital, Edina; Fairview Ridges Hospital, Burnsville; Fairview Northland Regional Hospital, Princeton; Fairview Lakes Regional Medical Center, Wyoming.

• Hospitals must use sign language interpreters who meet a specific level of competence established by national organizations for the deaf.

• Hospitals will conduct training programs for all personnel, including support staff, doctors and nurses.

• Hospitals will employ interpretive coordinators and interpreters who will be available 24 hours a day. In emergency situations, interpreters must be available within one hour in at least 80 percent of all cases.

• Family members and friends will not be required to interpret for deaf patients.

• Hospitals must develop literature and information notices for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients and must appropriately assess the services they require.

• Hospitals must provide reports to state and federal authorities and will be monitored by the federal courts for three years.

David Hawley can be reached at or 612-338-6516. Tom Majeski can be reached at tmajeski@pioneer or 651-228-5583

© 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.