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January 27, 2005

Deaf patients sue Laurel hospital, alleging improper care

From: Business Gazette - Gaithersburg,MD,USA - Jan 27, 2005

by Ayesha Ahmad
Staff Writer
Jan. 27, 2005

Elizabeth Gillespie of Laurel said she had doubts about how she would be treated when she returned to Laurel Regional Hospital in 2003.

She had been to the hospital before, and as a deaf person, had found it difficult to obtain proper treatment because of the lack of interpreters certified in American sign language (ASL). But her last visit actually prompted her and six others to seek legal action against the hospital.

"This decision to take the hospital to the court ... [has] already taken a steep toll on my health," Gillespie said. "But ... I keep thinking, what if this happens to another deaf person and the person dies, which could have easily happened to me after that last visit?"

An ASL user, Gillespie was in such severe pain that she could not lip-read the doctor who told her she might have an enlarged heart and needed a CT scan, a type of X-ray scan that produces cross-sectional images of the body.

She was denied the use of a live interpreter and had to wait four hours after prompt admission to the emergency room for a VRI room. She also said she was denied written communication by the whole medical staff for the 10 hours she was there, including a male CT scan technician who snapped her bra.

The confusion resulting from all this left her with both physical and emotional injuries, according to the complaint.

Gillespie and her husband, David Irvine, are two of seven plaintiffs in this civil rights lawsuit against the hospital, filed on Jan. 11. The law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs are represented the plaintiffs in the case.

The seven plaintiffs claim they were denied effective communication as required by the American Disabilities Act, which resulted in improper treatment, said co-lead attorney Lewis Wiener. One plaintiff even had a spinal tap performed on her without her written consent, according to the complaint.

In some cases, Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), which uses videoconferencing to provide remote sign language interpreting services, was used and lip reading was attempted, but they were insufficient for those plaintiffs because of poor video quality or the plaintiff's medical condition at the time, attorneys said.

Hospital spokeswoman Tracey Veihmeyer said she could not comment on the case or on the hospital's standards for interpreting for deaf patients.

"Of course our patients are a priority," she said. "We want to be sure that we're treating all of our patients equally."

Dolores Butler, spokeswoman for Prince George's Hospital Center, which is also part of the Dimensions Healthcare System that operates Laurel, said her hospital did not use VRI and kept a list of contacts for live interpreters to use for patient care and other hospital activities.

However, the plaintiffs claim that they were unable to obtain equal treatment. Effective communication differs from patient to patient, Wiener said, and the hospital's VRI services, coupled with some staff's refusal to communicate through writing, made such communication impossible.

"By failing to provide live interpreters... [the hospital denied the plaintiffs] the ability to participate in their health care treatment and to make decisions affecting their treatment," Wiener said.

Gillespie, a 14-year Laurel resident who has taught at Gallaudet University, said she felt the hospital treated her like an "animal incapable of intelligence," and denied her both communication and dignity because of her deafness.

The lawsuit is seeking injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. But Gillespie said what is most important to her is for the hospital to provide the same treatment for deaf patients as others receive.

"All I want the hospital [to do is] follow the laws already established years ago and provide effective communication for the deaf patients so their medical treatment will not be jeopardized," she said.

E-mail Ayesha Ahmad at

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