Imagine how you would feel if you were traveling in a foreign country where you didn’t speak the language well, if at all. Now, imagine you’ve suddenly been seriously injured or fallen ill.

How would you feel if you couldn’t explain your symptoms to your doctor or the paramedics?

That’s a serious issue that faces limited English proficient (LEP) individuals in the United States if their local hospital hasn’t placed a priority on ensuring language access to qualified interpreters.

The Law Isn’t Always Enough

Of course, the law requires that LEP patients receive meaningful access to medical care in their native language, but the law is less stringent when it comes to what is considered “meaningful language access.” In fact, many hospitals rely on untested bilingual staff and family members more than on professional interpreters.

But in an emergency, the closest available “interpreter” is probably the best, right? Unfortunately, no.


Unfortunate Case Study: Willy Ramirez

Regrettably, poor interpretation has led to serious health consequences and even death.

Consider the experience of Willy Ramirez, an 18-year-old baseball player from South Florida. Willy experienced a headache that quickly went from annoying to severe over the course of an afternoon. By the evening, other more serious symptoms appeared, and Willy was rushed to the hospital in a comatose state.

When he arrived at the ER, his LEP family and friends did their very best to provide a medical history and give the doctors something to go on as to why he was fading in and out of consciousness and suffering other symptoms. In so doing, at least one word was badly misunderstood by medical professionals: “intoxicado.”

For Spanish speakers of Cuban descent, “intoxicado” is a blanket term that indicates something a person has eaten or drank that has made them unwell. In English, the very similar sounding “intoxicated” refers specifically to being drunk on alcohol or high on drugs.

As a result of this simple and tragic misinterpretation – one that occurred without a professional medical interpreter present to head off the error – Willy was treated for nearly 48 hours as if he had overdosed on drugs instead of treating the cerebral hemorrhage that was leaking blood into his brain.

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