On May 4, 2013, Julie and Matt Svatos had their first child, Stella, at the Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing. The delivery went fine, but the next morning a doctor gave them some bad news: Stella might have a brain abnormality and would need several tests, including a CAT scan.
Julie could hear the doctor, but Matt is deaf, and the sign language interpreter who was there for the birth had left. So, the exhausted new mother tried figuring out how to hold her baby and sign to her husband at the same time while trying to comprehend what the doctor was telling her. “It was hard,” Julie recalls, “and I felt that I couldn’t communicate everything that was going on to my husband.”
The Svatos explain that they continued to ask doctors and nurses for an interpreter over the next few days, but never got one. “They would just kind of ignore me as if I wasn’t there,” Matt Svatos says. “And they would only talk to Julie, as if she was the only one in the room. I just felt like they were treating me like a piece of furniture just standing there in the corner.”
When the Svatos got home, they filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Eventually the couple, and the state, sued Fairview Health Services. The Svatos’ case is one of dozens of complaints filed against Minnesota hospitals in recent years—many in rural areas—where patients who are deaf, or their companions, say they are not getting the interpreter services that are required by law and are essential for them to make informed decisions about healthcare.
Rick Macpherson, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, says he has settled 15 cases against Minnesota hospitals. He says that some organizations just don’t consider providing interpreters a very high priority. “It’s not just a favor for the deaf person. It’s necessary for the institution to make sure they’re providing the correct information,” Macpherson says.
“The main thing is we don’t have enough interpreters in our area to be able to fulfill all the requests that come in,” says Natalie Stanley, manager of the sign language program at Essentia Health East in Duluth. She says Essentia has a video system that works well for most situations in its rural clinics in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. If a patient wants an in-person interpreter, she says, they connect with video first, and then put out a call to interpreters in the area to see if someone can cover in-person.
In December, Fairview agreed to implement a similar protocol in a settlement of their case with the Svatos and the state. Fairview also agreed to improve training for staff and report regularly to the state on the interpreting services it provides.
Julie Svatos says the most important aspect of the settlement is that Fairview has changed its policies, which she says should help provide equal access to care for people who are deaf—including her own daughter, Stella, who was found to be deaf shortly after her birth. “I hope that she doesn’t have to still fight this when she’s an adult. I hope we can make some changes now.”