MARINA DEL REY, Calif. – Bell resident Griselda Ventura is glad to have her son, Jaime, home, after he spent most of March in the hospital. Jaime was recently diagnosed with Wegener's granulomatosis, a life-threatening disorder that causes inflammation of the blood vessels.
He has to take a medicine cabinet shelf's worth of pills, daily. Upon his release, he and his mother reviewed the discharge instructions carefully, or tried to, because they were in English.
“Powerless, that’s now I feel not being able to understand,” said Griselda, in Spanish. “I feel even angry with myself.”
Griselda and Jaime moved to Southern California from El Salvador three years ago. They’re two of 2.5 million Los Angeles County residents who are limited English proficient. So during Jaime’s recent hospital stay, Griselda was largely in the dark.
“It’s difficult explaining the pain I felt, knowing that I wanted to understand what they were doing to him, what he has, what they’re going to put inside him,” said Griselda. “They have cut personnel in hospitals, because of the pandemic. So we had to go around asking if anyone in the area could help, sometimes there would be no one. So they would have to get tablets to video call an interpreter outside of the hospital.”
That’s been the reality for an increasing number of limited English speakers during the pandemic. Mireya Muñoz is the program director for Pals for Health, a non-profit that does language advocacy and serves as a vendor for hospitals and clinics that need interpreters.
She says by law health care institutions must have some sort of plan in place to provide access to limited-English speakers, but the pandemic has complicated workflows.
“As a language services agency we were kind of bothered by that and worried, because then again, how are the language needs of these patients going to be met?” Muñoz said.
Muñoz says the shortage of interpreters inside hospitals, is a perfect storm. First AB5 kneecapped the industry, because out of state translation services dropped many of their California interpreters in January. Two months later, the pandemic hit.
“Interpreters [who] were now limited from going into the facility means that this patient no longer had access to a trained medical interpreter, also because of risk of infection family members were not allowed to go in as well, so what was happening is it was creating delays in the delivery of care,” said Muñoz.
That delay cost Jaime precious time, time during which he could have been getting treatment, according to Griselda:
“Because of one error, one word that a doctor doesn’t understand from you, or vice versa, it could mean someone’s life,” she said.