Harrisburg man calling on companies to break down language barrier after interpreter incident


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — A Harrisburg man is calling on health centers and businesses to accommodate Spanish speaking patients after what happened to his terrified mother at a local hospital.

George Fernandez has been his mom, Nilda’s, interpreter since he was 11. He said it’s his joy, and under normal circumstances, he could lend his language skills no problem, but that wasn’t an option at UPMC Pinnacle Osteopathic earlier this week due to coronavirus visitor limitations.

“I witnessed a nurse screaming at my mom — screaming — saying, ‘sit down,'” Fernandez said.

Fernandez started recording himself minutes after his mother came running out of UPMC Pinnacle Osteopathic shaking and crying. She was admitted for chest pains, and it was determined that she needed further care. They gave her an x-ray without explaining in Spanish what was happening.

“It was never communicated to her that she was going to need an x-ray. So, automatically in her mind she thought, ‘oh my gosh. I’m sick. I have COVID. I’m being tested for COVID,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez had to usher her back inside, and that’s when he says he heard a staff member yelling at her in English — a language she doesn’t understand.

Translation software is available at the hospital, but Fernandez said his mother’s nurse wasn’t aware. He has a friend that works at the hospital and it took a phone call to straighten it out.

“If you don’t ask a patient if you’re allergic to something or if you don’t perform the instructions right before your medical examine, that could cost that person’s life,” Fernandez said.

In a statement, UPMC responded:

Members of our leadership team have been communicating with this patient’s family to provide information and clarify the services that are available. We are committed to providing the best possible interpretation services for our patients and families and ensuring we are in compliance with all state and federal guidelines for maintaining patient and staff safety in our facilities during the COVID crisis.

During the COVID-19 emergency, interpretation services remain an important priority for UPMC. In-person interpreters may not be available as we support social distancing. Additionally, to protect the safety of all our patients and staff, UPMC has visitor restrictions in place. These restrictions are consistent with policies that have been implemented in inpatient settings across the U.S.

At UPMC Pinnacle, inpatient and emergency room interpretation services are conducted using Cyracom, the leading provider of certified interpreters who assist in phone and video interpretation. Using an iPad, the patient is connected via phone and video to an interpreter who is certified in and familiar with medical terminology in the patient’s language. Changes to Section 1557 of the ACA in 2016 states that providers must use qualified medical interpreters.

The first interpreted message to patients is, “To minimize the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, video remote interpreting is our preferred method of communication for patients needing an interpreter. We appreciate your understanding.”

A Cyracom phone system is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and provides access for 150 languages. UPMC Pinnacle staff are trained on how to access the Cyracom system as well as how to provide culturally competent care.

We understand the concerns of patients and their family members. During this pandemic, our policies and language interpretation process ensure that our clinical areas remain safe for all our patients.

Fernandez said UPMC quickly remedied the situation and took excellent care of his mother.

“They did a phenomenal job in getting back up from their mistake, and my mom is now on her way to recovery,” Fernandez said.

He hopes the incident will spark a different kind of recovery.

“My mother was the chosen one to bring this to light one more time, because this has happened to thousands of Latinos in Central Pa,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said the solution is for all companies — across the board — to spend the money needed to level the language playing field.

“I encourage top level executives in health care and social human services to really walk their talk and put their money where their mouth is,” Fernandez said.

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