A deaf woman who alleges the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center refused to provide her with a qualified sign language interpreter while her late husband was undergoing cancer treatments has filed suit against the University of Maryland Medical System.
Patricia Ganzzermiller instead had to rely on her sick husband to communicate with his doctors, leaving her uninformed about his worsening prognosis, according to the lawsuit, filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
“When Mrs. Ganzzermiller was not willing or able to force her husband into this role, Defendants alternatively handed her densely written papers, scrawled out notes by hand, or made her struggle to read their lips,” the complaint states. “During this time period, Defendants’ refusal to provide a qualified sign language interpreter caused Mrs. Ganzzermiller to miss out on information great and small, ranging from her husband’s ever-shortening life expectancy to how to press a call button for a nurse.”
Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said Ganzzermiller’s situation was not an isolated one and called the problem systemic. The organization’s Law and Advocacy Center is representing the plaintiffs.
“We’ve seen many, many cases involving hospitals refusing to provide communication access to family members and loved ones who need to deal with illness and possibly death,” Rosenblum said through an interpreter Tuesday. “This is happening all over the country, and it’s really unfathomable for any person to think about not being able to communicate with the doctor or anybody at the hospital about what’s happening to their family member. They have to depend on others and make do with tidbits of information rather than getting full explanations from a medical professional.”
Although Ganzzermiller is deaf and communicates primarily through American Sign Language, her husband, Lawrence, did not have hearing impairments, and neither does the couple’s son, Andrew, according to the complaint.
Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for UMMS, said Tuesday that the medical system would not comment on pending litigation.
Lawrence Ganzzermiller was admitted to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center for cancer treatments about 23 times between Jan. 24, 2014 and Dec. 11, 2014, according to the lawsuit.
During each hospital stay, Patricia Ganzzermiller repeatedly requested an interpreter so she could understand her husband’s prognosis and treatment, but she was instead forced to rely on his ability to interpret for her, the suit states.
Lawrence Ganzzermiller’s condition deteriorated throughout 2014 but his wife remained unaware that his illness was getting worse because she could not understand conversations with medical staff without a sign language interpreter, the suit states.
By November 2014, he had became too weak to communicate clearly and stopped attempting to interpret for her, the suit states.
Without an interpreter, the hospital attempted to explain and obtain signed releases from Patricia Ganzzermiller for complicated medical procedures for her husband, as well as explain discharge instructions to her, including information about Lawrence’s medications, the suit states. Hospital staff also attempted to prepare the family for a transition to hospice care before Lawrence’s death, but because an interpreter was not present, Patricia continued to believe that her husband would make a full recovery, the suit states.
On Dec. 11, 2014, the hospital provided Patricia Ganzzermiller with an interpreter for the first time, the lawsuit states. Her husband’s health care providers had determined by then that he had about six months to live, but she had to adjust to this information “almost overnight” due to not having an interpreter during previous discussions with hospital staff, the suit states.
When the hospital again failed to provide an interpreter during a hospital stay in February 2015, Andrew Ganzzermiller was forced to interpret for his mother, according to the suit. Andrew Ganzzermiller is listed as an associational plaintiff to the lawsuit.
“Throughout this ordeal, a qualified sign language interpreter would have ensured full and effective communication between Defendants and Mrs. Ganzzermiller, giving her full access to information about her husband’s prognosis and care,” the suit states. “Without a qualified interpreter, she understood very little and had no meaningful opportunity to raise her concerns.”
After her husband died in last year, Patricia Ganzzermiller visited the hospital multiple times for her own health care needs and was still forced to communicate with staff through handwritten notes because she was not provided an interpreter, according to the suit.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and seeks unspecified compensatory damages, as well as a court order enjoining the medical system from implementing or enforcing policies that discriminate against deaf or hard of hearing individuals.
Caroline E. Jackson of the National Association of the Deaf’s Law and Advocacy Center, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The case is Patricia Ganzzermiller et al. v. University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center et al., 1:16-cv-03696-JFM.