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When Juana Alvarez went to Woodhull Hospital in Bushwick with a hemorrhage last year, not one doctor could understand her. The native of Mexico tried to explain she was pregnant, but she says no one there spoke Spanish. When she finally got into an examination room, she said, “I tried to explain that my baby was coming.” But the baby spoke for itself, surprising doctors with a cry and a fall to the floor. The newborn died soon after of unknown causes.

Last week, Make the Road by Walking, a community group in Bushwick, filed a civil rights complaint with the state Attorney General’s office against Woodhull and nearby Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, arguing that the hospitals’ inadequate translation services violate federal, state and city civil rights laws.

“We just want to be treated equally,” said Rose Cuison-Villazor of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which filed the complaint on behalf of Make the Road. “We aren’t asking for anything more, just the enforcement of laws that have been in place for years.” Under the New York City Emergency Room Law, she says, hospitals must provide translators for every language spoken by at least 10 percent of the hospital’s service population. About 35 percent of Bushwick residents speak Spanish as a first language, estimates Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road.

The complaint also claims the hospitals are violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the state Patient’s Bill of Rights.

To back up their charges, Make the Road conducted a study of translation services at Wyckoff and Woodhull over the last six months. According to “Unequal Treatment,” 80 percent of the 145 patients interviewed said they could not communicate with their doctors because nobody on staff spoke Spanish; 65 percent said they were confused about the treatment they received.

“If they are doing this bad with Spanish,” said Friedman, “imagine how bad they are doing with other languages.”

Officials at both hospitals refute the charges. “We recognize we are in a very Spanish-speaking area,” said Wyckoff Heights spokesperson William Green. “We are out there, trying to recruit the necessary talent.” He says his medical center offers $5,000 bonuses to Spanish-speaking nurses, holds an annual Spanish-language Latino Health Fair and has an on-site translation machine that offers 150 languages.

A Woodhull rep said 85 percent of the hospital’s doctors are at least bilingual. Its running list of staff members who speak foreign languages is 625 people long, and covers 50 different languages, he added. Woodhull also has a translation machine and posts signs and printed material in Creole, Polish and Spanish.
Noting that his hospital sees 180,000 outpatients a year and 90,000 in the ER, Green called Make the Road’s survey of 145 people incomplete.

But Friedman stands by his findings, and hopes to work with the hospitals to help boost their translation services. “If that doesn’t work,” he said, “then we can look at lawsuits or other options,” for which his group does have a track record: Last year Make the Road won a lawsuit forcing the city to offer translations at welfare centers.

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