A Chuukese couple is suing Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, where their 9-month-old son died after a series of visits to the hospital’s emergency room in 2015.
According to the suit filed in U.S. District Court by Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, the hospital failed to properly examine, diagnose and treat the baby, who was not identified in court documents.
The hospital also failed to take adequate measures to communicate with Terie Singemasa, the child’s mother, who speaks Chuukese and “very little” English, Seitz said.
“They made no effort to get an interpreter,” Seitz said of the hospital staff.
According to Seitz, Singemasa and her husband, Kisichy Esa, migrated to Hawaii from Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. They live with their children in a public housing complex in Kalihi. Esa works as a dishwasher in Waikiki, and Singemasa is a stay-at-home mother.
The family usually receives medical care from a health clinic in Kalihi, Seitz said, but their son’s illness warranted visits to the ER.
Singemasa first brought her son to the ER at Kapiolani in June 2015, according to a chronology in the lawsuit. Nine days later, they returned when his condition worsened from a cough and fever to diarrhea and vomiting. Singemasa left with her son after he was discharged, but brought him back a third time just seven hours later, the suit states.
During the third visit, after a failed attempt at connecting the baby to an IV tube, Singemasa was given instructions in English to give her son more fluids, the suit states.
“I think she partially understood those instructions,” said Seitz. “But hydrating by mouth was not a substitute for IV.”
They returned again 10 hours later, the suit states, and during the final visit, the baby was pronounced dead. A medical examiner’s report cited bronchopneumonia as the cause of death, the suit states.
Hospital spokeswoman Kristen Bonilla declined Wednesday to comment specifically about the case, but issued this statement:
One in four Hawaii residents 5 and older speak a language other than English at home, with the highest population of non-English speakers concentrated on Oahu, according to a study by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
It’s a critical service to provide in a hospital setting, said Helena Manzano, executive director of the state’s Office of Language Access.
“People in Hawaii tend to not complain,” Manzano said, “so we don’t know if these services are happening.”
Along with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia is part of the Compact of Free Association nations. Migrants from these countries are part of a population that has for decades migrated to the United States, partially in a quest for better medical care.
Today, an estimated 15,000 people from COFA nations live in Hawaii.
Kokua Kalihi Valley, a health clinic based in Kalihi Valley, offers medical services to immigrant populations with a multitude of languages and English proficiency levels.
It’s hard to find qualified interpreters for clinics and hospitals, says Dr. David Derauf, executive director at Kokua Kalihi Valley. But it can “completely change a medical visit,” by providing a more thorough patient history, he said.
In Hawaii’s larger hospitals, lack of access to language interpreters can affect the care and access that members of Hawaii’s immigrant communities receive, according to Dina Shek, legal director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii.
“If you can’t communicate with someone, especially in the emergency room, you really have to question what level of care you’re providing,” Shek said.
Read the lawsuit below: