Communicating Healthcare, Horror Stories

by Joseph Pimentel/

LOS ANGELES  – Lian Zhen Li, a 62-year-old Chinese immigrant from the San Gabriel Valley recalled the day her stomach swelled to the size of a balloon.

Five years ago, she suddenly became incapacitated due to abdominal pain. She couldn’t drink, eat, or sleep.

She was rushed to a local Chinese-speaking clinic where the doctors diagnosed her with advanced ovarian cancer. She urgently needed emergency life-saving surgery. The doctors at the clinic transferred her to a Los Angeles County Hospital.

Her adventure had only begun.

In front of a small crowd inside the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Li described common hospital bureaucracy. Because she spoke with limited English, the administrators, nurses and doctors dismissed her pain. She also could  not understand her doctor’s surgery instructions.

“I wasn’t scared of [being diagnosed with] cancer,” said Li through a Chinese interpreter. “I was more scared of not understanding what my doctor wanted me to do.”

Hospitals are legally required to provide translation assistance for non/ limited-English speakers. In Li’s case, neither was offered or given.

Frustrated and worried about her health, she scanned the hospital lobby. Luckily, she found a Chinese patient recovering from cancer. The woman, who also did not speak English, advised Li to contact PALS for Health, an organization that offers free healthcare interpretation services to limited-Englishspeaking persons.

“I wouldn’t be here today,” she said if she did not find that Chinese woman sitting at the hospital lobby.

Li’s story is not uncommon.  Los Angeles is home to more than 2.5 million residents who speak moderate to no English, according to an APALC study.

In another harrowing case, a Korean woman seeking treatment for cancer had been waiting for hours at a Los Angeles County hospital. Not feeling well, she left, hoping to get treatment on another day. Before she left, the secretary pressed her to sign a consent form in English to waive further chemotherapy treatment. She signed the paperwork, thinking that the form was an appointment sheet. It was only a few days later when she arrived at the hospital for another treatment with a family member that she realized she signed the wrong form.

Her cancer spread. The Korean woman passed away shortly.

“Her sister is actually one of our advocates now,” said Marchela Iahdjian of PALS for Health. “The stories don’t have to be that drastic.”


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