NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A lawsuit claims Navajo elder Larry Williams died at the San Juan Regional Medical Center (SJRMC) after he was misdiagnosed due to a language barrier. Background information provided stated Williams primarily spoke Navajo throughout his life as he lived with his family and worked as a union welder with other Navajo speakers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) and the Fine Law Firm have filed to hold a medical center liable for failing to provide Williams with a certified Navajo interpreter.
On the morning of Feb. 7, 2018, Williams was suffering from shortness of breath, hallucinations, trouble walking, and other symptoms. His family took him to the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, New Mexico. Williams’ wife, Lenora Williams, usually translated for him, but she had to leave him at the medical center, so she could attend an appointment elsewhere.
The lawsuit claimed medical center staff assured her that he would be well cared for. However, according to medical records, they never considered his language needs or provided him with an interpreter. Williams was in an altered mental state – a symptom of a severe infection – but because of the language barrier, staff members missed this red flag.
Williams was treated for a urinary tract infection and was released that same afternoon. When Williams’ condition worsened, his family took him back to the SJRMC where they realized he was suffering from severe septic shock. Williams died two days later at 67 years old.
“My dad had a lot of knowledge of the Navajo language and Navajo traditions. People would come all the time to talk to him. He knew songs about all the stages of life, sickness, inside the womb, and death,” said Lynlaria Dickson, one of Williams’ daughters. “His death is a great loss to us, our family, and to our community. We hope sharing our story prevents other families from losing loved ones like we did.”
“It just hurts because he would still be here today if the hospital had given him the interpretation that he needed. They did not even try to talk to him or make any attempt to understand him,” said Lariet Williams, another of Williams’ children.
“It is unconscionable that SJRMC, a health care provider that serves a large patient population of Navajo people, failed to provide the linguistic services that Mr. Williams depended on for his health and well-being,” said Preston Sanchez, ACLU-NM Senior Indigenous Justice Staff Attorney. “New Mexico hospitals, like SJRMC, must provide their Indigenous patients with adequate language assistance and be held accountable when they do not.”
The motion was filed on Wednesday, Mar. 1 along with a complaint for medical malpractice and wrongful death.