OKC Hospital at Odds with Father of Patient It Tried to Help; Lawmaker Blames Language Barrier

Article excerpt

Sabit Kurbaev is upset. And it doesn't require a translator to communicate that. The soft Russian syllables fall from his lips with escalating speed and tone, but the expression in his eyes and the urgent gestures of his hands adequately convey the feeling, if not the substance, of what he's trying to say.

His salt-and-pepper beard is closely groomed and his Adidas windbreaker and blue jeans are crisp and spotless, making it hard to believe Kurbaev had been living in a sixth-floor waiting room at Oklahoma City's St. Anthony Hospital since Oct. 4, when his 16-year- old son David underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor. The boy has yet to awaken from the operation.

Last week, Kurbaev continued his vigil at David's bedside, fussing over little details, readjusting the sheets, combing the boy's short, dark hair. The Russian translator mentioned that many times Kurbaev has remarked that his boy does not look ill. David looks like he's sleeping, and any moment he could get up and walk out of the hospital.

David looks like a beardless, younger version of his father. In his passport photo, David is dressed mannishly in a suit and tie, but his huge brown eyes instantly betray his youthfulness. His father's eyes are also large and brown and expressive, growing stormy as he points to the ventilation tubes running into David's neck. The elder Kurbaev then crosses the room, pulls a chair away from the desk in the corner and points accusingly at the dust fibers stuck to the bottom of the chair leg.

"Sabit feels the hospital is not taking proper care of his son David," offers Kurbaev's friend and translator for the day, Aleksei Tarasov.

For months, Kurbaev has criticized the care his son is receiving at St. Anthony, contacting political officials in both America and Russia, as well as anyone else who will listen, trying to draw attention to his son's condition. Kurbaev thinks the neurosurgeon made mistakes, and he fears that the hospital plans to cover the error by simply letting the boy die. He wonders aloud if American doctors are in the habit of bringing in foreigners to perform experiments upon them.

Even when the doctor and patient speak the same language, at times communication can pose a problem in their interactions. When the doctor/patient relationship is further complicated by the barriers of language and culture, the results can be particularly unpleasant for all involved. But local hospitals are taking steps to try to close the communication gap when their patients are not fluent English speakers.

Though the cost can be substantial, several local hospitals provide translators for their patients though a program offered through the state Department of Health. Begun in October 2005, the State Certified Health Service Interpreter program provides 20 hours of direct contact instruction in both language and cultural aspects of communication, followed by a written exam in English and a verbal exam in the target language selected.

OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, which serves a significant population of Spanish-speaking patients, requires all translators working for the hospital to obtain the state certification, said Magali Salazar, interpretive services coordinator for the hospital. Alan Postin, spokesman for OU Medical Center, said the hospital has found that the value of the interpreters' services far outweigh the cost of providing the service.

Sandra Payne, executive director of marketing for St. Anthony Hospital, said the hospital takes on the responsibility of providing translators as part of the cost of providing care. Several translators, who were properly trained for the task, were provided for Kurbaev. If a translator is needed at odd hours of the night, a phone service allows a translator to be available at any time.

But in Kurbaev's case, something was still lost in translation. While in Russia, the Kurbaev family was befriended by an American missionary, who, when he learned of David's illness, recommended a St. …