“Does Melbourne have interpreting 24?” This was the rather cryptic message I had on my phone last night at 7.15pm. I sought to clarify, “Do you mean is interpreting available 24/7?” My friend confirmed that this was indeed what he was asking. I affirmed that interpreting was indeed available 24/7 but it was not easy to get at short notice. I asked my friend why the information was needed. “It doesn’t matter.” was the dismissive response.
This immediately set alarm bells going in my head. My friend has a history of anxiety and depression. I pressed my friend to explain why the question was asked. After at first denying anything was wrong my friend explained that he was feeling very anxious and depressed. He wanted to take himself to hospital but did not want to worry his family. He would only go if interpreting could be arranged. I told my friend I would make some queries to see if arranging an interpreter could be fast tracked. He thanked me and said he would have a shower to try and calm himself down.
While my friend showered I located the nearest hospital. I contacted a friend who is involved in the interpreting industry. My interpreter friend asked which hospital would be involved and provided me with some information about booking interpreters at this particular hospital. It seemed that this particular hospital had a contractor that arranged both its spoken and sign language interpreters. I sought out the contractors phone number, which was thankfully listed on the contractors webpage.
I contacted the hospitals mental health intake department through the National Relay Service. I told the relay officer that I was calling on my mobile and apologised in advance for the many typos that were about to follow. Thankfully I got through to the mental health intake reception without delay. I explained that my friend was in some distress. I explained that my friend would shortly attend the hospital to seek support for his rapidly increasing anxiety. I explained that my friend required an Auslan interpreter and it would be advisable to try and get the process of arranging one happening as soon as possible. The Intake worker put me on hold and diverted me to emergency.
Emergency answered quickly. I explained the situation again. I explained that my friend was on his way, which he was. The emergency person asked my friends name which I provided. I again stressed that they should begin the process of arranging an interpreter and provided the contact details of the contractor that serviced the hospital. The emergency person, while empathetic, stated that she had no authority to arrange an interpreter and that nothing could happen until my friend arrived at emergency and hung up on me.
While I understand this, I also know hat arranging interpreters at short notice is difficult. I also knew that my friend might be in some distress when he arrived and that this was going to be an extreme barrier for communication at admission point, especially as my friend is deaf and was coming alone . It is what it is. I hoped for the best.
While organising this I was also talking to my friend on Facebook Messenger, while at the same time dealing with the hospital through the NRS. Technology is good for that. I provided my friend with all the relevant information. My friend typed this into his phone. My friend was not confident in his speech and the plan was to have everything typed into his phone, including he interpreter booking process. On arrival my friend would show what he had entered into his phone to the triage nurse.
It seems that the nurse was actually quite responsive and immediately tried to call the number provided. It was after hours and no one answered the phone. My friend was probably in a panic at this time. Nevertheless, he managed to suggest that the triage nurse try the National Auslan Booking Service (NABs). They couldn’t get an answer there either. Being a public hospital NABs probably would not have helped anyway as they only service private hospitals. Apparently my friend provided a number for Auslan Connections too, there was no luck getting an answer there either.
The nurse tried to liaise between mental health intake on the phone and my friend. My friend, by this time fed up and extremely agitated, got up and left. He sent me a message. He said he was in his car shaking and breathing heavily. Somehow my friend drove himself home and managed to find some sort of equilibrium. In the morning he contacted me to say he was alright and aplologised for the drama. I told him not to worry. I was just thankful that he was ok. It could have been so much worse.
I am not sure what went wrong in this case. There are emergency numbers to contact. Vicdeaf advertise an emergency online interpreting service. I am aware Oncall have something similar. It seems that somewhere that the process broke down. I am not sure why, but clearly the process at the shopfront broke down. The nurse, who I must say did her very best, seemed to be unaware of the options. My friend, even in his agitated state, tried to help her understand what options there were to no avail. It is unfair that the patient should be expected to do this. If you are in great pain or in great distress you are often in no fit state to be educating people at the shopfront as to how to book an interpreter.
What this case highlights is that the health system, particularly when it is a crisis, is not considering nor meeting the support needs of people who are deaf. Something urgently needs to happen. My friend, thankfully, managed to find some sense of balance and calm down. What if he had not. The consequences could have been extreme.
This is not an isolated case. Communication in the health system is crucial, particularly where diagnosis needs to be made. Get it wrong, provide the wrong drug or have the patient not understand how to take the drug then death can be the result. If not death, serious injury can occur. It has happened.
Being able to communicate with a patient is vital for obtaining an accurate and comprehensive patient and family assessment, formulating and implementing a treatment plan, determining the effectiveness of nursing care, and evaluating outcomes of care. **** In Australia at the moment this simple and straight forward concept is not happening in regard to healthcare and communication for people who are deaf. Something needs to be done now before someone dies, is injured or injures another person. This could so easily have been my friend last night. We need to act – and soon!