A sixty-year-old woman came in by ambulance. The nurse entered “abdominal pain, flank pain” as the chief complaint. The nurse advised me that the patient was deaf and only spoke Spanish, so I grabbed some paper and a clipboard before going in the room.
I introduced myself and showed her my name badge so she would know my name. She motioned that she was deaf. I smiled, nodded, and pointed to my “Hablo Español” button as well. I then wrote on the paper, “Que pasa?” (What’s going on?)
She took the clipboard and started writing. “This isn’t going to be too bad,” I thought to myself.
When she returned the clipboard, I saw she had written, “Susana,” which was her name. That was about the best we did. With her reading my lips and using her sketchy Spanish, I was finally able to learn that she was, indeed, deaf. She only spoke Spanish and didn’t know any sign language. She also had never gone to school and didn’t read or write. On top of that, no family member had come in with her; someone who, I hoped, would be better able to communicate with her than I was.
Usually in medicine, we rely a lot on the history to start figuring out what is the matter with someone. In this case, through lip reading and pantomime, I was able to understand that she was having pain in her lower abdomen and flank. That was about the best we could do. I examined her and ordered tests, doing more tests than I might normally have to do since I didn’t want to miss something.
The tests all came back normal, her pain was controlled with the medicine I gave her and we were finally able to get hold of a family member who came in and helped get her discharged.
When it comes to communication challenges, it is hard to beat a non-English speaking patient who is deaf and doesn’t sign, read or write.
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