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Hospitals hook up for deaf

The Associated Press

(February 25, 2004) — PITTSBURGH — The deaf patient was battered and bleeding by the time he was brought into the emergency room. Though conscious, he was unable to tell hospital staff about his recent kidney transplant or the anti-rejection medications he was taking.

There was a time when the patient would have had to wait for the hospital to contact an interpreter and for the interpreter to arrive before he could properly communicate with staff, a loss of precious time.

But on this day, he was connected within minutes to a certified American Sign Language interpreter who was able to translate via video conferencing equipment and a service supplied by suburban Pittsburgh-based Deaf-Talk LLC.

“In this situation, he was on a stretcher, he was bleeding, glass was hanging from his face,” said Kathy Beethan, the interpreter who was contacted by Deaf-Talk.

“The hospital needed to treat him right away and would have without knowing some very important medical information. They couldn’t have known without wasting a lot of time.”

In 2000, with no employees and $80,000 in teleconferencing equipment, Dave Stauffer and Robert Fisher started the privately held Deaf-Talk, offering a link between hospitals and American Sign Language interpreters.

“In the beginning, we saw that we could make a difference and help. We knew it could work as a business, too,” co-founder Stauffer, 59, said from his Mount Lebanon office.

Locally, Strong Memorial Hospital has offered in-house sign language interpreters for more than 20 years. But the University of Rochester Medical Center does use video conferencing technology to link interpreters with patients in outlying areas and at a hospital in New Jersey. Park Ridge Hospital in Greece also relies on an on-call list of interpreters for deaf patients.

Today, Deaf-Talk employs 23 employees, works with a monthly operating budget of about $60,000 and has been in the black for the last six months, Stauffer said.

The company has a contract with Interpreters Inc. of Wake Forest, N.C., and CICS Language Solutions in Charlotte, N.C., to provide sign language interpreters to the 150 hospitals that subscribe to the service.

But Deaf-Talk also offers the services of interpreters who speak dozens of other languages — from Afrikaans to Zulu — through the telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“From 69 to 71 percent of our foreign-language calls come from Spanish speakers,” Stauffer said. “We don’t have many requests for a Hmong interpreter, but when we do, we’re ready.”

Deaf-Talk supplies subscribers with a television, video camera and other equipment on a wheeled cart. Stauffer said the hospitals can either rent the equipment for $400 a month or purchase the hardware for about $6,000.

Calls between hospitals and interpreters cost $3 a minute, and most calls last about 12 minutes. The service could save hospitals money if they need the services of an interpreter for less than a half hour. Sign language interpreters can charge anywhere from $35 to $125 hour, Stauffer said.

“If you wake me up at 2 a.m. and ask me to travel to a hospital for interpreting services, you’re going to have to pay me for every second that I’m sitting there, not just the time that I’m using my hands,” said Cheryl Pfeiffer, a sign language interpreter who co-owns CICS Language Solutions.

Stauffer and Fisher, both of the Pittsburgh area, didn’t always intend to save lives with the equipment. They initially planned to start second careers in the teleconferencing industry.

They bought video conferencing equipment from a manufacturer in Taiwan and searched for a way to market their equipment. Then Stauffer ran into a news story about a deaf man who was in the throes of a heart attack but couldn’t tell hospital workers about his symptoms because they didn’t know sign language.

With a little research, Stauffer learned hospitals are required to provide interpreters to deaf patients free of charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He also realized he could use his dormant equipment to link sign language interpreters to patients in hospitals around the nation.

Karen Christman, the manager of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s department of clinical social work, usually contacts Deaf-Talk when it needs interpreting services immediately, such as in the emergency room.

“Every family is anxious and concerned when they’re in the ER, but it’s especially frustrating when a parent can’t communicate with the staff,” Christman said. “When you see how the parents’ discomfort and anxiety are lifted, you realize the service is worth it.”

Includes reporting by staff writer Joy Davia.

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
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