ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) and the Fine Law Firm filed a motion today asking a court to hold San Juan Regional Medical Center (SJRMC) liable for failing to provide Larry Williams, a beloved family member and Navajo elder, with a certified Navajo interpreter, which led to his misdiagnosis and ultimate death.
“Our dad was our family’s protector and mentor. He had so many plans and always spoke in the future tense like, ‘when your daughter gets married, I will be there,’” said Lariet Williams, one of Larry Williams’s eight adult children. “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.”
Williams, 67 years old, spoke primarily Navajo his entire life with his family and at his work as a union welder with other Navajo speakers.
In the early morning of February 7, 2018, Williams suffered from shortness of breath, disorientation, hallucinations, and could not walk. His family rushed him to SJRMC in Farmington. His wife, Lenora Williams, who usually translated for him during medical visits, had to leave for a dialysis appointment. SFRMC staff assured her he would be well cared for.
“Language assistance is vital to the overall health of Indigenous people,” said Preston Sanchez, ACLU-NM Senior Indigenous Justice Staff Attorney. “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.”
According to medical records, SJRMC never considered his language needs nor provided a Navajo interpreter. Because SJRMC did not adequately communicate with him, staff missed his altered mental state, a symptom of a severe infection. They treated him for a simple urinary tract infection and discharged him that afternoon. After he was discharged, Williams’ condition worsened. That evening his family took him back to SJRMC, and medical staff found he was suffering from severe septic shock. He died two days later.
“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 stage of life, sickness, inside the womb, and death,” said Lynlaria Dickson, another daughter of Williams. “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.”
Sanchez added, “New Mexico hospitals, like SJRMC, must provide their Indigenous patients with adequate language assistance and be held accountable when they do not.”
The motion for summary judgment and the complaint can be found below.