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Home > Topics > Cardiac Care

Lawsuit: 911 Spanish interpreter botched translation, sent ambulance to wrong address

Twenty-six minutes ticked by as medics raced around searching for the woman in distress, she was found unconscious from cardiac arrest and declared brain dead

By Aimee Green
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — A $3 million wrongful death lawsuit accuses a 9-1-1 Spanish-language interpreter of botching the translation of an address and sending an ambulance to the wrong location as a 25-year-old woman was gasping for air.

A total of 26 minutes ticked by as medics raced around searching for the woman in distress, received the correct address and arrived to find Elidiana Valdez-Lemus unconscious from cardiac arrest. She had not taken a breath in the previous 14 minutes, and doctors declared her brain dead.

Three days later, she died after her family made the decision to take her off of life support.

That’s all according to the suit, which was filed Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The attorney’s office for the City of Portland, which is listed as a defendant through its Bureau of Emergency Communications, declined to comment citing the pending litigation.

The following is according to the lawsuit:

The father of the woman’s children, Misael Reyna, dialed 9-1-1 at 4:43 a.m. on April 12, 2011, to report, in Spanish, that “My wife says she cannot breath.”

The interpreter relayed to the 9-1-1 call taker: “My wife is short of breath.”

When asked for an address, Reyna replied in Spanish: “2601 111th Avenue.”

The interpreter relayed to the dispatcher: “2600 101st Avenue.”

After the call taker asked for clarification about which part of town he was in -- Southeast, Northwest, etc. -- an ambulance was dispatched.

Seven minutes later, at 4:50 a.m., medics arrived at the wrong address.

At 4:55 a.m., Valdez-Lemus stopped breathing.

Seconds later, medics asked to confirm the address, because they hadn’t been able to find anyone who needed help.

At 4:58 a.m., medics learned the correct address.

At 5:09 a.m., medics arrived at the correct address.

Diego Conde, the Portland attorney who is representing the dead woman’s estate, said the death was completely preventable.

Conde said the couple’s three young children lay asleep as Reyna saw Valdez-Lemus deteriorate in stages. She had trouble breathing, then started foaming and bleeding from her mouth and nose. She began turned blue. And she fell unconscious. Then the 9-1-1 call taker instructed Reyna on how to do mouth-to-mouth and give chest compressions.

“At one point, (the call taker tells) him they’re outside their door, ‘Go get them,’” said Conde, who has listened to the 9-1-1 recording several times. “He opens the door and sprints out there, and there’s no one there.”

“He runs back to the phone and says ‘There’s no one out there,’” Conde said. “He gives them the address again, and then they realize they have the wrong address.”

Conde believes his suit points out a systemic problem with Portland’s 9-1-1 system, which relies on a translation service for many thousands of Spanish speakers.

“The address is the most important part of any 911 call,” Conde said.

“We all have a right to cry for help if our loved ones are in need,” Conde continued. “We need to have effective, efficient interpreters or Spanish-speaking operators. We cannot do without.”

Laura Wolfe, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Emergency Communications, said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit specifically. But Wolfe said behind English, Spanish is the most frequently spoken language on 9-1-1. Call takers only have to press one button to get a Spanish interpreter on the line.

Even though some call takers speak Spanish, Wolfe said they’re required to use a certified interpreter because every detail of the translation must be precise.

“They’re trained,” Wolfe said of the interpreters. “They’re held to a very high standard.”

A second button connects call takers to a service with interpreters for more than 100 languages.

In addition to the City of Portland, the Valdez-Lemus suit also lists as defendants: Language Line Translation Solutions, Lingo Systems, Language Line Service, AT&T Corp. and the unknown name of the company that provided the Spanish-language interpreter in Valdez-Lemus’ case.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
The suit seeks a maximum of $1 million for “pre-death” suffering. The suit also seeks a maximum of $2 million for the family’s suffering and loss.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Andrew Tucker Andrew Tucker Tuesday, April 15, 2014 5:14:59 PM Speak English and this doesn't happen. Also, why wasn't the phone call attached to an address in the computer?
Jeff Frame Jeff Frame Tuesday, April 15, 2014 5:17:46 PM Learn to speak the language of the country you have chosen as home.
Adam Petrillo Adam Petrillo Tuesday, April 15, 2014 5:32:28 PM If it was a cell phone it won't provide an address.
Cory Witte Cory Witte Tuesday, April 15, 2014 6:45:18 PM Better idea, learn the language of the country you've moved to. Nobody is suggesting you need to give up your heritage and customs, but embrace the new ones of your new home. This is the UNITED States of America. If we're all doing something different from different places, then we are certainly not united. Learn English and embrace tour American way or go back where you came from.
Steve Jacobi Steve Jacobi Tuesday, April 15, 2014 9:19:20 PM Cory, Andrew and Jeff; It would be a disgrace to call you Americans. I can only imagine how your patients must suffer at your hands if they don't speak English. Truly shameful.
Mike Tragesser Mike Tragesser Wednesday, April 16, 2014 6:40:15 AM How many ignorant rednecks are there in our business anyway? The comments here are regularly ugly and disappointing. Please curb your racist instincts, Lifesavers. Learning a new language is not easy or automatic. Competent professional Spanish interpreters are not that hard to find. Tourists and newcomers from countries with major world languages should expect competent professional 911 interpreters in any modern industrial nation they visit. The interpreters have only got one job to do. No excuses. Stay on the line, repeat and repeat again. Request a neighbor or child who may have better language skills at the scene. It is not that difficult. If you as a medic find a patient that doesn't speak English, what are you going to do? Shrug and walk away?
Kelly Hitson Kelly Hitson Wednesday, April 16, 2014 3:14:37 PM Awesome! I'm going to call emergency services in France then when they can't understand me I will get pissed and file lawsuit because they did not speak English while I was in their country because I did not bother to learn the language of the country I was in. All their fault and shame on them!
Colleen Turbessi Colleen Turbessi Wednesday, April 16, 2014 7:51:27 PM What does the language he was speaking have to do with the interpretors
Jason Bokow Jason Bokow Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:14:53 PM How about effing learn ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!!! this is ridiculous. We live IN America. If you cannot speak the language what the hell are you doing here? I don't think any lawsuit should be allowed to be filed. The people obviously didn't care enough to learn the language. But they are more then willing to get money for a mistake.
Jason Bokow Jason Bokow Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:19:32 PM What about when we as the providers go to a restaurant and cant order food because we cant speak the language? or get to a gas station to use the facilities before we go on the 30th call for the day but cant understand or speak to a guy to get the key because while he's been here for 25 years the owner doesn't speak the language? Can I sue them for not speaking MY language???? we aren't racist or bigoted in ANY way...I moved to Israel for three years and guess what I WAS EXPECTED TO KNOW THE LANGUAGE! if this was a tourist then it's a bad situation and mistakes were made...IF the person was a united states citizen (or illegally here) then it is THIER OWN DAMN FAULT. If you live here you should speak the language...fluently...end of story. it the US and we speak English. that's it
Jasmin Rose Marie Shelton Jasmin Rose Marie Shelton Wednesday, July 30, 2014 2:58:59 PM agreed

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