the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

What’s Up, Cedars-Sinai?

It’s been hectic.   My mother came to town.  We prepared for the first seder. I fought a cold.  My mother cooked a wonderful brisket, matzoh ball soup, kugel, etc.  We went over to the home of Fanya and Vartan, Sophia’s mother and step-father.   After the meal, Fanya had pains in her heart.   It was hurting her so much, that we called 911.   An ambulance came and she he was brought to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s emergency room.  We sat in the waiting room for hours.  Tomorrow, Fanya is going to get an angioplasty on her heart and liver.   Wish her good luck!

Now for some bitching about the hospital:

Cedars-Sinai is a world-famous hospital.  Its proximity to Beverly Hills has made it famous as the “hospital for the stars.”  This is where Hollywood celebrities have their babies.   Frank Sinatra died at Cedars-Sinai.  Movie producers have their names on hospital wings.  So, why do Sophia’s parents always get poor service at Cedars-Sinai Hospital?  

Because of the language barrier.   

They are an older couple who can only speak Russian.  Now, I’m all for immigrants learning English, but after a certain age, it is just too difficult a task.  Sophia often works in court as an interpreter, where every defendant who needs it is guaranteed BY LAW to have a language interpreter, and from what I understand, it is the same with every hospital patient.   Cedars-Sinai says that they have interpreters on staff.  So, why are so rarely used?

I was sitting in Fanya’s ICU hospital room this morning.  Sophia left to get some paperwork for her mom.  I noticed that the reading on the EKG monitor was at zero.  I told this to the nurse, a grouchy woman who looked like she came from another country herself. 

“Don’t move your right arm!” she told Fanya.  “It makes the monitor shut off.”

“She doesn’t understand what you are saying,” I said.  “She doesn’t speak English.”

“NO ARM UP!” the nurse yelled at Fanya, lying there with tubes stuck inside her arms, as if that was going to solve the problem.

“Don’t you have a Russian interpreter on call or on the phone?” I asked.

“She’s not here now.  Don’t you know Russian?”

“No, and I don’t think it is my job to be translating for the hospital.  When will there be a interpreter?”

“Let me go see.”

She left and I never saw her again.

The entire day has been one mistake after another.   Fanya is a slight woman.  She had lost 25 pounds in the last 6 months.  She was put on a restricted calorie diet!  The staff didn’t bring Fanya any food until 3:30 PM because they “thought” there was an order not to give her food.  Then she never got dinner.  After Sophia spoke to 5 people, they eventually brought her, a diabetic, four juices and Melba toast with cheese, at 10 PM. They gave her pills for diabetes with orange juice!   This is just poor medicine, but had Fanya been able to communicate – she would have been able to point their mistakes out, before they made her drink sugary juice with a pill to lower her blood sugar!  It is scary enough to be in a hospital.  It must be terrifying for a patient to be there and not understand the language of the staff, and Sophia can’t be there 24 hours a day.    Sophia told the nurses they can call her anytime to help with the Russian, but no one ever called.  God help the person who has to go into the hospital without having a family or friends to speak up for her!

When Fanya first came to the hospital, a male nurse was trying to figure out what was wrong with another Russian patient, a disheveled elderly man who was sobbing.   The nurse was poking the man in different places on his shoulder trying to figure out what pained him.

“Baleet?  Baleet?” the male nurse asked, using the only Russian word he knew, meaning “pain.”

Eventually, Sophia asked if she could help.   She spoke to the guy in Russian and learned that he wasn’t in physical pain, but emotional pain.  His grandson had just died, so he drank himself into a stupor, and his family didn’t know what to do with him, so they drove him at the hospital.  With three Russian families in the emergency room, wouldn’t it make sense to have an interpreter readily available?

Cedars-Sinai built a a major new building last year.  It cost millions of dollars.  The medical center has the best equipment, which must cost a fortune.   But would it really cost that much more to have a few more interpreters?   The hospital doesn’t need to have an interpreter for every language on duty 24/7, but Cedars-Sinai is smack in the middle of the major Russian and Persian communities of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.  Many of these are elderly people who don’t speak the English, and they end up getting less than mediocre medical care in a supposedly top-notch hospital.  There are Spanish interpreters in most city hospitals.  There are Korean-speaking interpreters in mid-city hospitals.   Why is Cedars-Sinai so stingy with their interpreters?  Have a donor put his name on the interpreters’ uniforms if it would help get more money!

I know Cedars-Sinai would rather be known as the “hospital of the stars” and promote all the A-list actors who go there after drug rehab.    I understand that UCLA Medical Center is stealing some of the “celebrity cache” from Cedars since it is located in the less immigrant friendly, more upscale Westside (oh no, Britney had her baby there!).  The truth is Cedars-Sinai is now more of a “city hospital,” which means catering to the immigrant community.  Sure, it must be an annoyance for the busy, overworked staff to deal with foreign-speaking patients (unless, of course, the patient is a member of some Royal family),  but shouldn’t effective communication be an essential part of medical care?

Update:  Fanya is doing better.  More complaining about Cedars.


  1. alissa

    That is horrible! I agree 100% with you, there needs to be more options for people who don’t speak English.

    Fanya is in my prayers!

  2. Karl

    Wow, thanks for writing this, Neil. I guess I never thought stuff like this happened. How can such a huge affluent hospital not have interpreters?

  3. not supergirl

    First of all, all my best to Fanya, may she recover quickly.
    Secondly, in answer to your question, yes they should. They should be doing everything you mentioned. there is no excuse for what’s happening to them or to anyone else who cannot get competent and appropriate medical care in a developed, privileged, fortunate country like this one. Cedars-Sinai sounds like a microcosm of our healthcare system and your story demonstrates how close people can be to excellent care without receiving it due to all kinds of reasons, most of which are highlighted by class or ethnic differences. (And when class and ethnicity collide to make a person very much the “other” they’re really screwed.)
    So, so sorry that you’re all having to fight with this. It’s wrong.

  4. sarah

    I’ll be praying for Fanya! Let us know how she is doing.
    I agree on the language barriers, and yes, I am for learning English..but you are right that there are just some instances where it can’t happen. Maybe Sophia needs to just be an interpreter! : )

  5. peefer

    Frank Sinatra died there does not impress me. I thought hospitals were supposed to prevent that kind of thing from happening.

  6. Sizzle

    hospitals give me the heebie jeebies. i’m thinking good thoughts for all of you, especially fanya.

  7. Tuck

    1. Prayers to Fanya. 2. Can you hang a sign over her bed explaining that she does not speak English with Sophia’s cell #? 3. Confirm that they have it in her chart about not speaking English with Sophia’s cell. 4. Isn’t she also entitled to a patient advocate? In the meantime, keep good notes. All the best.

  8. Dana

    My prayers are with Fanya and Vartan. He must be upset and lonely, too!

    Start a letter-writing campaign. Find out the names of the administrators. I’ll bet your loyal readers would participate.

    Find a celebrity with Russian ancestry and lobby for attention and support. That might change something fast.

    I know you hate the LA Times, but bite your tongue and write another letter to the editor.

    It’s ridiculous that in a state where you’re practically a pariah if you aren’t bilingual-Spanish (whether legal or not, and the taxpayers’ money is allocated for this), a highfalutin’, big-profile hospital can’t provide Russian interpreters. Duh. There’s always been a large Russian community in W. Hollywood and in the Fairfax area. My first babysitter, my beloved Anna, moved there in the 1950s and spent her whole life there. The least they could do would be to troll for volunteers!

  9. fringes

    We’ve had all that happen to us and more at one of the best U.S. hospitals, and we speak fluent English. Tuck is right about the sign. There should be a whiteboard near the bed. Definitely keep notes.

    Our prayers are with Fanya.

  10. Dana

    Oh, yeah, one more thing. Get a hold of their marketing/PR/Community Relations departments and give them an earful. They don’t want negative press.

  11. Neil

    Sophia’s business card is attached to her mom’s file and she wrote her name and phone number on the whiteboard. Useless so far.

  12. psychomom

    Prayers for Fanya, all your family, and our medical system.

  13. wordgirl

    Thoughts going out to Fanya. You can bet that if there was a famous Russian celebrity, they’d be falling all over themselves with every service they could pull out of their asses. Have you written a letter to the hospital? Have you written an Op-Ed piece for the paper where you live? The public needs to hear what you’ve just told us.

  14. Bre

    I’m sure it all comes down to politics and budgets and all sorts of technical things that overlook the actual purpose of the hospital. It’s ridiculous, really, because without the patients the hospitals wouldn’t exist!

  15. better safe than sorry

    prayers to fanya!
    i know here, it’s not even just language barriers, i feel for anyone who winds up in the hospital without anyone to chase down a nurse or doctor, you really need to have someone with you at all times to make sure you are properly looked after, shouldn’t be that way.

  16. Churlita

    I’m sorry things were so frustrating. I used to be a nursing assistant at one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country and we had only two Spanish interpreters. There is a huge Mexican migrant population here. Since I can speak Spanish, I spent half my time on the job translating because the interpeters were spread so thin. Ugh.

  17. mrsatroxi

    Sending good thoughts to Fanya and the rest of the family.

    It’s a shame that hospitals make us hate everything about them while they are in the process of helping us get well.

  18. Jennifer

    Maybe if you’re lucky, Baryshnikov will be in town and come down with a case of Ebola or something. That might get an interpreter to the hospital. Until then, keep griping. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or maybe it’s the squeaky hemorrhoid….but make sure someone stays with her 24/7. That’s the only way to be sure she is not a victim of a stupid medical error, like orange juice. And don’t hesitate to ask for the nursing supervisor/charge nurse/head honcho and demand good treatment. They work for you, not the other way around.
    Sorry for the soapbox; hope they get to the root of the problem.

  19. LisaBinDaCity

    When I lived in LA, St. John’s in Santa Monica was the place to go. Cedar Sinai got all the publicity but those “in the know” headed off to Santa Monica.

    Maybe she can be moved there?

    Best of luck to you and your family.

  20. girl and dog

    How pathetic, but not uncommon. Doctors who practice Western medicine and the institutions they work for could care LESS about the patient as a whole. They “treat” organs, re-attach appendages, prescribe medication without knowing what they’re doing, and most of the time don’t spend five minutes figuring out how their patients are feeling. With emotions playing such a big part in our overall health, shouldn’t it make sense for doctors to take into account how a patient is REALLY feeling?

    I hope your family never has to experience something like that again, but I’m not optimistic given the state of medical care in the U.S.

  21. Scarlet

    Oh wow, that’s just terrible and makes my heart hurt to think of the people who have to go there with no family.

  22. Danny

    It’s not as if Fanya speaks some obscure language, it’s appalling that there isn’t a team of Russian interpreters at Cedars. And the bit about her getting the wrong food reminds me how much every patient needs an advocate, no matter how “nice” the hospital. We sure felt this in Encino last week when Kendall’s uncle was in the ICU there.

    Speedy recovery to Fanya, and bravo to you, Neil, for confronting the Cedars staff.

  23. steppingoverthejunk

    people are stupid. How sorry that is that it is such a mess there, a world known hospital. I know many folks who have gone through there, my grandfather died there. It is strange to think they can’t figure out all the needs aside from a big new renovation to make it a place that saves people and doesn’t make stupid mistakes. Okay, that was a total ramble, but you catch my drift.

  24. Pearl

    Neil, “refuah shlema/speedy recovery” to Sophia’s mom; hope all goes well.

    My father was recently in a Toronto hospital for 3 months; I noticed postings in central hall locations of staff members who speak other languages and are available for interpretation. These are not formal interpreters, just people with a common language.

    Lobby with the hospital administration that they should do something similar at least.

    It is pretty pathetic with the language barriers. My father was rooming in the hospital at different times with Russian speakers — my father does speak Russian and sometimes played the interpreter when he was cognitive enough to do so. Otherwise what did the nurses do? They spoke LOUDER in English to the Russian speaker, as if that would make a difference…or they simply ignored their calls!

    Some commenter mentioned getting a celebrity with Russian ancestry to lobby for such intrepreters at the hospital — who knows KIRK DOUGLAS? His parents were Russian immigrants to the U.S. He’s used the hospital’s services, no doubt, with his strokes; he’s got some loose pocket change, no doubt. Get on the phone to him!

    You can do it, Neilochka. And if not you, your feisty maiden Sophia certainly can!!! Good luck.

  25. Two Roads

    Wishes for a speedy recovery for Fanya.

  26. Not Faint Hearted

    Everyone has given great advice about keeping the pressure on the charge nurses, the patient advocates and PR department if necessary. They may also have someone called a “Care Coordinator” who could help with this. In the meantime, keep the records and take care of each other.
    My prayers are with you all and for Fanya’s speedy recovery.

  27. Lisa

    Oh, I’m so sorry. That’s so scary. And then made worse for her by the communication barrier. You and your family and Fanya especially are in my thoughts. I hope she recovers quickly.

  28. sbukophile

    I hope all goes well for Fanya!

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s just a language barrier problem. My 90-year old grandmother was taken to the hospital a couple years ago, transferred to a different one, we were all waiting in the ER with her (for hours) and I asked the nurses if she could have something to drink or an IV, because she hadn’t had any food or liquids for about 8-hours. They told me her room was almost ready, they’d put an IV in then. A few hours later, they took her up to the room. Everyone said I could leave. I stayed because she still didn’t have an IV. A few hours later they finally came and gave her an IV. It was more than 12-hours since she’d had food or liquids in her body. I thought it was appalling and could only imagine if I had not been there bugging them about it! I think it’s important to make sure friends/family are there as often as possible to be advocates for anyone unable to be their own.

    I’m so sorry you are all going through this!

  29. Miss Syl

    What a nightmare that hospital sounds like!

    Sophia, my best wishes for your mom’s speedy recovery. I’m thinking of you and your family.

  30. [MetrobloggingLA] Sweating Bullets...

    Neil at Citizen of the Month discovers the “world class” patient care at Cedars Sinai is more third world class if you don’t speak English. (in all fairness, I think this has less to do with language barrier than the size of your pocketbook).

  31. mrsmogul

    This makes the British Health Care System seem fab! Anyway, did you hear the stars usually rent the whole top floor of the labor room, (like Britney Spears) and get away with having an entourage?

  32. It's Me... Maven

    Get well wishes to Fanya… and I hope someone out there from Cedars-Sinai learns about this, and hopefully does something to remedy this.

1 Pingback

  1. University Update

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial