It was the early morning on Feb. 6, 2018, and Larry Williams started to experience shortness of breath, disorientation, hallucinations and couldn’t walk.
The 67-year-old spoke primarily Navajo and relied on his wife, Lenora Williams, to help translate for him. However, that day she was unable to go with him to the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.
According to his family, the hospital didn’t consider his language needs and did not call for a Navajo interpreter to be present with him during the visit with doctors.
The language barrier led to a gap in the examination. Williams’ altered mental state was missed by the San Juan medical staff, which would have helped the hospital determine that he was suffering from sepsis, according to a lawsuit the family has filed against San Juan Regional Medical Center.
Instead, the San Juan medical staff misdiagnosed Williams, treated him for urinary tract infections and sent him home, his family said. He became more confused and his condition got worse as the day went on. That evening, his wife Lenora decided to take him back to the hospital where they discovered he was suffering from severe septic shock.
His condition worsened and Williams died the next day from respiratory failure.
“How could this have been missed?” said Lynlaria Dickson, his daughter.
Larry Williams was a “fighter,” who was described by his family as someone who never backed down from anything. He was a retired welder, a father of seven children with his wife, Lenora. He was like a cowboy who refused to accept that he couldn’t do anything and would find a way. He was the heart of his family and they would go to him whenever they had problems.
After coming to terms with his passing, the family decided to take action.
In 2021, they found representation with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Fine Law Firm. On Wednesday, their attorneys filed a motion asking the courts to hold San Juan Regional Medical Center liable for failing to provide Larry Williams with a Navajo interpreter, which they argue led to his misdiagnosis and death.
“We did everything we could, we trusted the medical providers at San Juan Regional Medical Center because they’re the experts, they know all the medical terminologies, and everything that happens to a person’s body,” Dickson said. “They should be able to find the answers, or tell us what was happening.”
Dickson and her sister, Lariat Williams, were with their father during his first visit to San Juan Regional Medical Center and noticed the medical staff’s lack of communication with him.
“They did not talk to my dad, they didn’t ask him if he was OK or what was wrong,” Dickson said. “It was more or less like the doctor was talking to us instead of talking to my dad.”
In their response to the lawsuit, the hospital’s attorneys deny any wrongdoing by the medical staff. They do say that Williams was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection at his first visit but that he died from “unavoidable medical complications or preexisting conditions unrelated to the conduct of the (hospital).”
The sisters tried their best to tell the doctor of their father’s symptoms and communicate back to him, but they aren’t fully fluent in Navajo.
“And we just kind of thought we were being brushed off just because we were Native American,” Williams said.
The family is well familiar with that feeling from the bias they say they face around their community.
“There’s a lot of discrimination, we know that. I go into Farmington, I get the looks all the time, and I hear people saying stuff,” she said.
The family said the options that Native Americans have for health care are slim when you live in rural areas of New Mexico.
“We all come to Farmington, to the San Juan Regional Medical Center, thinking we’re getting the best care possible because it’s a bigger hospital than our small Indian hospitals. Our Indian hospitals don’t have a lot of experts to see us in regards to the struggles that we face on the Indian reservations,” Williams said.
Preston Sanchez, the family’s attorney with the ACLU, said the hospital should be held liable “for not attending to the needs of their patients.”
“The San Juan Regional Medical Center is to blame for not training their staff, not providing adequate language services for patients,” Sanchez said. “What this is revealing to us is that there’s likely a much greater violation of civil rights at a systemic level that we’re starting to become aware of around the lack of language as assistance provisions.”
The hospital’s lack of accommodation for Larry Williams could be seeded under prejudice motives according to his daughter, Lariat.
“If we were a different skin color, maybe they would have treated my dad differently, they probably would have talked to him instead of talking to us,” she said. “They really need to pay attention that they’re serving the whole population, not just one certain race.”
San Juan County has a predominant Native American community. Williams says that hospitals in that area need to pay more attention to their patients’ needs like the need of an interpreter for people who speak only Navajo.
Dickson says that her father’s language barrier must have been a frightening situation to be in when he was in the hospital and was unaware of what was happening.
“Imagine someone just approaches you and starts sticking needles in you. Not explaining to you what they’re trying to do. Was that even explained to my father, at all?” she said.
The Williams family’s reason for bringing their tragedy to the public is so it doesn’t happen again.
“We just don’t want this to happen to other families,” said Lariat Williams.
The loss of Larry Williams is still felt by his family everyday. His rich knowledge of traditional Navajo customs and traditions are lost with his passing.
“Some of his culture teachings, I don’t even know because my dad didn’t get that opportunity to share it with me,” Lariat Williams said. “I really wish I would have asked more questions.”
Sanchez (Jemez, Laguna, Navajo) says that there are ways to prevent this kind of situation from happening again by providing awareness to the root issue that there are laws in place that require translators for people in medical emergencies.
“It requires that we as citizens of New Mexico, that Indigenous people of New Mexico, that our lawmakers and our courts are aware of not only this, the scenario in which Larry was subjected to, but aware of the fact that there are laws that require the standards to be applied,” he said. “The standards must address the language needs, and cultural needs of the patients.”
Lynlaria Dickson still keeps her father’s memory alive through his grandchildren by reminding them to “keep making grandpa proud, he’s watching us, and he’s still here with us.”