Going to the hospital with a heart attack is traumatic enough, but it can be terrifying if you can't communicate with the doctors and nurses.

"I was in an unfamiliar place, my girlfriend wasn't there, I was just in this white room. It was very scary, I didn't know where I was and what was going on," said John D'Ambrosio.

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D'Ambrosio is deaf. He said when he had a heart attack in June 2011, no one on staff at Halifax Medical Center in Volusia County knew American Sign Language, making it extremely difficult for him to describe his medical crisis and for the staff to explain what was happening.

In the five days D'Ambrosio was treated at Halifax, he said communication sputtered through a spotty video link with an interpreter and hand-scrawled notes.

"They said, 'Later, later, later, later, later,' and it just kept being later, later," D'Ambrosio said hospital staff told him about a live interpreter.

D'Ambrosio and two other patients have sued Halifax, claiming the hospital failed to provide them with live interpreters who could speed up and clarify communication between patient and medical professionals.

He said he worries that difficulty communicating with doctors and nurses there could have cost him his life.

"When I woke up, she had a mask on her face, and she pulled it down and said, 'Can you read my lips?' I guess," he said, referring to a nurse.

But D'Ambrosio does not read lips. He communicates primarily using American Sign Language, or ASL.

D'Ambrosio said he didn't get a live interpreter for days. Initially, he and hospital staff used a computer system called Video Remote Interpreting to communicate.

VRI is similar to Skype; the deaf person signs to the computer, and an interpreter in the remote location voices those words for the hospital staff. Using that relay system is acceptable under hospital policy and the Americans with Disabilities Act – if it works. D'Ambrosio said that wasn't the case at Halifax where it often didn't function properly.

"I saw there was something over in the room... And my girlfriend explained to me it was a video relay interpreter, but it wasn't working," he said. "The doctor was just standing there and then he left. I guess the internet was down, the network was down. And the nurse says, 'Oh, I hate this thing.'"

When the video link failed, hospital workers turned to handwritten notes to communicate with D'Ambrosio. But he reads at a fourth grade level and much of the complex medical information they wrote was difficult for him to understand.

While D'Ambrosio said Halifax didn't offer effective interpretation, Halifax officials said the hospital did. Earlier this year, a federal judge agreed with the hospital.

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory A. Presnell threw out D’Ambrosio’s lawsuit, saying there's no legal requirement for hospitals to provide a live interpreter on every occasion. Presnell ruled that Halifax’s use of the videoconferencing system and handwritten notes provided them the same level of care as patients who are not deaf.

"It is always Halifax Health's goal to provide necessary and effective communication to all of our patients," Halifax spokeswoman Tangela Boyd said in a written statement provided to Local 6. "We are pleased that the Court has agreed with us by ruling in our favor."

But the hospital policy provided to Local 6 by Boyd says the hospital staff has to make every effort to provide a live interpreter if one is requested.

Now, D'Ambrosio and the other two Halifax patients who filed suit with him are appealing the judge's ruling.

"To say the communication that was provided was effective-- there was no communication, so you don't have to get into the question of effective, because no communication took place," said Bates. "That's unacceptable."

A Different Language

Deaf people who rely on American Sign Language to communicate will tell you, ASL is not English, it's a different language.

Local 6 spoke to Malia Johnson, the CEO of Deaf Talk, LLC. It's an Orlando-based company that offers certified ASL interpreters and focuses on bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing worlds.

Johnson is deaf herself; and said ASL is actually a different language than English. Despite signs that translate to English words and phrases, Johnson said in some cases, deaf individuals that are fluent in ASL may not be fluent in English at all. That means they may have lower reading comprehension levels, just as D'Ambrosio said he does.