Interpreters Give the Gift of Presence

Ryan Odland, Heather Grizzle-Odland and their daughter, Aleksandra.

Imagine you are in a new town, at the end of your second trimester of a high-risk pregnancy with your first child and need a doctor, and neither you nor your spouse speaks the language. Heather Grizzle-Odland, 34, and her husband, Ryan Odland, 33, of Port Washington, were not ordinary parents-to-be. They were, in fact, quite extraordinary.

The Odlands’ story does not start out sounding unfamiliar. They met on their university campus and hit it off immediately. Ms. Grizzle-Odland was earning two bachelor’s degrees and Mr. Odland his master’s. They are passionate about their work and were excited and anxious about the birth of their first baby.

They sound like many other couples, and in many ways they are.

But Ms. Grizzle-Odland is deaf and Mr. Odland is deaf-blind. They met at Gallaudet University, a private university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, DC. So when Ms. Grizzle-Odland moved to Long Island in mid-2014 to join Mr. Odland, who had moved in the fall of 2013 to start a new job in Sands Point, she knew she needed to find an obstetrics practice with access to interpretation services. Ms. Grizzle-Odland was born hearing, but a fever when she was just 2 days old caused profound hearing loss, and she communicates solely through sign language.

A Search for Services

A neighbor told Ms. Grizzle-Odland about the North Shore-LIJ Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, which serves women with obstetrical or medical complications and, as part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, offers sign language interpretation services.

“I’ve been to other hospitals, most recently in Washington, DC, that made interpreters available, but they didn’t have medical knowledge. The interpreters who worked with me at North Shore-LIJ had medical experience, so that was very helpful,” Ms. Grizzle-Odland said.

North Shore-LIJ Deaf Health Services coordinates interpretation services for North Shore University Hospital (NSUH) and LIJ Medical Center, including The Zucker Hillside Hospital and Cohen Children’s Medical Center. Three full-time specialists provide sign language interpretation services for patients and staff workshops at these hospitals as well as their more than 70 affiliated ambulatory facilities. When the coordinators are not available, carefully screened per diem interpreters provide interpretation.

“Our per diems must have national certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the ability to do medical interpretation,” said Eric Weiselberg, MD, director of Deaf Health Services. “We show the prospective interpreter medical scenarios of patients on video and the candidate is required to perform the interpretation.” Interpreters also need to be comfortable in nontraditional settings such as an operating room, a psychiatry appointment, and labor and delivery, and they must be skilled in American Sign Language, signed English, tactile (hand-over-hand) signing and interpreting for people with minimal signing skills.

A Team Effort

Danielle Davoli, coordinator of deaf health services at NSUH, was present for most of Ms. Grizzle-Odland’s appointments, and during her hospitalization leading up to and after the delivery. Ms. Davoli teamed up with the Zucker Hillside coordinator, Tara Tobin-Rogers, and several per diem interpreters to ensure round-the-clock interpretation for the Odlands.

“It was necessary to have two interpreters present to ensure that one could interpret for Heather and the other could interpret for Ryan — either in assisting with Heather’s care or in witnessing the birth of his daughter,” Ms. Davoli said.

“Having an interpreter for both of us was a great benefit so that the whole family could be involved,” Ms. Grizzle-Odland said.

Mr. Odland was born deaf due to Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that eventually causes vision loss as well. He also has macular degeneration, which sped up his vision loss during his teens and 20s. “My vision really took a dive during grad school and I became legally blind,” Mr. Odland said, who now uses a cane to get around and tactile signing to communicate.

With tactile signing, Mr. Odland places his hands on the back of the signer’s hands in order to understand. “If a second interpreter had not been available, I would have been totally out of the picture. It allowed us to relax, knowing we could both participate in the discussions and I could join in and fill in the blanks for Heather,” Mr. Odland said. “Sometimes I forget the details,” Ms. Grizzle-Odland added.

Two Weeks Past Due

When she was almost 42 weeks pregnant and still had no signs of prelabor, doctors admitted Ms. Grizzle-Odland to the hospital to induce labor. But after nearly a day of receiving induction medication with no response, she was discharged. At an office follow-up a few days later, an ultrasound revealed low amniotic fluid, so her doctors attempted induction in the hospital again. After 15 hours of medication with no labor and with the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck, Ms. Grizzle-Odland insisted on a caesarean section.

Ms. Grizzle-Odland had a history of five prior miscarriages. Further complicating her pregnancy and imminent delivery was a rare blood factor deficiency that precluded an epidural and increased her risk for blood clotting and/or hemorrhage. So a caesarean section carried risks. But through steadfast interpretation throughout the process, including discussions with the hematologist, obstetrician, anesthesiologist, chief resident and more, Ms. Grizzle-Odland and Mr. Odland understood this would be a high-risk delivery and wanted what was best for the baby.

And Then There Were Three

Ms. Davoli stuck with Ms. Grizzle-Odland to interpret for her in the operating room, while Ms. Tobin-Rogers stayed with Mr. Odland to interpret while he awaited news. On October 3, 2014, Aleksandra Cierra Odland was born via caesarean section, healthy and hearing, and Ms. Grizzle-Odland did not suffer any bleeding complications.

“Many people think deaf people have lower intelligence or are less competent, but we’re the same as everyone else,” Mr. Odland said. “North Shore-LIJ helped us a lot and we appreciate that. Having access to one interpreter each made everyone feel part of the creation of the family, and that’s something to remember and look back on.”


Access Deaf Health Services

Appointment schedulers at North Shore University Hospital, LIJ Medical Center, The Zucker Hillside Hospital and Cohen Children’s Medical Center will contact Deaf Health Services as soon as an appointment is made for a deaf patient to ensure an interpreter will be present at the future appointment. Anyone calling to make an appointment on behalf of a deaf patient should mention that the patient is deaf and will need interpretation services.

To schedule sign language interpretation:

LIJ Medical Center and Cohen Children’s Medical Center:

Contact Kim Hirschberger at 516-465-5209 or [email protected].

North Shore University Hospital:

Contact Danielle Davoli at 516-562-4602 or [email protected].

The Zucker Hillside Hospital:

Contact Tara Tobin-Rogers at 516-465-5202 or [email protected].

Evenings, weekends and holidays: Ask for the sign language interpreter on-call.

TTY is available upon request.


Read the next article, In the Community: From Pioneers to New Physicians


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