The case of a deaf man who was unable to get a qualified sign language interpreter when he was rushed to the Saint John Regional Hospital with a suspected heart attack has highlighted the shortage of resources for the deaf and hard of hearing in New Brunswick, according to an advocate.

A 14-year-old girl ended up serving as interpreter for Mark Toner, 61, after his wife, in desperation, turned to social media for help.

"I really panicked because I couldn't get there in a timely manner and he was taken by ambulance," said Susan Toner.

The hospital does not have its own interpreter, said executive director Brenda Kinney. None of hospitals within the Horizon Health Network do, she said.

'In emergency situations Horizon would make every effort to find an interpreter.' - Brenda Kinney, Saint John Regional Hospital

Kinney declined to discuss a specific patient's case, citing privacy reasons. But when a deaf patient arrives at the Saint John Regional Hospital unaccompanied by an interpreter, staff call the Saint John Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc. for an interpreter, she stated in an email to CBC News.

"If no interpreter is available through the service and the situation is not urgent, we may reach out to the family or engage in a dialogue with the patient by writing," said Kinney.

"In emergency situations Horizon would make every effort to find an interpreter," she added without elaborating.

Toner was complaining of severe back pain on Friday, but staff at the special care home where he resides feared he might be having a heart attack and sent him to the hospital by ambulance, his wife said.

Only 4 interpreters for province

Lynn LeBlanc, executive director for the Saint John Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc., said there are only two qualified interpreters in the city. Both of them were already assigned elsewhere that day, she said.

There are only four qualified interpreters for the entire province, with the other two based in Fredericton and Moncton. Together, they serve a population of 750 people.

"We deliver probably 12,000 hours of interpreting services and sadly, due to our shortage in New Brunswick, oftentimes clients do end up going without service," LeBlanc said.

She also declined to discuss Toner's specific case, but said the hospital's triage services will tell the organization if a patient is in a life-threatening situation. In those cases, if a New Brunswick interpreter isn't available, the organization will bring in an interpreter from outside the province.

Kelci Adams, 14, of Saint John

Kelci Adams, 14, of Saint John, responded to Susan Toner's desperate plea for someone who knew sign language to help her deaf husband communicate with doctors at the emergency department. (Submitted)

Susan Toner said the hospital called her at home. "I was quite ill myself that day," said the 59-year-old. She called the Saint John Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services' main line and emergency line, but said she got no response at either one at first.

After several tries, she got in touch with the receptionist, who informed her that no interpreter was available.

Out of desperation, Toner turned to social media searching for anyone with a working knowledge of sign language to help her husband.

She found 14-year-old Kelci Adams through a Facebook interaction with the girl's mother, Shelley Adams.

'He seemed relieved that he could talk to, somebody that could understand him.' - Kelci Adams

Kelci said she was nervous about interpreting for Mark Toner, but was happy to help. "He seemed relieved that he could talk to, somebody that could understand him," she said.

Susan Toner said her husband found Kelci very pleasant and said she did a remarkable job interpreting.

Kelci decided to learn sign language after being inspired from a TV show called Switched at Birth.

"Me and my friend had this project to do, a science fair project, and we decided to do it on how long it will take the average teenager to learn sign language because we also watch this show that people in it are deaf so we thought it would be a cool idea," she explained.

Shortage of qualified interpreters

Although the Toners appreciated Kelci's help, LeBlanc cautioned that using an amateur interpreter can be be risky.

"Sometimes helping isn't always helping because misinformation is given that a person can follow direction that shouldn't have been followed. You need a professional interpreter at these events," LeBlanc said.

It takes years of study and practise to be deemed a qualified interpreter for doctor, lawyer and mental health appointments because such situations can be "life-altering."

"It takes 10 years to become fluent in a language … Then there is the three-year college program. And then upon graduation … there is five years of usually an internship type of apprenticeship before you can even start working in a medical type area," said LeBlanc.

"So it takes as long for the interpreter to get qualified to interpret in these situations as it takes a doctor to learn his craft to be able to look for medical services."

The province's four qualified interpreters work seven days a week, said LeBlanc. "They put in anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. They work very long and gruelling hours to try to provide as much access to the deaf community as they can," LeBlanc said.

She believes the root problem is that too few people are choosing to become interpreters.

"People who are looking for careers don't necessarily look towards sign language interpretation," she said.

Only one per cent of the population is deaf and often only those exposed to the community choose to pursue it as a career, she added.