Beyond Words - Language Blog

Vicarious Trauma: A Lesson in Empathy

I worked as a medical interpreter at a level one trauma hospital for three years. In the beginning, the work felt frenetic and gratifying and new every day. But after a year or so, I started to feel anxious and less fulfilled by my work. I found myself one day stumbling onto the floor of the hospital reserved for psych patients. I don’t know exactly what my intention was, but I asked the first hospital employee I saw for help. I said something like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I’d like to talk to someone.” The person looked at me, blinked, and then handed me a card with a number for a telephone helpline. I never called. I was cognizant even then of how odd it was to go there in search of support. I knew they wouldn’t be able to help me in the way that I needed, and I still went. I didn’t know where else to go.

Last month at the IMIA conference in Houston, Texas, I attended an eye-opening presentation by Grace Eagan called “Interpreter Debriefs: Model for Self-Care and Vicarious Trauma Support.”

I’ve noticed a recent uptick in the discussions and research surrounding the topic of vicarious trauma in the interpreting community. Professionals are beginning to articulate what happens when we leave a heavy interpretation, the emotional residue that stays with us as a result of being present during the worst days of our patients’ lives. Speaking their words. Imitating their tone. Reflecting their emotions.

Eagan’s presentation was exceedingly valuable, because it not only provided insight into why interpretation can leave emotional scars, but it also covered the practical steps that one organization took to support their interpreters. Access Alliance Language Services worked in collaboration with Hospital for Sick Children to develop a program. On the day of the presentation, I sat and listened as Eagan spoke about how the program was implemented, what worked, what failed, and how their interpreters reacted to the sessions. Eagan provided participants with a toolkit; chock-full of valuable information on how to implement a program like this at home. I left feeling inspired and made a beeline for my colleague, Marge. That same day, we started making plans for our first session at ALTA.

In order to understand why this project feels so (for lack of a better word) sacred, I’d like to talk about the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s easy to confuse these words. They share a Greek root, “pathos” which means, “feeling” or “suffering.” Sympathy’s root “syn,” means “with” while the “em” in empathy means “in” or “within.” When we sympathize, we feel sorrow or pity for another person, but we don’t truly understand what they’re going through because we’ve never experienced it ourselves. Empathy goes a step further. When we empathize, we connect because we know where that person has been. We feel it within.

Interpretation can be a solitary job. Especially for contract interpreters, it can be difficult to find someone who can empathize with you when you talk about the things you’ve experienced in this line of work. But what if we could create a space for interpreters to come and lean on each other? To just be heard. To empathize.

On June 25th, nine interpreters came to our first Interpreter Dialogue and shared their stories. One interpreter described a particularly gut wrenching experience- one difficult thing stacked on another, stacked on another. I felt myself nodding, connecting to the elements of her story because I’ve experienced those things myself. I watched as other interpreters around the room did the same thing. The story resonated with them too. There was something about being in a room full of people who understood what she’d experienced on a personal level that felt really nourishing.

At the end of the night as I turned off the lights in the office and locked the doors, I thought about a study on mirror neurons that I learned about once in college. In the study, researchers compared brain scans of participants as they experienced an emotion and as they observed that same emotion in another person. The conclusion of the study was that when you observe another person experiencing an emotion, your brain reacts as if you yourself are actively feeling that emotion. When those researchers were reviewing and comparing those scans, what they were actually looking at was a picture of human empathy. The implications of this study, what this means about how humanity is connected on a basic, biological level makes me hopeful. We’re made to lean on each other. We’re made to support each other.

If you’d like to be a part of a session like this, our doors are open to you. Our August session is currently full, but we will be offering this Dialogue every month. Stay tuned.


Stephanie Wiley is an Atlanta native and a Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter. She currently works as Education Manager in the Interpreter Training department at ALTA Language Services.