Many people agree that interpreting services are sometimes overlooked, but very few people know about the harmful consequences of doing so. I have witnessed firsthand the extent to which this occurs.
A couple of months ago, I was shadowing at a dental clinic near my hometown. They did not offer interpreting services since most of their community spoke English as a first language. Nonetheless, a significantly high percentage of its patients currently experience limited English proficiency. While shadowing at the clinic, I observed a tooth extraction for two Hispanic children who had been accompanied by their mother. Although the kids were English proficient, their mother was not. Moreover, she did not mention the fact at any moment.
After both procedures were completed, the doctor proceeded to explain the post-surgery instructions to the mother, who was the only authorized adult to receive information about the kids. I watched the interaction between the doctor and the mother and noticed that it was mainly a one-way interaction. She just nodded and smiled. Finally, the doctor released her and the kids, and they proceeded to the exit door.
I hesitated for a moment on whether it was my duty to intrude in the patient-to-doctor interaction and let the doctor know of a possible language barrier or stay silent and let her go. Nevertheless, I decided to speak up, so they went looking for her.
- Assistant: “Hey ma’am, did you feel like you understood everything the doctor explained to you regarding your kids’ post-op instructions?”
- (the woman smiles and stays silent)
- Assistant: “Whoa! Hold on. Espere aquí, por favor.”
- Wait here, please.
The doctor’s assistant rushed to the doctor and explained what happened. Shocked and flustered, they did not know what to do. Luckily, I witnessed this other interaction and felt comfortable enough to interject and explain that I was a qualified medical interpreter and that I could help. Thus, I proceeded to interpret for the lady and the doctor.
Afterward, the doctor left immediately to check on other patients. Left alone with me, the woman took advantage of the opportunity and expressed her gratitude. I had not seen such a genuine reaction in a long time.
- Woman: “No entiende cuánto le agradezco que me haya ayudado.”
- You don’t understand how much I appreciate you helping me.
- Me: “No se preocupe, fue un placer.”
- Don’t worry, it was a pleasure.
- Woman: “Hay veces que simplemente siento miedo o vergüenza de decir que se me dificulta el inglés.”
- Sometimes I just feel scared or ashamed to say that English is difficult for me.
- Me: “Por favor, de ahora en adelante recuerde que usted tiene todo el derecho del mundo a pedir un intérprete. Las consecuencias pueden ser muy graves.”
- Please, from here on out remember that you have every right in the world to request an interpreter. The consequences can be very serious.
- (the woman smiles)
- Me: “Además, no hay por qué tener vergüenza. Al igual que a usted se le dificulta el inglés a ellos se les dificulta el español. Es algo mutuo.”
- Also, there’s no need to feel ashamed. Spanish is difficult for them in the same way that English is difficult for you. It’s a mutual thing.
- Woman: “De verdad, gracias. Cuídese mucho.”
- I really appreciate it. Take care.
- Me: “Igualmente.”
- You too.
This experience is only one of many similar encounters with patients who either feel ashamed, inferior, or scared to speak up. Although the most logical solution is to start implementing medical interpreting services nationwide, we can start with ourselves. By spreading awareness, making people feel included, or even asking whether they think they understood everything is a good method to approach this issue.
If you know someone who is bilingual and cares about this issue, please let them know that there are ways to help. By joining the ALTA family, many can become qualified and help in a more direct manner.
Ariana Cabrera is a qualified medical interpreter, and a member of Emory Volunteer Medical Interpreter Services. She currently attends Emory University, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology.