Beyond Words - Language Blog

When the Patient is your Mother

This year, my coworker and I went to California to present at the CHIA conference. Three hours before our presentation, I got this text message from my mom: “I’m ok, but I’m in the hospital.” She’d fainted in her bathroom the night before. She hit the rim of the bathtub as she fell and broke 3 ribs. One of the ribs punctured her lung. She lives alone, so she was on the floor of her bathroom for an hour trying to catch her breath and gather the strength to crawl to the phone and call 911. “Molly’s with me. I’ll keep you updated. I love you.”

I stood up and tried to walk calmly out of the presentation I was attending. I clamped my hand over my mouth to stop the sob that gurgled up in my throat. I booked the first flight out of Orange County to Atlanta. We gave our presentation from 1:30-2:30, and I was on a plane at 3:50. Three connections and one six-hour layover later, I walked into my mom’s hospital room. Being in a hospital as the patient’s family member instead of as an interpreter feels bizarre.

It all feels bigger when they’re yours.

I remember thinking that if I’d been interpreting for her, if she hadn’t been my mother, I would’ve thought the accident wasn’t that serious. Her vitals looked great. They’d re-inflated her lung. Her ribs would heal.

But it all feels bigger when they’re yours. Everything was amplified- scarier, more urgent, more exhausting. Those were my mom’s broken ribs. My mom’s collapsed lung. The tube stuck between her ribs, into her lung seemed enormous. My quietly graceful southern mother looked skinny and vulnerable in her hospital gown and it felt devastating. This seems so obvious, but it was a good reminder for me to actually feel what our patients and their families feel.

Being in the hospital as a family member feels both completely new and completely familiar.

It’s an odd sensation. Novelty and familiarity are usually on opposite ends of the spectrum, not huddled right next to each other. Being in the hospital felt kind of like being home. I’d spent 40 hours a week for 3 years in hospital rooms just like my mom’s, but I’d never slept in the chair next to the hospital bed until that week. The nurse wrote the word “daughter,” with my name and phone number on the whiteboard in her room. I know each question they asked my mother in two languages. The novelty came with being a part of answering those questions.

It felt like a luxury to be involved. When we’re interpreting, we’re hemmed in (and protected) by our ethics. We’re on the outside of every conversation we facilitate. Being a part of this conversation felt like a good stretch after sitting for too long. Instead of interpreting instructions to a patient and their family, I actually did things. Her physical therapist showed me the least painful way to help her out of bed. I’ve interpreted it over and over for other patients. But this time, for my mother, it was my arm under her neck. It was my hand she held when she needed to steady herself.

I caught myself doing things that annoy me when I interpret

I understand why family members repeat information that’s just been said to patients. I caught myself doing it. The doctor would say something, and I would follow it up with almost the exact same information, just rewording it. There wasn’t even a language barrier. It’s just that I could tell my mom was overwhelmed by it all and I felt the urge to simplify. To make sure she’d understood. If a family member does this when I interpret, I sometimes feel annoyed. Like they’re insinuating that my interpretation wasn’t clear. I get it now.

After 3 days in the hospital I drove her home, full of gratitude for her healthy lung and healing ribs. The silver lining of the whole ordeal is that it gave me a deeper level of empathy for my patients and their families. I spend so much time at work ensuring that my interpretations are accurate and clear. That I’m remaining impartial. I think I forget sometimes how disorienting (at best) and terrifying (at worst) it is to be in the hospital, or to be there for someone you love in the hospital.

To my mother- who is strong and kind and beautiful, I’m grateful you and both your lungs are here for this Mother’s Day. I love you.


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.

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