Irina Vanpatten | SEATTLE | Have you ever thought how difficult it is when you are sick just with a regular flu, never mind with such a serious disease like corona virus, and you don’t understand your doctor? In a melting pot like the United States, when many families at home speak another language than English, the situation becomes even more complicated. Now throw into it the uncertainty of this new disease, and you can find yourself into a very difficult situation. That’s the time when you start appreciating the medical interpreters even more than during peace time.

Getting medically certified  in a foreign language in the United States is not easy. It takes a lot of time and commitment. You feel like you are going back to school because you have to take a series of language tests: written, oral, comprehension of the medical terminology itself. Many bilinguals are so intimidated, that they don’t even try to go through this rigorous process. So, it takes only the most determined and the most dedicated to pull it through.

Even fewer of them stay in it for long. Interpreters are in high demand at the hospitals at any time, but in the time of the pandemic their services are more needed than ever. The doctors cannot treat their patients effectively if they don’t understand each other.

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This is when I normally hear: “If you’re in America, you should speak English”, and it always rubs me the wrong way. Not only because it’s racist, which it is, but because there are a million reasons of why a patient doesn’t speak English that doesn’t mean that someone is unwilling to learn it.

in a foreign language in the United States is not easy. It takes a lot of time and commitment. You feel like you are going back to school because you have to take a series of language tests: written, oral, comprehension of the medical terminology itself. Many bilinguals are so intimidated, that they don’t even try to go through this rigorous process. So, it takes only the most determined and the most dedicated to pull it through.

It could happen that a person just got into the country, and is on their way of learning the language, but they are not fully confident to guess the English words, while making life and death decisions about their health. A person is someone’s grandma whose family speaks English just fine.

As any language specialist will tell you, it’s more difficult to learn a foreign language the older we get. Give grandma a break. If you ever tried to learn a foreign language in your adulthood, you’ll ask for a break too. A person is a guest, a foreign student, or a temporary legal worker in the United States. Also, there are a lot of foreign patients who travel to U.S. for treatment, if of course they can afford it, but that’s another subject.

Now back to my medical interpreters’ topic. Right now, the medical interpreters are in the trenches at the medical facilities every day, along with the doctors and nurses. They take the risk with every in-person appointment, fighting their fears of getting infected and bringing it home to their families.

Yes, on paper, the hospitals are supposed to provide them with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) during the interpreting jobs, but the hospitals are strained on the PPE themselves, so the reality is that’s not enough of it for other personnel. Think about this for a minute. Therefore, some of them, faced with the difficult decision of choosing between their income and their health, choose to stay at home. Especially if they are in the risk groups, like having an underlining health condition, or being sixty years old or above. Which in return decreases the pull of available interpreters, especially for rare languages.

Luckily, there is a safe alternative that is not new but it became evident and more necessary than ever during this pandemic. The medical appointments, by in large, are now moved to Over the Phone or Video Conference Appointments, called “telehealth”. At least, that’s how it’s called in Washington State, where I currently reside.  The interprets can safely do their jobs from their homes, providing their services to the population that needs it desperately.

Though, not without some frustrating technical challenges that the interpreters, the patients and the doctors needed to adjust to. Dropped calls, video without sound, sound without video, forgotten pin numbers and passwords, anything could happen, but in the end, it somehow works out. Some of the technical challenges were quite amusing, now that I think about it. Like in one tele-health session that I witnessed between my husband and his doctor. These two didn’t even have a language barrier. The doctor couldn’t figure out how to turn on the sound on her session.

Seeing these two communicate was like watching a deaf man talking to a mime. It got even more interesting when my husband tried to show the doctor his bruised toe to the computer camera, putting his foot on the table like a wannabe contortionist. Good grief! As my last statement, I would like to take a moment and thank the medical interpreters of the United States for their service! We need you, and we love you for the work you do!

Irina VanPatten, HORA in America contributor

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