Carlos Olvera is manager of Interpreter Services at Rush University Medical Center, where he helps patients and families communicate with doctors and staff in multiple languages. Rush’s Jody Lempa spoke to him about the rewards and challenges of his role.
What do you enjoy most about being an interpreter?
Everything! Just seeing patient’s faces and knowing that we are able to get involved in their care. We ask questions about them and empower the patients so that they are able to ask questions and understand. We try to be completely neutral and transparent; so we are trained to position ourselves so that the patient and provider look at and direct their conversation to each other. The interpreter stands behind the doctor, which is a little awkward at first, but after a few minutes, both the provider and patient feel comfortable enough to joke around and open up to each other, and converse more naturally. It seems the interpreters are providing “cultural brokers” at the time of the appointment, by educating others on various cultures, in how they talk and communicate.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Realizing that a patient has been at the hospital for a week or even many years, and that we have never been called. Often when we do receive a call, it is at a crucial point in their health when there is a serious problem or there is a family meeting that could have been avoided earlier. And it is often stressful when we have to give sad news. The other hard part is that people think interpreters are machines. It is part of our training to interpret everything that is said in a doctor’s visit. We want the patient and provider to be completely comfortable, but sometimes … it is difficult to translate medical jargon and terminology to a patient who does not necessarily understand those aspects, let alone the language barriers that exist.
How did interpreter services first get started here at Rush?
A: It started in 2000. The former director of volunteer services, Diane Mikrut, attended a conference and heard about a Senate bill that required large hospitals to provide language services. So when she came back, Diane invited managers and staff members to gather data about how often they were asked to interpret for patients.
There was a task force that she then organized and there were different representatives from different departments. For two years they gathered more information, and determined there was a need there for interpreter services. Three interpreters were hired by Dr. (Larry) Goodman, and we started our first day by going out and talking to people, and letting them know that we had this service available to use. We went floor by floor and encouraged others to use interpreters, and that is how we got our momentum and the word out. We had 120 requests the first month, and today we receive approximately 6,000 requests a month.
What motivated you to become interested in helping patients and families who are limited English-proficient, deaf or hard of hearing?
A: It all started when I was attending UIC for biology. The government was paying for my school, and I wanted to give back to the community. So I went to the old Cook County Hospital and approached the director about volunteering. He asked if I spoke another language, and when I said “Yes, I speak Spanish,” he immediately made me an interpreter, without any training required. They let me start helping patients, and I was 17 years old. I was also working at a genetics lab at the time, but once I began interpreting more, I felt like I was helping patients right then and there – and it provided instant gratification.
I stayed at Cook County for four years and then decided to take a break. When I went back, the director informed me that there was training required, and they referred me to Mireya Vera, the director of community services at Westlake Hospital.
What kind of training is needed to become a professional interpreter?
The first month of training was in a class setting, learning theories and using textbooks at Westlake Hospital. The second phase involved learning terminology, with a classroom setting combined with the clinical aspect of seeing patients. The third phase required 120 hours of community service, which I completed at Cook County Hospital. At the end of the third phase, I was a “trained interpreter.” Now that title requires individuals to complete 40 hours of training in interpreter services at any city college.
Interpreter Services at Rush University Medical Center can be reached at (312) 563-2987