‘Lucky to Be an Interpreter’

IvanSalvadorBy Ivan Salvador

My story begins in 2008, when I was a quality assurance specialist working for a multinational finance corporation. I had held different positions for about seven years when all the downsizing due to the stagnant real estate market finally caught up with me. I had spent the last four years working in consumer finance, holding a good job which had one big problem: As good as this job was, with all the perks I had, it did not fulfill my needs on a professional level.

After being downsized, I turned to relatives for advice, in particular my sister who had mentioned that I might enjoy working as a medical interpreter. She had been an interpreter for a few years while she pursued her nursing degree. Given the difficult time I was having with finding a new job, I decided that the time to reinvent myself had arrived. Initially the thought of switching careers seemed very intimidating, but I was willing to give it a try.

So I signed up for the medical interpreting course and found it to be eye-opening. I soon realized that this job was completely different from anything I had done in the past. My previous jobs had me working in a cubicle with a computer and hardly any interaction with other people. In my new career, I would be working with all kinds of caregivers and patients in different types of settings. What I found most appealing was the fact that as an interpreter you get to help so many people who are unable to communicate because of their limited proficiency in the English language. Recalling my early days in the U.S., I was able to relate to this group of people: Not being able to communicate is something that is very frustrating and intimidating at the same time. I was very lucky in that I did not have to face situations like those of the patients I assist on a daily basis.

A few months after completing my training as a medical interpreter, I was hired to work for a community hospital that also happens to be a level-1 trauma center. I can’t honestly say that I was ready to be exposed to that type of encounter as a new interpreter, but I was determined to pursue this new career path with resolve. The levels of violence seen in person were initially quite shocking to me, but it was something I had to accept and be willing to deal with in my new career. After getting a few of these encounters under my belt, I realized the scope of how much of a difference having an interpreter made on the patient’s well-being. Patients’ were treated faster, appropriately and more efficiently when a trained interpreter was present. Without the aid of an interpreter, a patient could be misdiagnosed and receive care that could be counter-productive if not fatal. A trained interpreter is able to communicate everything the patient is stating in the proper context while maintaining transparency with both caregivers and patients.

The most important aspect of being an interpreter, and the reason why I enjoy doing my job, is the gratitude that I get from both caregivers and particularly the patients and their relatives. I can remember one particular encounter at Rush that made an impression on me professionally and personally. It was one of the most difficult types of encounters: a family conference. This particular case was regarding a patient who had run out of options as far as care was concerned. As is the case with these types of encounters, the room was filled with relatives and caregivers. In some cases, we interpreters get advance notice as to the subject matter of the family conference. Unfortunately for me, that did not happen in this case.

As the attending surgeon began giving the family a summary of what led the patient to be admitted at Rush, followed by the course of treatment the patient received,  I quickly realized this would be an end-of-life conference. The patient was the matriarch of the family, beloved and respected by all family members. The attending physician finally told the family that medically, nothing more could be done for the patient. It is those moments that are most difficult to deal with as an interpreter. It is human nature to try to provide some support to those suffering, but as interpreters we are not allowed to do that as we are only the conduit between caregivers and providers. After the initial shock and sadness that ensued from receiving such news, and the questions that followed for the doctor, the conference ended. As I was getting ready to exit the room, something quite remarkable happened; the patient’s husband approached me, put his arm around my shoulder, shook my right hand and thanked me for what I had done for them. The rest of relatives soon followed— with tears in their eyes they were sincerely grateful I was there, a complete stranger to them, giving them the worst possible news anyone could get.

I consider myself lucky to be an interpreter. Throughout my training, one thing that was repeated over an over was that this career is a very rewarding one. I have been through many instances where patients are so grateful to have someone who is there for the specific purpose of helping them communicate with their caregivers so that they can lead a better, healthier life.

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