I am originally from Portugal, which does not have a strong immigration tradition like the United States, so there is not much diversity as far as different languages and cultures.
While growing up, I was very interested in learning other languages and cultures. My favorite TV program was the Travel Channel. Whenever I watched, my mind would transport me and I imagined living in that country. I remember driving my parents crazy whenever I would spend the day pretending that I was Chinese and only eat with chopsticks, or when I would decide to be Spanish for the whole day and only speak Spanish.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to vacation in different countries and study abroad, which was a great way to learn different languages and understand cultural differences.
My passion for other languages led me to learn three languages besides Portuguese, and in 1997 I got a bachelor’s degree in translation and master’s in interpretation. I started working as a conference interpreter and although it was very interesting and well-paid, and it was what I was trained for, I missed the human contact and hated to be stuck in a booth for hours without any interaction with the speakers.
A year later I decided to come to Chicago to start a new life and loved it from the moment I arrived. Wow! Over 100 different languages and hundreds of different ethnic restaurants in one city? And so many different neighborhoods.
Soon I found out about the huge need for medical interpreters and decided to take a medical interpreting course. This type of interpreting is nonexistent in my home country. I’ve been working as a medical interpreter for the past 16 years, and I find it to be the most rewarding job ever. I love the fact that I am able to use languages other than Portuguese and help non-English speaking patients who wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with a provider.
Interpreting in a medical setting is more than just using words. All interpretation requires cultural competency, but this is especially important in medical interpreting. The interpreter must be aware of both the patient’s culture and the provider’s understanding of a patient’s culture to interpret adequately and avoid any misunderstandings that can lead to a misdiagnosis.
I remember the case of a neurology patient who was suffering from seizures after being asymptomatic for many years, and believed that the only treatment that would cure his epilepsy was to immerse his entire body in a freshly slaughtered cow and remain inside it for at least 24 hours. He had undergone this treatment as a child back in his hometown in Mexico, and the treatment had supposedly cured him. And no matter what the doctor explained about the causes of his epilepsy and treatment options, he did not believe or accept the treatment offered.
It’s in situations like these when it is crucial to have a skilled interpreter present to explain the different cultural beliefs behind the patient’s way of thinking. People have different beliefs concerning diseases and remedies based on their culture and religion, and I really enjoy this essential aspect of interpreting in the medical field.
Being an interpreter in the hospital is such a fulfilling job because it combines my passion for languages, culture and helping others. It is so rewarding to see the grateful looks in their eyes or hear words of gratitude.