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.
If you had asked me five years ago what I saw myself doing in 2012, I probably would have given you a variety of answers: playing cello for a symphony orchestra, teaching cello students privately, touring with a chamber group around the U.S. and the world. But I would never have imagined that I would end up working as a medical interpreter.
I was pursuing a career as a professional cellist, and on a typical fall afternoon in 2007, I was on my way to a rehearsal at a church in my neighborhood. I had just stepped inside the sacristy when I heard some commotion outside the door. An elderly Hispanic woman had just collapsed onto the steps, apparently as a result of a massive heart attack, and her husband was frantically pleading for help.
While the church staff called 911, I stood there debating what I should do. Should I just sit and wait for help to come, or should I try to do something myself? I didn’t know CPR, which is clearly what she needed; I was afraid to intervene in any way for fear that it would make things worse. At the same time, I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. I suddenly realized that they might need help communicating with the paramedics when they came. That’s it, I thought, I’ll use my Spanish to help them understand each other! So I put my cello down and went outside to wait with the husband and his ailing wife, ready to do whatever I could once the ambulance got there.
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.
After working in the office of a family-owned foundry in Chicago for over 14 years, I felt that I had advanced as far as I could in the company. I was tired of the regular day-to-day routine of orders, and bills. The only part I enjoyed was interpreting for our mainly Spanish-speaking workforce, but I needed to do something that was more meaningful.
At the age of 41, I decided to go back to college and take a medical interpreting course. Once I completed the one-year course, one of my professors hired me to work as an interpreter at Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park. I had two part-time positions before coming here to work at Rush University Medical Center.
Working as a medical interpreter is extremely rewarding. While it can also be very stressful, you go home at the end of the day knowing that you actually did something to help another human being.
During my life, I’ve always felt the calling to help others, and this help has taken many different forms. Whether volunteering as a substitute Spanish teacher at my children’s schools, volunteering to tutor Spanish-speaking grade school children in an underprivileged neighborhood, or acting as an intermediary and interpreter for family members, friends and colleagues from Spain seeking medical treatment and major surgeries in the U.S., I have always tried to provide support for people close to me in my life.
My experience as a medical interpreter for American friends in Spain included emergency surgeries, labor and delivery, and visits to the ER. In the United States, between 1992 and 2008, I interpreted for family and friends from Spain as they underwent major surgeries (orthopedic surgeries and cancer surgeries). After overcoming a serious health threat myself in 2006, an idea occurred to me: “After years of helping loved ones by acting as their Spanish medical interpreter, why not consider actually becoming a certified medical interpreter as a profession?”
After successfully completing a medical interpreting course and exam, I sought opportunities in medical interpreting at Rush University Medical Center, where I knew I could make a valuable contribution. The strength of my language skills came from receiving a degree in international relations from the University of Colorado and having also studied my junior year abroad in Seville, Spain. Later I would return to Spain to live and work for an additional 11 years before moving back to the United States to Chicago. My constant exposure to the Spanish language and culture helped me to be a culturally sensitive interpreter who could relate to the diverse cultural influences that molded both the Spanish people in Spain, and the Spanish-speaking citizens of both Latin and South America.
In 2005 while living abroad, I was the victim of an assault in which I received gunshot wounds to the wrist and the chest. While recovering, I was hospitalized for six weeks at a large teaching hospital very similar to Rush. Every morning, between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m., I was interviewed by a steady stream of students, residents, surgeons, pulmonologists, physical and occupational therapists and nurses.
I remember how difficult it was to understand and absorb all the information that I was getting from the medical team. Although I spoke Spanish well at that time, my lack of familiarity with medical terminology coupled with the seriousness of my injuries left me wishing I’d had an interpreter myself. That experience made me wonder what people in the United States with limited English proficiency (LEP) did when seeking health care. If it was difficult for me, I could only imagine how overwhelming it must be for LEP patients in the United States. A few years later, when my wife and I decided to move back to the United States, it was the memory of that experience that inspired me to pursue a career as a medical interpreter.
With our Interpreter Services Department’s 10th anniversary approaching in November, I have been reflecting on my decision to change careers in my late 30s. It feels good to have a job that assists an otherwise underserved community. LEP patients at Rush University Medical Center are fortunate to have access to professionally trained interpreters to aid them in comprehending complex medical information in a way that allows them to participate in their own care. Not only, I believe, is it a good and ethical thing to provide such services, but it is also good for business. In the five years that I have been at Rush, countless patients have confided in me that they choose our medical center over others simply because they know they will be able to communicate clearly with their health care providers. Also, more and more research shows that the use of an interpreter in health care is far more likely to lead to positive health outcomes for patients.