By Marie O’Toole
Dear Son or Daughter:
I just interpreted for your father or mother. It may have been our first encounter; or I may have had the pleasure of knowing him or her for a good many years. The medical encounter proceeded just as always: pleasantries; information relayed; test results discussed; plan of treatment considered.
Today you worried that you offended me.
You see, we medical interpreters are a perceptive group with thick skin. And we care about your parent, who is far more than the medical record number we write on our Service Verification Forms.
I realize, as does the healthcare provider, how well you speak English. Even moreso, how you care for your ailing parent. You are your parent’s best advocate, and that’s why I appreciate your presence. Some of you work in healthcare in the United States; some of you have battled diseases such as cancer yourself. All of you, it seems, come to the exam room far better equipped than I, a mere linguist, to help Mom or Dad make the best healthcare decisions for him or herself.
And of course, you all understand the constraints of HIPPA law; consent forms; waivers of services (if you decline my services). None of this is personal, and the implications of serious illnesses such as cancer naturally make a family want to turn inward.
I am often an uninvited witness to your very personal pain. I get that. And I respect it.
More than that, I am incredibly grateful to YOU.
Sometimes, the doctor pauses mid-sentence in order to allow me time to consequitively interpret his or her sentence and as I do so, you pick up on the fact that I don’t understand where he or she is going with it. Focused purely on linguistics, I may have missed the gravity of the situation and you interject something. No, you did NOT offend me. Do not apologize, as you often do, for reeling off crucial medical information that only you would know during an appointment. You have all this information in your head; the physician needs to know it.
I am there purely as an interpreter – a conduit of language. I am not the one who has sat up with your mother or father countless nights, through nausea, pain, or other symptoms. Do NOT apologize for interjecting.
Sometimes you catch my eye, as if to communicate the gravity of what the doctor is saying. This is especially true when we are with an oncologist, and timeframes such as months and years are being relayed. The relief you all show at not having to be the interpreter in those situations is palpable, and I sense your deference to let me interpret this painful information from language to language.
As I do my job, I hope and believe I do not come across as overly-clinical and sterile. Once, when interpreting a terminal cancer diagnosis, I had to fix my mind on getting the accents on the correct syllable and noun declension so that I would not burst into tears myself. As a mother, I dread the pediatrics floor. As a daughter, I pray not to be in your shoes.
You asked the physician additional questions in English, and feared I was offended. I wasn’t.
You see, there is only one person who matters right now: your mum or dad. You have information inside your head that neither I nor the doctor are privy to; by all means, share it. I’m no stranger to cross-conversation (hey, I lived in the Balkans for years!) so I can easily interpret the additional information simultaneously into mum or dad’s ear. Stop worrying about me and focus on your parent.
I saw how relieved your eyes were today when I interpreted every word the doctor said, with the appropriate gravity – and YOU didn’t have to be the one to deliver bad news. The brief second of eye contact we made spoke volumes, and in that moment I again realized that we are a part of a team. Team “Your Parent”.
You corrected a mistake I made, and feared I was offended. I wasn’t.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I lack the hubris, even after 16 years in the profession, to think that I am incapable of making an error either in medical terminology or syntax. I learned Bulgarian as a young adult, so while I may enjoy near-native fluency of the language, I carried my medical dictionaries around for years after becoming certified as an interpreter. And you know what? Many times, your English is better than my Bulgarian. I realize that I still have an accent in Bulgarian, even after 25 years. Please rest assured that your proficiency in English does not offend me.
And thank you for allowing me to enter into what is, often, an incredibly sensitive and painful time for your family. I have often (MANY times!) been racked with guilt after leaving an assignment (a precious encounter with your mum or dad, and often you) that I had to impersonally rush off to my next assignment with an LEP (Limited English Speaker) at a neighboring hospital. I worry that I come across as cold, uncaring, and impersonal. I rationalize such thoughts by reminding myself that I am an interpreter; not a patient advocate. And healthcare professionals are trained in the art of emotional detachment from their patients.
See, I missed that day. But many years of experience of having the privilege of being part of your intimate circle has taught me much.
The Bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn. This morning, I interpreted for a gentleman whose cancer remains in remission. Good news is easy to interpret, and I’m objectively glad for him. This afternoon, your father presented with additional malignant growths outside the area of radiation, and I had to interpret hard facts. I am deeply sorry. Maybe I don’t always show it in the exam room, especially as new pages come in, but I truly do care and want everything to be alright.
A few of you have found me on Facebook or social media, and thanked me for my “compassion” towards your ailing parent. I am ashamed to admit I did not even remember being particularly compassionate, even though I truly did care – I was concerned that my rushing off to another appointment would be seen as coldness.
We are a team, you and I. You have the best interest of your beloved parent at heart; and in a professional, much more detached way, so do I. At BIDMC, (one of the hospitals at which I interpret), their slogan is “Human First”. I am a human…..a mother; a sister; a daughter; first – I understand to a certain point what you are going through, and can empathize. And then I am a medical interpreter. Trained; linguistically adept; and socially neutral, completely at your service.
Thank you for allowing me to be part your “team”. Please know that I love my career, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to speak into your parent’s life, even if only as an interpreter. A reassuring glance; a smile, a hand squeeze….these are the things people remember. If I incorrectly conjugated a verb in Bulgarian, I beg your pardon. And I thank you for your indulgence in accepting my assistance as a linguist on your parent’s team.
I love and value every one of you.