I Don't Need an Interpreter (Part 1)

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This is the first article in a 3-part series. Interpreters, perhaps you can relate to the situations. Add a comment to share your own examples and takeaways on the theme.

I was called to an urgent care clinic on a Saturday morning. I was at the location within 15 minutes of receiving the call. The healthcare team decided to proceed with patient care prior to my arrival. When I checked in with the medical staff and introduced myself as the interpreter, the doctor said, “Thank you for coming, but we’re really doing alright in English, and we’re just about to wrap up. Sorry to interrupt your day to come here, but you don’t need to stay.”

Several things flashed through my mind:

1) It’s kind of cool that the doctor was mindful that someone had gotten “called into work” on a Saturday morning, never mind he himself was also working on a Saturday.

2) I’m not put out by coming to the Urgent Care on a Saturday morning. That’s what we interpreters do.

3) I’m here anyway, so you might as well get some use out of me.

4) The comment “we’re doing all right in English” sounds to me like there might be some gaps in the communication.

With those thoughts in mind, I suggested that, since I was there anyway, we could just pop in to the exam room and make sure the patient didn’t need me to interpret anything. You know. . . just in case.

So, the doctor and I went into the exam room. I introduced myself. The doctor said something about the diagnosis (a sprained ankle, I think) and asked if the patient had any other questions. I interpreted, because that’s what we interpreters do.

In fact, the patient did have additional questions and unreported symptoms. He replied in Spanish explaining that he had also been feeling irregular heartbeats and he was concerned because of a family history of heart disease and heart attacks. He followed up by apologizing that he didn’t say anything sooner, but he didn’t know the English words for the other symptoms.

Needless to say, with this new information, the patient’s discharge was delayed until the medical staff investigated these additional concerns.

Takeaway messages:

1) People are always fluent in the terminology they know. Just because people can express themselves well when registering (address, telephone number, insurance information… pretty basic stuff) or communicating basic health information (It hurts here. I fell on ice…), it doesn’t mean they can express themselves (or comprehend) what is being said in other contexts.

2) Never pass up an opportunity to communicate with an interpreter. You might be surprised by what you learn about the situation.

Next up is I Don’t Need an Interpreter (Part 2), a story about the emergency room and a patient’s daughter.

 

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