Interpreting Pain

pain expression
This post is dedicated to a medical interpreter colleague who recently demonstrated heroic professionalism and ethical decision-making in the face of an extraordinarily challenging medical encounter.

Sharp. Achy. Dull. Stabbing. Throbbing. Constant. Intermittent. Acute. Chronic. Localized. Shooting. 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10.  Burning. Catching. Cramping. Slight. Mild. Severe. There are many words and concepts associated with pain.  Medical interpreters deal with all of them.  It comes with the territory.

Medical interpreters also deal with other kinds of pain. Pain that has nothing to do with a sprained ankle or a lacerated finger.

Heartache. Loss. Grief. Sorrow. Mourning. Anger. Regret. Remorse. Resentment. Sadness. Blues. Depression. Injustice. Worry. Hopelessness. Despair. Bitterness. Abandonment. Shock. Rejection. Medical interpreters also deal with these “pain” words and their associated concepts.

Interpreting pain sucks. I don't mean to be crass, but it's true.  I’m not sure I know anyone who gets up everyday thinking, “Yay! I get to interact with people who are really hurting and suffering today!” Yet, this is exactly what we do. We accept assignments that we know will cause us to be exposed to deep human suffering. This is not easy to do.

Many years ago I was assigned to a case that involved fetal demise. Stillbirth.  Induced vaginal delivery of a dead baby. I really didn’t want to go to the assignment; I went out of a sense of duty.  It was shift change for the nurses. None of the nurses were eager to be assigned to the patient either.  I felt a bit judgmental toward the nurses. As L&D nurses, shouldn’t they expect these situations? Then it hit me. I had felt the same way they did during my drive to the hospital, my walk through the parking lot and my way through the corridors to the maternity unit. Then it hit me even harder when I realized that there was no one on the planet who wanted to be there in that situation less than the patient herself.

As medical interpreters, I dare say we don’t enjoy interpreting pain. It doesn’t give us any sense of pleasure or fulfillment to see, hear, speak, sign, or in any way witness firsthand human suffering. Yet, those moments of pain, those moments of suffering, are the moments when the work we do matters the most.

Healing. Compassion. Care. Communication. Clarity. Understanding. Participation. Autonomy. Awareness. These are words that represent what is possible when interpreters are present in any medical encounter, but especially in those involving pain.

To my colleague and all of the medical interpreters who bravely, selflessly, professionally and compassionately immerse themselves in the pain of others: You are a hero. 

Posted on December 30, 2016 and filed under Interpreter, Manager, Newbie, Trainer.