Medical Interpreters Have Wounds, Too

hidden wounds

I thought it was going to be a routine appointment – follow-up for a patient with a chronic illness. Part way through the assessment with the nurse, the patient began to cry. The nurse’s cheerful demeanor quickly changed to concern. Apologizing for her tears, the patient choked out enough words to express that her mother had just passed away. The patient.

I watched a news report on our local station. A woman was speaking about the tragic death of her son in an effort to educate the public and prevent another occurrence. The next day, I saw this woman at the healthcare facility. An employee, she went about her duties in the service of others with no perceivable indication of the grief she carried inside. The provider.

Interpreting a pediatric physical for a healthy child, I suddenly found myself fighting the tears that were trying to well up in my eyes. A few days earlier someone dear to me had died, and for no particular reason in the midst of a pediatric exam, I felt a strong pang of grief. The interpreter.

Over the years, these situations and others have taught me to be mindful that the people I encounter are possibly (and perhaps more accurately probably) carrying burdens and dealing with wounds that I cannot see and do not know.

This includes members of the provider care team and, for the purposes of this article, the medical interpreters themselves.

We hear about vicarious trauma that interpreters experience. This is an important topic to acknowledge and address. But, we ought to also acknowledge the direct trauma or life-wounds that interpreters experience themselves, the wounds that have nothing to do with on-the-job experiences.

You’ve heard the expression “Deal with it or it will deal with you.” You’ve also heard the expression “You have to help yourself before you can help others.” Interpreters, like any member of the medical team, need to have the resources and support to work through difficult times and challenging situations so that they can continue to do their invaluable work.

There are lots of resources on lots of topics that fit under the umbrella of “I’m hurting” which are a quick web-search away. Here are just a few:

Our wounds can make us better professionals. Our wounds can help us to be more compassionate, more patient, more understanding of others. This isn’t to say we have to reveal our wounds to others in the interpreted encounter. (We really shouldn’t.) But, if your wound does break open in a way that requires an explanation (i.e. it interrupts or impacts the encounter) a generalized acknowledgment will suffice, such as “My emotions are a bit fragile right now” or “I will be fine, I just need a moment.” Our wounds can become blessings, but they must first be healed.

Haven’t experienced any great loss, trauma or hurt? In time that might change, but please, after reading this, don’t feel you need to go find some. In the meantime, perhaps an interpreter colleague of yours is struggling; perhaps you can point them in the direction of organizations or resources that can help them deal with their difficulty.

Want to develop self-care practices? Join us for Interpreting Is (Not) for the Feeble, an online continuing education course for medical interpreters.

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