Frontline Medical Interpreters Share Their Stories in the Age of COVID-19

A hand-painted thank you sign with hearts stuck in the ground on the side of a road.

In the U.S., more than 30 million workers are considered essential. They formed the economic backbone of our society pre-pandemic, and now have the additional burden of being our lifesavers, the people we’re relying on to keep us connected and safe during this challenging time.

These frontline workers include clinicians, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, and delivery drivers. But this group also includes other workers, workers who are essential but largely tucked away from the public eye.

We’re talking about medical interpreters.

Medical interpreters act as a conduit of information between a medical provider, who speaks one language, and a limited English proficient (LEP) individual, who speaks another. Not only do they interpret critical information meaning-for-meaning to LEP patients, but they also occasionally act as a cultural broker, which can be an equally important link for true connection and a source of comfort and familiarity in times of uncertainty.

This means that medical interpreters have found themselves on the (invisible) frontlines of the pandemic.

“During the time of this coronavirus pandemic, a medical interpreter’s role becomes more and more significant,” states Helen, a video remote interpreter at CLI. “We need to remember that the pandemic affected not only the patients who actually contracted coronavirus, but every single person in the U.S. in need of medical treatment,” and their concerned family and friends who desperately seek information about their loved one.

As such, we wanted to take the opportunity to share the amazing frontline stories from CLI’s interpreters to show how they are helping people connect during this time.

Every Friday, we’ll be sharing experiences from our interpreters, in their own words and unique perspective. One by one, these stories range from delicate and heart-wrenching, to hopeful and inspiring.

It’s important for us to share these moments of humanity with you, because it shines a much-needed light on our interpreters’ pivotal contributions to keeping communities safe and connected. We’re so grateful for these frontline heroes and especially grateful for the CLI interpreters who support our clients and their patients each and every day.

Russian interpreter Helen shares her experiences

Helen: From what I see on calls, it is extremely difficult for our LEP individuals to not have the support of a family member while they are at a hospital or a clinic. With visitor policy restrictions, the patients are often alone. The pressure rises for the LEP individual to process the medical information given to them by medical staff and to understand the treatment options offered.

It is also challenging for the providers who are usually relying on the family members to provide pertinent medical information (especially for elderly patients).

I am more mindful than ever of my tone of voice and choice of words to render the message as clearly and compassionately as possible.

As the medical efforts around the country are centered around these urgent cases, I am reminded how important it is for a patient to truly understand what is going on with their care. Specialized medical interpreting allows a person to feel more connected and receive the full spectrum of information offered by their providers, and not simply a summary.

A story from Helen

Helen: One call that stuck with me was a patient who was wearing an allover mask with a breathing tube attached to their face. The device assisting his breathing was making noise. It was difficult to hear and understand.

Together with the provider, we were able to come up with a system where the provider would pose questions in such a way that a simple response (often a nod or thumbs-up, occasionally just a word or two) would do.

I also often help providers navigate where to place the device they use for the video remote interpreting session to ensure the best communication.

For the suspected [coronavirus] cases, the fear in the patient often weighs heavily during the encounter. It’s the unknown. Knowing that the symptoms could mean just a plain cold, or something far more dreadful. Wanting the answers before the doctors have them.

Russian interpreter Natasha on the important role of medical interpreting

Red and black pens lying on paper with thank you written in black pen and a heart drawn with a red p. Thanking frontline medical interpreters during coronavirus.

Natasha: Medical interpreting, undoubtedly, has always been a very important profession that is credited with having a huge positive impact on clinical care for patients whose command of English is limited.

And I especially feel it during the pandemic and after reading an article about how the shortage of medical interpreters affects patients and medical providers in New York.

I feel proud to call myself a medical interpreter. Even more, I am willing to help [individuals] overcome linguistic barriers and help improve critical care during this pandemic, and beyond. 

A story from Natasha

Natasha: I had a call involving a concerned young man who wanted to be tested but was unable to do that because, despite his belief that he contracted coronavirus, he was told he did not meet all the criteria for testing. He was very disappointed and sad.

In another clinic’s visit, a woman was told that she definitely contracted coronavirus because she was exposed to it in her own apartment where she lived with her husband who was diagnosed weeks earlier. She was hoping to get treated, but became very sad when a medical professional explained to her that there is no treatment.

This woman became so emotional, almost cried, asking the nurse-practitioner: “So, what am I to do now? Go home and wait when I die?” 

The nurse-practitioner did her very best to remain calm and professional while explaining everything the patient needed to know about COVID-19 and what to expect and the steps to take when we become affected. 

Everyone seems to be worried and concerned; I sense a mélange of emotions, unity, and hopes for the better in every conversation between patients and medical professionals. We are definitely all in this together with our lives connected.

Spanish interpreter Melina reflects on COVID-19 tragedy

Melina: I had a really difficult call recently regarding COVID-19.

An ICU doctor called a patient’s son to let him know his father was getting worse. His oxygen level was at the maximum and was not enough for him anymore. The plasma transfusion he had did not help him. The doctor was expecting for the patient’s heart to stop that day, and he needed the son’s consent for the do-not-resuscitate order.

The doctor explained to the patient’s son that he was not going to put the nurses and staff at risk trying to resuscitate him because his problem was not his heart. The problem was the coronavirus, and there was nothing he could do.

The son asked if he could come see the patient, but the doctor could only offer him a visit trough the window to see him for the last time before.

The son started crying uncontrollably, and it was very, very hard for me. I stayed strong, and I was able to finish the call. I am very thankful I was able to help during this hard time for this family.

Andy, a Korean interpreter, discusses the small things that make a big difference

Andy: I got a VRI call from an ER related to a COVID-19 test. A female patient was suffering from chest and lower abdominal pains for about three days. She was so concerned and worried if she had COVID-19 and really wanted to take the test. However, the doctor informed her there was no test kit available and prescribed some medications instead, and told her to come back if her condition got worse.

I was so surprised by the fact that there was NO test kit available, even in the general hospital. The patient was so disappointed and frustrated by the fact she could not take the test. However, the doctor tried to make her feel safe and secure by explaining her symptoms should not be related to COVID-19. I also did my best to deliver his messages especially with appropriate tones and the right vocabularies to make her feel the same way. Finally, the patient returned home safe.

I was so proud of myself as an interpreter then. It was a great opportunity to realize how important it is to not only use the correct terminologies as an interpreter, but also the right tone and proper accent. 

Once again I recall the words “small differences can lead to completely different results” in this pandemic.

Vietnamese interpreter on decompressing after a long day

Interpreter: I feel that my role has not been a lot different, but I’m glad that I still can contribute something to the community in this crisis.

I have had more sympathy for people, for strangers that I have never met. I’ve been checking the requesting and offering help page on Facebook to see if there’s anyone who needs help, and then reaching out to them to see how I can help. Mostly, it’s just monetary donations. I’m also playing my part to flatten the curve by staying at home, social distancing and hand washing.

After a tough call or tough day, I usually step out to my patio to breathe some fresh air. My patio looks to a canal and I get to see the sunset everyday. Sometimes, I just sit by my little shrine with my Buddha mini waterfall and meditate and take some deep breaths.

A story from a Vietnamese interpreter

Interpreter: I’ve received two calls that have stuck with me. One is COVID-19 related and the other is not.

I had a VRI call where there was a pregnant woman going into labor, and the doctor was concerned that she might have coronavirus because she had a prolonged fever that did not go away even after they gave her Tylenol.

They ordered her a test and said that if the test came back positive, the husband would have to be separate from her, and after giving birth, her baby will be placed in another room, too. I can’t stop thinking about her, and I just hope that she’ll be OK.

I got another call where the patient asked the nurse if their in-person appointment with their doctor was confirmed and she still can go see the doctor. The nurse said yes. The patient was so happy that she burst into tears while repeatedly asking “Really?!”

Even though the call was not COVID related, but because of COVID, an in-person appointment with a provider has become such a privilege that the patient cried in happiness when she was granted one. 

Mauricio, a Spanish interpreter, adds perspective

Mauricio: Interpreting, for me, has been a roller coaster. Coronavirus has hit us all, and I mean everybody. Yesterday I had to tell a mother that her 14-year-old child would never kick a ball again. A promising athlete, whose life was going to end.

“¿Hay algo que pueda hacer, doctor? Lo que sea.”

I am one of those interpreters whose voice tends to be neutral, plain; but when I relayed her message, I could not help but stutter. Now I just remember this mother. I understand my role better, and what it means. Without me, this mother would have never known her son had died. Without me, or someone like me, none of that would have happened.

And that’s what keeps me sharp. Moving on.

Feelings of helplessness and resources to help

Hang: I interpreted a discharge for an elderly patient on the phone. I told her that she will be discharge today and she needs to quarantine herself at home. Her reaction to the news was: “Oh, can I go home?! That means it (COVID) is not dangerous to me?”

The way she sounded I heard, “Oh, I am still alive?” It made me melt down, and I wanted to cry. She asked, “how can I quarantine myself because only me and my husband are in the house and I have to cook for him?”

I just interpreted what she said, leaving the call with so much to wonder about her and her husband and the thousands and thousands people out there that have to suffer from this pandemic.

*****

Marla: I’ve had many scenarios regarding COVID-19, but I think the worst one was a couple of days ago. It was a mother talking to a doctor about the symptoms she had been feeling. They all were clearly leading to COVID symptoms. After a while she started crying and sobbing because she didn’t want to die. She had a baby and a teenage boy and didn’t receive any help from the father.

It was heartbreaking. The doctor stuck to his job, and at one point asked me to tell her to stop crying. And it was kind of stressful because I couldn’t leave my role as an interpreter and comfort her. I felt helpless and wish I could have done more.

*****

Carla: I interpreted for an elderly female patient who was pleading the doctor to call her children. As the call went on, I learned that she was brought from a nursing home. She pleaded during the entire call for the doctor to make sure he called her children. She did not wanted to be alone, and she was also very upset that no one in the hospital knew Spanish. She was in a lot of distress, and the doctor explained to her that it was possible that she had COVID-19 and that her children might only talk to her over the phone. 

I do not know how I keep it together during these calls, but I am glad I am there to help both sides of the battle.

Resources to help fight against interpreter burnout

The ATA Chronicle. Medical Interpreters and Burnout: Preventing a Negative Outcome

The Medical Interpreter Blog. Why Is Self-Care for Medical Interpreters So Important?

Street Leverage. Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters: 8 Ways to Ease Trauma

Office for Victims of Crime. The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit

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