Critical Connection

Language isn't the only thing getting lost in the translation as Hispanic patients struggle to communicate with English-speaking ER doctors

She puts on a surgical mask that clamps around her head tightly with two thick rubber bands.

"So much for the hairdo," she says with a laugh.

She pulls on rubber gloves. It's an intriguing ensemble; Arteaga wears a bright-pink tank top -- too bright to be called bubble gum, but just shy of neon. A black chiffon skirt falls just below her knees; three-inch heels and a silver anklet complete the look. Her lips are lined with dark purple and filled in with a lighter shade, and her curled dark hair is streaked with highlights. Against the stark sterility of the hospital fluorescence, sea-foam green surgical scrubs, whites and pale blues, Arteaga is definitely the only bit of style moving around this place.

She steps first through one sealed door, then another that leads to a rounded, podlike room with a small window. Sergio is in isolation because of the infectious nature of his illness. He looks up from the fashion magazine he's reading as Arteaga walks through the door. He is skeletal, with protruding cheekbones, eyes dark and sunken, hair sticking out at odd angles. This is what doctors call a third-world illness. His bare feet dangle off the side of the hospital bed just above the floor.

It's no wonder he's in a bad mood. The food here stinks, he says, and he's been stuck here for a month. Arteaga explains some of his new medications and how they may cause nausea. She mentions that he can order Mexican food from the cafeteria downstairs. Sergio says he feels safer with Arteaga around to explain things to him.

But these interpreters aren't around just to make people feel safer. Arteaga translates to Sergio's sister complicated instructions for his care once he is released from the hospital. She explains that he wasn't accepted into TB housing, so he must have someone to look after him at home. She goes over the details of his medicine regimen.

Sergio has psychological problems, but Arteaga doesn't mention them. In some Latino families, mental problems carry a stigma, so interpreters may suggest psychological counseling to a patient when family members aren't around. Arteaga also does interpreting for psychological counselors, hoping to minimize cultural misunderstandings.

Arteaga was a unit clerk before she became a translator last year. She was called on often to interpret on top of her full-time duties. She says she enjoys being able to dedicate all her time now to interpreting and has had training in how to do it right. She had lots of personal preparation, though, interpreting for her monolingual parents.

"As a kid I had to go to job interviews with them," she says. "My family was dependent on me for them to get a job. I've been this link all my life."

She says her job as an interpreter has made her more confident.

"I'm that patient's voice, communicating everything that they're feeling. Everything they say is so critical and it has to be interpreted right."

And she's proud of how valuable she is to the patients.

"Before, people had to wait for the doctors," Arteaga says. "Now, they wait for us."

The majority of Spanish-speaking patients in the Valley will be waiting a long time for both.Against the stark sterility of the hospital fluorescence, sea-foam green surgical scrubs, whites and pale blues, translator Cindy Arteaga is definitely the only bit of style moving around this place.

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