Translating from one language to another is a tricky business, and when it comes to interpreting between a doctor and patient, the stakes are even higher.
Consider the story of 18-year-old baseball player Willie Ramirez. In 1980, Ramirez was taken to a South Florida hospital in a coma, says Helen Eby, a certified medical interpreter in Oregon. “His family apparently used the word ‘intoxicado’ to talk about this person,” she says. “Well, ‘intoxicado’ in Spanish just means that you ingested something. It could be food; it could be a drug; it could be anything that has made you sick.”
The family thought something Ramirez had eaten might have caused his symptoms. But the interpreter translated their Spanish as “intoxicated.”
“So the doctor immediately made a diagnosis of drug overdose,” Eby says. A couple of days later, the health team figured out that Ramirez’s problem was actually bleeding in his brain. But by then he’d suffered lasting damage. “The guy ended up quadriplegic,” Eby says.
In medical situations, doctors and hospitals often turn to family members for help with interpreting, but that can be problematic, she says.
“You know, you’ve got a 10-year-old in a gynecology appointment,” she says. “Is this where you would normally take a 10-year-old? Not likely. Or [you’ll] have a child — an adult child even — interpret a parent’s cancer diagnosis. That’s got to be highly traumatic.” And the chance that important medical details will be misunderstood increases significantly.
Thirteen years ago, the state of Oregon recognized the problem and required doctors and hospitals to start using professional interpreters. The Affordable Care Act also has expanded the kinds of materials that hospitals and insurers are required to translate for people who don’t speak English.
(original date: October 27, 2014)