The phone rings. The interpreter answers the phone knowing they may be moments away from changing someone’s life.
That’s a thought that goes through the mind of thousands of over-the-phone medical interpreters. These professional interpreters field the urgent calls—from doctors, nurses, paramedics, and even patients themselves—where time and accuracy are often the difference between a spiraling crisis and comforting relief.
In order to comprehend life as a a medical interpreter, we have to begin at the other end of the line, with the limited-English speaking patients. Life for them is trying enough. Add to it the pressure of an imminent baby delivery, a late-night medical emergency, or understanding complex insurance forms, and you begin to see the difficulties they face and the emotions they encounter ranging from exasperation to depression to outright panic. That’s where professional over-the-phone and video interpreters work their wonderful magic.
For instance, interpreter Ayan A. received a call from a terrified, sobbing mother who dialed 9-1-1 because her child was injured and having difficulty breathing. Hearing Ayan’s voice on the line helped to calm the mother so that she could understand and follow the CPR and first aid instructions needed to stabilize her child until the ambulance arrived. Fortunately, by the end of the call, the child had opened his eyes and the bleeding had stopped. Before hanging up, the 9-1-1 operator commented to Ayan that together they had saved a life.
And then there’s Ashi F. He received a call from a nurse who along with a doctor was helping a young woman in labor with her first child. With a calm voice, Ashi helped the medical team through the epidural and delivery of the baby girl. Before the call ended, Ashi heard the sweet cries of the newborn baby as she was placed into her mother’s arms.
A third interpreter, Firas A., was speaking on the phone with a nurse and her cancer patient while they waited for the doctor to arrive with test results. The wait seemed like an eternity, the patient wasn’t optimistic, and Firas began to expect the worst. The doctor finally appeared and declared that the patient was cancer-free. Overwhelmed by his own joy, Firas had to compose himself before interpreting the good news.
And there are countless other stories just like these.
However, these compassionate professionals do much more than interpret words from one language into another. It’s essential that medical interpreters receive specialized training and testing in order to practice their trade. That means they must be intimately familiar with medical terminology and protocols, trained to remain calm during a crisis, and schooled in cultural sensitivity. All of which helps prepare them for any situation that might arise. The use of professional medical interpreters enables accurate diagnosis, reducing unnecessary testing, increasing efficiencies and lowering the cost of patient care.
In addition to the many benefits of interpreting, what most interpreters value about their work is hearing the gratitude expressed by patients. Mario C. summed it up this way, "I have helped with transplants and delivering children, all using my voice. Interpreting makes a difference. I make a difference.”
Read the stories of patient encounters, in the words of professional interpreters, at Real Life Interpreter Stories.
Jane Blackburn joined LanguageLine Solutions in 2001 as a Customer Service Manager. Since 2013, Jane has been the Director of Interpreter Services with responsibility for managing the 8000+ LanguageLine Solutions Interpreter workforce. Jane has a Bachelors degree from California State University.