What It's Like To Be A Medical Interpreter Amid The Pandemic

Hospitals use interpreters to give voice to patients with limited English skills. They're still showing up amid the pandemic.
Posted at 5:47 PM, May 06, 2020

The numbers are staggering. Latinos make up nearly half of all confirmed coronavirus cases in California and nearly a quarter in Illinois. In New York City? More than a third of all COVID-19 victims are Hispanic. 

"Just close your eyes and put yourself in a country where you don't speak the language. And on top of that, being in a hospital, you know, feeling sick."

Amid this pandemic, an efficient meeting with a doctor can be the difference between life or death. But for some Latinos or other groups with limited English skills, that's not always so simple.

And that’s where Gina Padilla-Quintanar comes in.

"If it weren't for our voices, they wouldn't know what was happening to them. They couldn't understand."

She’s been a Spanish interpreter at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for 15 years. Many of the COVID-19 patients she helps are low-wage immigrant workers.

"You have families where there are children, moms, dads, grandma and cousins. And they're all living in one or two rooms. You start the interview and you realize that they're all sick," she said.

"It's just like 40 calls a day like this, cumulative, and it's heart-wrenching."

Many hospitals rely on third-party services that provide remote phone or video interpretation. But even on-site interpreters like Padilla-Quintanar are increasingly helping patients on the phone. 

"The human touch, you know, just holding someone's hand or putting your hand on someone's shoulder. You can't do that over the phone, even if you have a screen," Padilla-Quintana said.

Some hospitals are still prioritizing in-person interpretation, even for COVID-19 patients. 

"What we realized, rather sadly, is that these patients are so sick that they cannot really speak very loud. So you compound that with all the fans, all the machines in the room. And then on top of it, you're doing it through a video iPad that's about six feet away from the patient. So the interpreters said: 'No, we're part of the clinical team. So this is when our patients need us the most,'" said Carla Fogaren, the director of interpretation services at Steward Health Care. 

Fogaren's team of around 100 medical interpreters in nine Massachusetts hospitals put their own health at risk every day to assist patients who have been isolated from friends and family due to the virus.

"They feel like they owe it to the community and they owe it to their clinical colleagues to be present," she said. 

Ben Schamisso, Newsy, Chicago