Medical Interpreters During The Pandemic: More Than Just Translating Words

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Imagine being in the hospital, with coronavirus, isolated from everyone you know and love, being treated by doctors and nurses who don’t speak the same language as you. Medical interpreters bridge that gap. And here in Charlotte, they do far more than just interpret words.
“We see them every day. We know their likes, their dislikes,” says Becky Allman. She is Novant Health’s Cultural Ambassador Supervisor.

She, and a relatively small team of other medical interpreters, bridge language gaps between patients and the doctors and nurses who care for them.

The coronavirus pandemic, she says, “It has changed everything.” Interpreters aren’t allowed in COVID rooms. “We interpret for them via Zoom,” she says. When Allman is in a patient’s room, she is masked up, and sanitizing constantly. In the first couple months of the COVID crisis, she isolated herself from her own family. She says, “I didn’t see my grand baby for probably five weeks or so when it first started.”

Novant can provide medical interpreters for more than 200 languages. Spanish is the most requested. American Sign Language, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese are also up there. But medical interpreters do much more than just translate words.

Allman says, “They don’t have family members that can come and see them. Nobody can come see them. We are their only link. We are the only person that re-assure them, in their language, that they are in good hands, and they’re gonna get better, and that we’re here for them, cheering every day.”

And when people are in the hospital for months, Allman says they become family, like one recent COVID patient. She says, “She had beat cancer. We had been interpreting for her for probably about 18 months, more or less. And I had the pleasure of telling her that she beat cancer. And she ended up back here with coronavirus and unfortunately, the virus did take her.”

Grief is of course is part of their work. But there is also joy, in the moments they bring in a treat they know their patient has been craving or sing them a song from their country. It’s all so much more than just words. Allman says, “We try to do as much as we can for patients.”

The medical interpreters are part of Novant’s Cultural Ambassador program. They also work to educate patients on how to receive care, link them to community resources, explain U.S. culture to them, and also educate doctors and nurses about the cultures of their patients.

If you need to be tested for coronavirus, click here to link to Novant’s website that includes information on testing sites and more.