IMAGE: Barbara Rayes
Nick Doan  /  AP
Barbara Rayes, the coordinator for Spanish Interpreters at Phoenix Children's Hospital, assists a nurse in discharging Jaime Garcia, left, by translating between the nurse and Garcia's parents.
updated 7/24/2006 7:29:49 AM ET 2006-07-24T11:29:49

Interpreting a doctor’s information for her Spanish-speaking husband was the last thing Barbara Rayes wanted to do as she held her dying newborn daughter.

“It wasn’t my job to interpret; that was taking away the few moments of her life that I had with her,” said Rayes. “It was an unfair burden at a time of true crisis in our lives.”

Nearly 15 years later, Rayes is trying to eliminate that burden for others by training interpreters and translators at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Rayes, who grew up in a house where English and Arabic were spoken and learned Spanish in school, was preparing to be an interpreter when she became pregnant. After the experience with her daughter, she said, she knew she wanted to use her skill in a medical setting.

Interpreters trained in medical terminology, especially those speaking Spanish, are in high demand as the country’s population becomes more and more diverse, said Cindy Roat of the American Translators Association. The boom in Hispanic population has led to the Spanish demand, but there’s short supply of speakers of other languages as well.

A world of languages
In Albuquerque, N.M., Navajo and Vietnamese are in high demand, while in Seattle, Russian, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Cambodian are needed. Boston has more of a use for Portuguese, while parts of Florida get requests for Haitian Creole interpreters.

“Certainly in a medical setting, understanding is a matter of life and death,” said Leni Kirkman, a spokeswoman at University Hospital in San Antonio, where interpreters in Asian languages are needed.

CyraCom, a Tucson, Ariz.-based language services provider, recently opened an interpreter center in Las Cruces, N.M., tapping the Spanish-speaking population of the Mesilla Valley to fill the need for interpreters in hospitals across the country. Eleven interpreters were on staff when the center began taking calls, and company officials said they expect to hire up to 150 people within three years.

At a recent training session, butcher paper on the walls of the room displayed lists of vocabulary words in English and Spanish.

In another room, employees with notepads sat in cubicles, ready to jot down what patients and doctors say. Each interpreter was trained in medical terminology, and note cards at their desks reminded them how to say gallbladder, measles, chicken pox and other words in Spanish.

CyraCom provides services in 150 different languages, but Spanish makes up more than three-fourths of the requests the company gets annually from nearly 900 health care facilities nationwide, said Michael Greenbaum, CyraCom’s chief executive officer.

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Search for bilingual employees
Some hospitals are taking extra steps to attract bilingual employees.

At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, workers are eligible for incentive pay if they speak another language, said hospital spokeswoman Lynsey Purl. Parkland and the public health system in Houston both offer in-house Spanish medical terminology classes.

But high demand for interpreters remains.

Deb Hendricks, an emergency room trauma nurse at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, said about half of her typical 12-hour shifts are spent working with patients who speak only Spanish.

It can take hours for an interpreter to show up — a common problem across the nation — so Hendricks decided to learn the language herself at a school in Mexico set up specifically to train medical personnel in Spanish.

“Doctors are mostly pretty intelligent people. We get some who have memorized phrase books, they can make commands but they can’t understand anything that’s being said to them,” said Keith Rolle, president of the Baja Language College in Mexico. “It’s stuff that you need to practice. Anyone can study out of phrase books, but it doesn’t work very well in a trauma situation.”

Double the language needs
Over the past five years, Greenbaum said the number of languages requested by hospitals that use CyraCom has more than doubled from 50 to 136.

If a patient goes into a hospital and officials there don’t recognize the language, they can pick up a phone to access CyraCom’s voice-activated language identification function.

Several services offer interpretation over the telephone, a great help to emergency Dr. Anthony Vita at the Medical Center of McKinney. He has access to Spanish-speaking staff at his hospital but finds that the phone services are sometimes more efficient.

“Staff just can’t drop everything and be an interpreter for you,” he said.

Phoning for help
Vita said it takes only about 30 seconds for him to pick up one of the interpretation service phones installed in exam rooms and get an interpreter on the line, but that can be too long.

“Sometimes if it’s a big emergency and (a patient is) wheeled in there, you don’t have time to use that,” Vita said. “You have to pull someone in to interpret.”

For immigrant adults who don’t speak English well, children are sometimes the only option, said Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association.

Eugenia Chien, 29, had to tell her grandfather in Mandarin that he was in the final stages of liver cancer when she was just 17 years old.

“If it was that traumatic for me then I wouldn’t want someone younger going through that,” she said. “It wasn’t really a case of language, it was just a difficult piece of news to swallow in any language and to have to react right away and to make sure you deliver that information correctly.”

But children face heavy pressure in those situations and sometimes misinterpret important information because they aren’t trained in medical terminology, Hendzel said.

State health officials in California and New York are now considering a plan to encourage health care facilities to seek professional interpreters and discourage the use of children.

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