Humor and stories for interpreters: Medical interpreting

David Bar-Tzur

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Doctors and lawyers point to the Deaf to say they should pay for interpreters and the Deaf point back.

Illuminated letter I work at a hospital. While interpreting for a deaf patient registering for a procedure (I'd been interpreting a good 15 minutes by this time - both voicing and signing), the person registering the patient asks, "Now I know you can't speak, but can you hear?" With disbelief obviously on my face I looked directly at her, signed and spoke, "You're asking her if she can hear?" "Yes" replied the registrar. I turned to the deaf client signed, "I UNDERSTAND CAN'T TALK YOU BUT HEAR, CAN YOU?" The puzzled deaf patient signs back, "I'm deaf!" I voice, "I'm deaf!" The registrar looks at me and says, "Not you, the patient."

- Desiree Leonard

Illuminated letter There are programs in medical interpreter training, but many are all too brief, non-language-specific, and run by hospitals which do not understand our task. . . [but] the real key here to me is understanding the medical context, and have some knowledge about the human machine, so that if a doctor says "You have a blockage/cyst/rodent in your colon" you know enough about what the colon looks like to ask an intelligent question like "Ascending, descending or transverse?" so you can do your ASL stuff and provide an accurate visual translation.

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter In 2003 an increasing number of health care centers refused to tell interpreters the name of the clients they would be working with because of strict construction of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which was originally forged in 1991. It became law in 1996 and includes strict, far-reaching requirements in 2002/2003 for an estimated 23 million American health care providers to insure the confidentiality and privacy of patient information. Dan Parvaz, with his inimitable sense of humor commented:

Since the [patient's] name can tell us a lot about language needs (in addition to boundary issues), it's the only pre-diagnostic tool we have. I wonder if a Doctor would see a patient if the nurse refused to show their chart:



"There's a patient in room D ready to see you."

"Okay, I need to see their chart."

"I can't let you see that."


"That would be a violation of their privacy."

"Oh, for crying... okay, what are they here for?"

"Can't tell you that either. Or their vitals."

"Just what am I supposed to work with here?"

"Look, are you a doctor, or aren't you? Just go in and do your job."

"It's not that simple. To even decide if I need to see the patient, much less begin with differential analysis, I need a basic set of facts. While I can eventually find out what's going on, knowing in advance saves my time and the patient's money."

"I can't help you there. The patient has a right to privacy right up until the last microsecond before you walk in the door."

"Do they waive their rights once I see them?"


"Once I see them, know their name, figure out their symptoms in spite of your efforts... do they still have a right to privacy?"

"Of course. You have an ethical obligation to confidentiality."

"Are my ethics limited to the examination room?"

"Again... huh?"

"Is there anything in the AMA Code of Ethics* which says that I am not bound to keep my patients' confidences, say, while I am talking to you?"


"Then why, for the sake of Pete, can't I see the records?"

"Rules are rules."


... and so on. :-)

Illuminated letter Joyce Groode once wrote in TERPS-L [a mailing list]:

Recently an interpreter I know who is working with his/her non-dominant arm in a cast told me of an experience interpreting in a medical setting where the doctor asked in all seriousness if he/she only had to pay half the normal interpreting fee since the interpreter had full use of only one arm.

The dr. nearly insisted on 'half-price' and the interpreter felt pressed to explain that communication had taken place and that the interpreter was still working from one language to another. I suggested what I thought was a good analogy.

Ask the dr. if he would charge half-price for a patient who has an ear infection in only one ear!!!

Anyone got a better answer???

My reply:

In my mind I would wonder if the patient could pay half-price because the doctor was working with only half a brain! But seriously, I would explain as you mentioned that signing with one arm was like having a slight case of laryngitis: it would be harder for a listener to understand, but still comprehensible. Would he charge half-price if he had a speech impediment?

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter A young deaf woman's mother called me every night at 11 pm for a week before her daughter's surgery. She would worry and fret for an hour with me on the phone. (I know, I know, I couldn't figure out HOW to shut her up! Don't worry, I'm better at it now.) The day of the surgery I spent nearly twelve hours with the daughter. As I was leaving the site, the mother put her hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and most sincerely said, "Thank you, Brenda."

My name is Bonnie.

- Bonnie Kraft

Illuminated letter Vocabulary lesson for medical interpreters

Chronocide: Killing time.

Cornotaural tenacity: Taking the bull by the horns.

Dorsal mordancy: Backbiting.

Dorsoreciprocal abrasion: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

Equine chromatic disparity: Horse of a different color.

Felinolingual seizure: Cat got your tongue.

Horticultural circumflagellation: Beating around the bush.

Illuminated letter My life long I have been told that I look just like somebody else. The list of my putative doppelgangers ranges from some guy I know to Frank Gorshin to Whoopi Goldberg. All right, maybe it was Rube Goldberg.

Something happened yesterday on an assignment that cast this in new light. I was interpreting for a surgical procedure. There was a long pre-op, and I was in the OR until the anesthesia took hold, at which time I stepped outside. It had been a long day, and poor Rico was tired. I slumped in a chair in the hallway, lowering my mask to just below my chin. I closed my eyes for what seemed like two minutes, when I felt my shoulder being tapped.

I looked up at a nurse that I had not seen before. They re ready for you, she said. I lurched out of the chair and headed back into the OR, fixing my mask. She stopped me. Not that one, she said, pointing to the next OR down the hall. Number 4, she said. I was a little out of it. I wondered why they would have moved a patient from one OR to another, but I didn't t stop to question it.

I realized the mistake as soon as I entered the new OR. A nurse approached me, offering gloves. I stopped and said, Sorry, I m not a doctor. The anesthesiologist cracked, It s about time you admitted that, to general guffaws. No, really. . . I said, as the Nurse bore down on me. Dr. *******, she said, shaking her head, smiling and clucking. Apparently this Dr.******* is quite the wag.

Once you get started, it s amazing how easy it is to perform an appendectomy.

I wonder if I can get CEU s for it. . .

- Rico Peterson

Illuminated letter New terminology for interpreting in medical situations

Chronocide: Killing time.

Cornotaural tenacity: Taking the bull by the horns.

Dorsal mordancy: Backbiting.

Dorsoreciprocal abrasion: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

Equine chromatic disparity: Horse of a different color #1.

Felinolingual seizure: Cat got your tongue #2.5.

Horticultural circumflagellation: Beating around the bush *3.

Illuminated letter One woman was paged to go interpret for a deaf gal who was at the hospital in labor. . . and so she got there just as they were getting ready to wheel the mom into the labor room. Well, the deaf mom was signing "toilet" "restroom" "me go" etc. and so my friend immediately started voicing for her and said out loud to the doctors "I have to go to the bathroom!" and the nurses and doctors all looked at her like she'd completely lost her mind, like "why didn't you go pee before you came on duty as the interpreter!!" -- but then she pointed at the deaf mom and said and signed (so that deaf mom would know what was going on) - "No, not me, SHE (deaf mom) said she needs to go to the bathroom!!" -- so then the nurses and doctors realized that it was "Mom" who needed to go, and of course the sensation of needing to go pee is a common "symptom" in delivery and so they said "PUSH!! PUSH!" and so my friend interpreted that and Mom pushed and so on. . . and the baby was eventually born -- but the friend just laughs about that to this day, how the doctors and nurses "forgot" that she was voicing for the deaf mom and she, in fact, had already peed before she'd gone to the hospital to interpret!!

- Julia Beadles

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