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Speaking Their Language

Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical interpreters provide patient with more than just communication services

As a patient, being able to effectively communicate with your health care team is the first and most critical step in receiving safe and effective care.

Putting patients first means speaking their language

Understanding medical words and phrases can be difficult for anybody. Medical terminology is a language all its own, and a complex one at that. But what if you were deaf? What if you didn’t speak English? What if you just moved to the United States and had never been to an American doctor before? Imagine how difficult it would be to communicate with your medical team with those additional challenges.

Before moving to the United States in 2009, Jammal Salih, 57, his wife, Maada Saleh, and three of their five children were Iraqi refugees living in Syria. Both Salih and Saleh are deaf and use Arabic Sign Language to communicate. Their children traditionally served as their interpreters while living in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, but knew very little English when they came to the United States. Communicating with people outside of their family was challenging.

Emergency situation prompts need for medical interpreter

Shortly after their arrival, Salih experienced shortness of breath and chest pains. Being new to the country, the family didn’t know what to do, because they didn’t speak English or know the protocol. Salih’s son, Ahmed, asked a friend who spoke English for help. The friend quickly dialed 911. When the ambulance arrived and transported Salih to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department, his daughter, Zainab Abdulrazzak, recalls being terrified.

"I just didn't know how it was going to work," says Abdulrazzak. "Back then my brother and I didn't know enough English to translate for my father, and even if we did, we wouldn't have understood all the medical language. I was scared there wouldn't be an Arabic interpreter to help translate what my father was signing to me."

Fortunately, Barnes-Jewish Hospital employs more than 30 medical interpreters who facilitate medical interpretation services in more than 90 languages. In fact, Barnes-Jewish Language Services, part of the hospital’s Center for Diversity and Cultural Competence, facilitated communication services nearly 34,000 times in 2014 for limited English proficient (LEP), deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing and hearing patients, families and companions.

Buddy Sultan, an Arabic interpreter at the hospital, was called in to assist. The process was a little cumbersome at first: Salih would sign to one of his children, his children would interpret the sign language into Arabic for Sultan, and then Sultan would interpret the Arabic into English for the health care team. For two months, Salih communicated with his doctors and nurses this way.

"These situations are already difficult for these families," said Sultan. "For Mr. Salih, we had the added challenge that he couldn't hear. Zainab was just a teenager then, and she had to come to every single appointment so her brother could work. She was missing a lot of school."

Bridging the language gaps

What the family needed was an Arabic Sign Language interpreter. Sultan asked Robin Bonn, an American Sign Language interpreter at the hospital, for help. American and Arabic Sign Languages are very different, but Bonn knew enough to begin communicating with Salih. Through online research, Bonn became proficient in Arabic Sign Language. This allowed Salih to communicate directly with the hospital team through Bonn’s translation, eliminating the need for his daughter to attend every appointment. Five years later, Bonn and Sultan still act as Salih’s interpreters when he comes to the hospital.

"The biggest challenge with their situation wasn't learning the language," said Bonn. "It was making sure they were comfortable with me and trusted me. I can't fathom coming to a country and not being able to read or speak the language — or knowing what to expect when you go to a routine doctor's appointment. These patients need a lot of help, and we're here to provide it."

Cultural challenges beyond language

The cultural differences for refugees aren't just limited to language. "When you come from a difficult situation like this family did, America's health care system can be overwhelming," says Sultan. "A lot of times patients won't know what to ask, because they're afraid they'll do something wrong. They see things a completely different way."

To assist with these challenges, the languages department also provides cross-cultural bridging for patients and staff and reaches out to the deaf, refugee and immigrant communities providing health screenings and education.

"Everyone at Barnes-Jewish Hospital is just great,” says Abdulrazzak. “They have so many people that speak languages from so many countries. It was because we trusted Robin and Buddy that I got to graduate and now go to college. They helped me so much, and I want to help people too someday.” The experience has been so inspiring that Abdulrazzak would like to study pharmacy so she can be part of a care team.

To learn more or request the services of an interpreter, visit the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Language Services website, or call (314) 747-5682.

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