I had a patient the other day who finally gave voice to what so many patients experience in so many settings when a care provider thinks they speak a second language well enough to bypass the certified interpreter and practice (their second language skills) on the patient. What a brave soul this patient was! If only she could be heard.
This patient was about to undergo a major surgery to remove body parts she didn’t want to lose, but she had cancer. A young resident (one of the know-it-all infamous teenagers of the caregiver world) came in and started speaking to the patient in her language, even when I presented myself as the certified interpreter and let him know I was here to interpret. When I interrupted, he literally waved me off with a hand and said, “Oh, that’s okay, I got this,” then launched into a flurry of rapid-fire but clearly second language speech.
The patient made eyes at me and I interrupted him again to tell him the patient could clearly not understand him and even his pronunciation of “cancer” was nonsensical to her. (As if in English someone pronounced it “Conth-Hair.”) The patient truly didn’t know what the resident was talking about. But he hurried on heedless until the brave and frustrated patient herself burst out in a torrent of – native – language. The doctor may have understood some of it, but it was my extreme pleasure (and my job) to convey the following:
“You are just cheep – cheep – cheep – chirp – chirp – chirp – parakeeting along like a little bird but honestly I cannot understand a word you are saying – you pronounce everything really weird and you are talking way too fast! I am just nodding and saying yeah, yeah, yeah, but I don’t have any idea what you just said! You just sounded like a parakeet!”
This resident was so utterly oblivious to the needs of others, even when verbally slapped across the face by this courageous patient, that he simply ignored her, and went on. He literally said, “I will try to speak in more slow-mannered,” and continued to insistently spew his second language upon this suffering patient.
I talked to his attending surgeon about it who arrived after the resident had happily gone off to prep for this surgery, and she agreed that he was inappropriate and plans to talk with him about it. I hope this may help his future patients. But what about this patient? How safe and comfortable do you suppose she felt, getting wheeled into surgery with this resident participating? Where is her informed consent? Why do we have a lower standard of care for her?
Dear doctor. I understand you are justly proud of your language skills. But this is not a friendly chat in a bar when you find out the next guy is from a country where you once studied. This isn’t show and tell. Someone is about to lose some body parts and she is here for professional competent care.
Please, doctors, please, everyone. You have an assigned job, with a written description outlining and limiting your scope of practice. Interpreters are meticulous about not practicing medicine or giving medical advice. Please do your job and let interpreter do ours. Not for the sake of our egos, but for patient safety, dignity, and respect.