Individual interpreters have a wide range of ideas as to the outer limits of our role – a few eager ones virtually taking over the session to tell the staff what they “know” their patient wants and needs, thus in their sincere desire to protect and empower becoming the new benign patronizers.  When tempted to do so, because we all have these instincts, I remind myself that I am not the patient.  I cannot know what they think, feel, need and want, no matter how empathetic I am.

I remember cringing (expressionless of course) when someone with a transplant failure was going to enroll in yet another study, but he wanted to.  He was destined to die within a few weeks, in what I considered needless suffering, but he said if he could help others (while dying in his 20’s) it made him feel better.  Not my decision!  The examples are endless, and interpreters who give their patients space to express themselves (even when they sometimes won’t) run across these kinds of things regularly.

I have been pondering the fact that beyond the “big picture” cultural and social issues, we have the micro level personality differences and very individual points of view.   We are not the patient, and what they want we cannot assume to know.

A simple example of the most mundane and micro level difference between me and a recent patient.  We were in pre-surgery, and the patient was naturally anxious.  I was concerned the nurse was making her more so.  She was a veritable fussbudget.  She ran, she stumbled, she dropped things, she called out things like oh, dear!  And talked to her computer screen.  She fidgeted and almost trembled.  She looked worried and frowned, and showed herself to be in a huge hurry.  All the while with a running undertone monologue that I had to simultaneously interpret.

Myself, I thought, gosh, she is upsetting the patient.  I wish I could say something, like sorry about the nurse!  Or, don’t worry, she is trying to hurry but the surgeons won’t be in a hurry – they will be calm, and she is not our surgery nurse.  Whatever my mental fantasies were, I of course did not state them.  But such a nurse would have made me, as patient, so anxious!  I got a bit of a nervous stomach wanting to help comfort the patient, but my hands and tongue were tied.

Right before we went back to surgery, the nurse went out, and the patient turned to me.  She said, “This nurse is doing such a good job!  I can see she really wants to help me.  What a wonderful nurse!”

Thank goodness I was able to remember that I am not the patient.  I am not having the patient’s experience.  I am having my own experience, and most of what happens in the patient-caregiver scenario is frankly none of my business.  And it is my business, with very few exceptions, to keep it that way.