Recently I was assigned to interpret for a patient at a hospital for pre-surgery. When the patient entered the room, the nurse explained to me that hospital policy required her to use the hospital’s interpreter. She explained that I could stay and listen.
The nurse pulled out a telephone, placed it on speakerphone, and dialed telephonic interpretation. Once connected, the service asked for a specific code. After dialing the code incorrectly, she was directed to do it again and again and again.
Finally! The answer was something to the effect of, ‘welcome to our language line, please wait for the next available interpreter.’ The telephonic interpreter began quite professionally. She introduced herself, explained the process and then asked permission to do the same in Spanish to the patient.
Twenty minutes after the patient entered the room, the interpreting began. The nurse stated that surgery would be done to his right thumb and asked if that was correct. The telephonic interpreter then interpreted that surgery would be done on his “dedo de pie derecho” which means right toe. Thumb is pulgar, not dedo de pie. There is obviously a big difference between a thumb and a toe. The patient immediately began to panic. ‘No, no,’ he shouted, ‘not my toe. I hope they don’t do the wrong surgery!’
At that moment, the nurse asked what was going on, what did the patient say. The telephonic interpreter was silent. I felt compelled to speak. I explained to the nurse what had happened and confirmed with her that she indeed said thumb and not toe. Then I explained same to the patient. ‘Sí, sí pulgar, no dedo de pie.’ The patient agreed that it was the thumb and not the toe. He began to calm down.
As the interview continued, the telephonic interpreter often interrupted and requested repetition of the nurse’s statements. Perhaps the phone connection was not very clear. Several times, the patient had to ask the telephonic interpreter to repeat herself as he had difficulty understanding her. The nurse then explained that the procedure would be a bone graft on his thumb with material taken from his wrist. The interpreter interpreted that he would have a “reducción del pulgar.” The patient understood that to mean that he would have a thumb reduction. He panicked again, shouting in Spanish, ‘that’s not what the doctor said. What is this woman saying? I don’t understand her. I don’t want my thumb cut off! I want it fixed! What is she saying? First she says my toe then she says I’m getting amputated!’
Concerned, the nurse asked what was going on, and the telephonic interpreter, now obviously nervous, stuttered. Again, I was compelled to clarify the situation.
Once the patient calmed down, the nurse whispered to me, “Are you willing to interpret?” I nodded. She then thanked the telephonic interpreter and terminated the call. The rest of the appointment was uneventful. The next blog will consider what I learned and my thoughts.