A thumb is not a toe!

June 19, 2011 JAlfonso 11 comments

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.

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11 Comments on “A thumb is not a toe!

  1. And apparently advertisers can’t be bothered to actually read the blog post before they comment. Because the blog post makes it clear that telephone interpreting is in fact not always simple and easy to use – or even correct. Good thing you were there to calm the patient down, Jeff! Imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t been.

    1. Crazy things happen. Since the telephonic interpreter was taking the lead, I observed and only corrected big mistakes. It is a tough situation because I don’t want to be in a hurry to make another colleague look bad.

      1. Concerned about making another colleague look bad? Sorry Jeff, but are we in high school now, worried about not being popular?

        I am glad that the patient had you around to clarify the big stupid mistakes the in-phone interpreter was making. I just happen to remember a certain company (LanguageLine? TransPerfect? I can’t remember which) that outsources its interpreting services to developing countries such as Peru.

        If we were the managers of such language interpreting services and heard what happened, what would our action be? Chances are the mistake-prone or stuttering interpreter would be replaced, hiring practices would be strengthened and the hospital given a discount or some other assurance that that troublesome issue would never appear.

        Or…the nurse or hospital staff who was there forgets the whole incident, no issue is raised, no complaint submitted and no report is prepared.

        Oh, the suspense is killing me!

        1. Mario this is a difficult issue for me. I don’t want to come off petty or make or profession look bad by looking like the guy that likes to complain. On the other hand I always speak up when a serious error occurs. In other words if the other interpreter uses a word that is understood by the client but not my choice, I leave it alone. What happened there was serious and dangerous.
          In this case I happened to know a board member of that hospital and I explained to him what happened and the possible liability that could have caused. He thanked me, but I don’t really know if anything was ever done about it.

  2. That is the scariest thing I have heard in some time. If the interpreter had any morals SHE would remove herself willingly and go for interpreting with less potential for dramatic results.

    1. I agree any time an interpreter makes a mistake, it should be clarified as soon as they are aware of it. Ethics 101. I don’t have issues with an interpreter having a brain fart as long as they admit it and correct it.

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