Life as a medical interpreter during the COVID-19 crisis

By Carolina Olavarria, a Spanish Medical Interpreter and Translator in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Interpreter Services

As interpreters, we build the bridge of communication between the medical team and their patients who have limited English. We are the voices of the providers to their patients, and we communicate everything the patient says, asks, or shares with their medical team.

The role of the medical interpreter goes beyond interpreting word-by-word what has been said during an appointment or an encounter. We advocate, clarify, and serve as cultural brokers to help establish trust and transparency during critical moments.

I’m part of a very diverse and multicultural group Dana-Farber. The Interpreter Services department has more than 55 interpreters who speak languages other than English, many from different countries, races, and backgrounds. We are just one example of what it really means to be a global community.

I started working as a medical interpreter and translator in 2013, and I’m part of the Spanish team. As an interpreter, I go with patients to all their appointments where they need to “orally” communicate and interact. We assist with small and simple encounters like checking in or making appointments, and during more complicated situations like explaining different treatment options, including clinical trials or even end-of-life conversations. Our job is very personal. Sometimes a myriad of emotions is shared between our patients and their providers, and we are there as the channel of communication between them.

The translator role is very different. It is more isolated and personal. I translate “written” documents from English to Spanish that are needed around Dana-Farber. I help with things like communications for the community, letters for patients, drug diaries for clinical trials, instructions for taking medication, educational texts for patients, and invitations to activities and events like the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, our work changed dramatically in a matter of hours. We started working remotely over the phone and through video conference with our patients and providers. The first days were hard for everyone to get accustomed to our new reality. In addition to that, the volume of translations needed increased exponentially. The number of documents related to COVID-19 that had to be translated for our patients has been huge, especially with many requests for Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese translations.

Dana-Farber’s Interpreter Services department on a team Zoom video meeting

During these difficult times, we are happy to be a familiar voice and face to our patients and their providers, so we can continue fostering that bridge of communication between them.

The Jimmy Fund is proud to spotlight Carolina as an Unsung Hero of Dana-Farber. Unsung Heroes of Dana-Farber, brought to you by our friends at Arbella Insurance Group, highlights our behind-the-scenes stars.