- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006


Interpreting a doctor’s information for her Spanish-speaking husband was the last thing Barbara Rayes wanted to do as she held her dying newborn daughter.

“It wasn’t my job to interpret; that was taking away the few moments of her life that I had with her,” Mrs. Rayes said. “It was an unfair burden at a time of true crisis in our lives.”

Nearly 15 years later, Mrs. Rayes is trying to eliminate that burden for others by training interpreters and translators at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Mrs. Rayes, who grew up in a house where English and Arabic were spoken and learned Spanish in school, was preparing to be an interpreter when she became pregnant. After the experience with her daughter, she said, she knew she wanted to use her skill in a medical setting.

Interpreters trained in medical terminology, especially those speaking Spanish, are in high demand as the country’s population becomes more and more diverse, said Cindy Roat of the American Translators Association. The boom in the Hispanic population has led to the demand for Spanish, but there’s short supply of speakers of other languages as well.

In Albuquerque, N.M., Navajo and Vietnamese are in high demand, while in Seattle Russian, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Cambodian are needed. Boston has more of a use for Portuguese, while parts of Florida get requests for Haitian Creole interpreters.

“Certainly in a medical setting understanding is a matter of life and death,” said Leni Kirkman, a spokeswoman at University Hospital in San Antonio, where interpreters in Asian languages are needed.

CyraCom, a Tucson, Ariz.-based language services provider, recently opened an interpreter center in Las Cruces, N.M., tapping the Spanish-speaking population of the Mesilla Valley to fill the need for interpreters in hospitals across the country. Eleven interpreters were on staff when the center began taking calls, and company officials said they expect to hire up to 150 people within three years.

At a recent training session, butcher paper on the walls of the room displayed lists of words in English and Spanish.

In another room, employees with notepads sat in cubicles, ready to jot down what patients and doctors say. Each interpreter was trained in medical terminology, and note cards at their desks reminded them how to say gallbladder, measles, chicken pox and other words in Spanish.

CyraCom provides services in 150 languages, but Spanish makes up more than three-fourths of the requests the company gets annually from nearly 900 health care facilities nationwide, said Michael D. Greenbaum, CyraCom’s chief executive officer.

Some hospitals are taking extra steps to attract bilingual employees.

At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, workers are eligible for incentive pay if they speak another language, said hospital spokeswoman Lynsey Purl. Parkland and the public health system in Houston both offer in-house Spanish medical terminology classes.

But high demand for interpreters remains.

Deb Hendricks, an emergency room trauma nurse at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, said about half of her typical 12-hour shifts are spent working with patients who speak only Spanish.

It can take hours for an interpreter to show up — a common problem across the nation — so Miss Hendricks decided to learn the language at a school in Mexico set up to train medical personnel in Spanish.

“Doctors are mostly pretty intelligent people. We get some who have memorized phrase books; they can make commands, but they can’t understand anything that’s being said to them,” said Keith Rolle, president of the Baja California Language College in Mexico. “It’s stuff that you need to practice. Anyone can study out of phrase books, but it doesn’t work very well in a trauma situation.”

In the past five years, Mr. Greenbaum said, the number of languages requested by hospitals that use CyraCom has increased from 50 to 136.

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