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For Hospital Interpreters, COVID-19's Uncertainty Brings A Unique Challenge


We're constantly learning about the coronavirus and the disease COVID-19. So imagine not only treating a moving target but also communicating all the new or changing information to worried patients and their loved ones. That challenge is even greater for medical interpreters, who bridge an essential gap in care for people who don't speak English. Jesenia Pelayo interprets for Spanish speakers at the University of Illinois hospital. And she joins us now from Chicago. Thank you for speaking with us.

JESENIA PELAYO: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So can you walk us through a day on the job for you now in these last three months?

PELAYO: At first, it wasn't advisable for us to go in because we didn't know what we were exactly walking into. And we also didn't know how this virus was spreading. A lot of our interpreters had to go ahead and do phone interpreting or video. I was the only in-person interpreter because I'm based in the emergency room.

FADEL: So you were going into the room. You're risking your life, really, to communicate. Tell me why you made that decision and why you make that decision every day.

PELAYO: There was a moment where I just decided, you know what? They're struggling with the phone. I saw how they couldn't really communicate with the patient because, of course, it's a completely different method of interpreting. You can't really gauge and see if the patient is really understanding what you're saying. You can't see their body language. So I gowned up. I put on my gown. I grabbed my goggles, my N-95. And I just walked in there and started interpreting for the patient.


PELAYO: When I came back out, of course, I was shaking because I - you know, I was afraid just like everyone else. And it took me a moment. I had to walk outside, catch my breath and get some fresh air.

FADEL: So how many COVID patients would you say you see on any given week?

PELAYO: I would see - at the beginning, we were seeing so many more patients, roughly about nine patients per day.

FADEL: And that's just you. That's just people who needed your services as an interpreter.

PELAYO: Yes. That's not even including the other patients. Now, I would say that we see maybe one to three patients a day.

FADEL: What role do you think language barriers play in the quality of care that people get?

PELAYO: So I'll give you an example. Sometimes, when I'm triaging a patient, I'll ask them for their medical history. And they don't really quite understand. Some of them don't understand what that means. So they'll just tell me, I don't have one. And sometimes I have to ask, you know, can I please clarify with the patient? - and then ask them in more detail, you know, do you have diabetes? Do you have hypertension? And then they'll say yes. Yes. I take medication for this. I take medication for that.

So I think that when there isn't an interpreter involved, you miss a lot of information for that same reason because they're not understanding. But they're really embarrassed to ask.

FADEL: When you're in a situation like that, that can be very dire, a misunderstanding, a miscommunication.


FADEL: Is there any one moment in these last three months that really sticks with you? I know you describe this harrowing decision that you made one day to just walk into a room. But is there any one patient, any one moment? Because it sounds like you're not just the interpreter. In many ways, you become the support system overall without family.

PELAYO: There was one particular incident where this man came in. And he was really sick. His oxygen was dropping. And I'll never forget the look in his face and his eyes. He knew that this was bad. He ended up getting intubated and passing away. And it's really sad because I was the last person that got to speak to him before the intubation. So I can't even imagine what it was like for him to not be able to speak to a family member. But I know that in a way, in a sense, he was glad that someone else in the room spoke his language.

FADEL: Jesenia Pelayo is a medical interpreter at UI health of Chicago. Thank you so much for being with us.

PELAYO: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.