Adventures in Medical Interpreting

It seemed like it would be so easy. To get to speak another language and assist in communicating in some pretty important situations. And sometimes it is easy. No one speaks out of turn, there is no need to clarify terms or cultural issues, and no one asks the interpreter to do something outside of his/her role.

But, then, it happens. You are leaving the appointment and the patient asks you for a ride. How do you respond? You know that is way out of your scope of service as the facilitator of communication. Here’s what I would do:

1. I would ask some questions. Do you need to make a phone call? Can I call you a taxi? Can I interpreter for you while you ask the clinic if they have transportation vouchers or bus passes?

2. I would consider calling an Uber for the patient if there were no other resources available. They are relatively inexpensive and you can find out just how much it will cost. Perhaps the patient can reimburse you. Perhaps you end up paying for it. You certainly don’t want to do this all the time, but it is an option to consider.

3. You may need to accept that you cannot “fix” this situation. Maybe the patient has a ride but it won’t be coming for several more hours. As long as the patient is out of harm’s way while he/she waits, you can rest assured that things will work out just fine and you can walk away from the situation.

But, what if the situation is a little different:

You are interpreting for an elderly woman at a clinic. A winter storm has arrived and the city will virtually shut down at noon. You finish the appointment right at 12 and the clinic closes for the day. As you drive away, you see the patient you interpreted for standing alone in front of the now closed facility. What should you do?

There are times when humanity trumps a code of ethics.

I would turn around and ask the patient some questions.

Are you waiting for your ride?

Do you have a cell phone to call your family?

Do you want to use my cell phone?

If there is no way to reach the family or if the family is not able to come get the patient, by all means, transport her. Tell her that this is out of the ordinary, that interpreters don’t usually give rides to patients but this is an extraordinary situation. And, full disclosure, I learned to drive in New England and I drive a Subaru so driving in a winter storm doesn’t faze me.

The bottom line is that, with a little ingenuity, problems like these can be solved without stepping out of the interpreter role. And when something out of the ordinary occurs you will need to navigate the grey area of your code of ethics. The place where things are not so black and white.

What ways have you found to navigate such a situation?

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Liz Essary, CHI(TM), MCI, who introduced this scenario during an Interpreter Ethics training in Louisville, KY a few years back.

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