A worthwhile challenge

by Lorien E. Menhennett

A couple of weeks ago when I left the free clinic where I volunteer as a Spanish medical translator, I thought to myself, “I belong here. And I like that.”

Not that I hadn’t had this feeling of belonging before — but it has definitely cemented over the last few shifts I’ve worked.

On a basic level, part of it is knowing my way around the neighborhood — the quickest route to the clinic, where to find parking even during rush hour, what drink to order at the local cafe when I need a caffeine boost.

There’s also something to be said for now being on a first-name basis with the clinic coordinators and the volunteer coordinator, and being known as someone who can be relied upon to come through when the clinic is especially short-staffed.

My Spanish — which was excellent to begin with — has improved as well, which helps me feel more comfortable in my role as an interpreter for the patients, doctors, nurses, and other medical practitioners.

My Spanish skills were particularly tested, and mostly affirmed, recently. (Although I was also dealt a bit of humility in the process.)

Typically, I translate for primary care appointments — medication refills, diabetes check-ups, pap smears (a papanicolaou, in Spanish — try saying that 10 times fast!), that sort of thing. This appointment was a little different. The practicioner was a registered dietitian, and the patient was there to get some tips on how to eat healthier and lose weight. Which is knowledge many of us take for granted. But, as I learned, is knowledge that is very cultural in nature.

Juan* was from Ecuador, and had been in the United States for about 15 years. He had put on 30 or so pounds in the last few years, partly as a result of American food — a few too many hamburguesas at McDonald’s, he said. He had developed severe sleep apnea, which required surgery. His doctor said he needed to lose weight before having the operation. So he was quite motivated to get in better shape.

But he had no idea where to begin. And he had a lot of misconceptions about healthy eating and weight loss that needed challenging and changing.

“Whenever I go on a diet,” he said, “My stomach acts up. So how can I go on a diet?”

It turned out that to Juan, going on a diet meant eating puras frutas y verduras — all fruits and vegetables — which would make anyone’s stomach unhappy. Not to mention that it’s unhealthy, because you’re not getting balanced meals.

So far so good, as my Spanish was concerned. Then things got tricky. The dietitian started explaining the chemical mechanisms as to why eating a balanced meal is important — you need protein at every meal so that your body doesn’t start to digest your muscles. That was certainly something I’d never translated before! And you need fiber to help pass the food along in your system. To my embarrassment, I translated that as: Necesita fiebre para ayudar en pasar la comida por su sistema. Juan looked really confused for a moment. Then clarity hit him. Quiere decir fibra, he said. Oops. I’d been saying “fever” instead of “fiber.” Luckily, we both got a good laugh out of it. So did the dietitian.

Aside from my fever-fiber faux pas, I seemed to be able to get everything else across. Juan asked question after question, wanting to understand every little detail of how to proceed. “I want to know what to do so that when I get home, I’m not confused,” he explained.

I was impressed with his motivation and dedication. This man knew next to nothing about healthy eating, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. On the contrary, he brought up every question he could think of — including plenty that to those of us who grew up learning about the food groups and the need for balanced nutrition, might seem ridiculous. “One of my friends told me that if you drink water right after you eat, your stomach gets fat. Is that right?” he asked. The dietitian patiently explained that no, you can drink water whenever you want to, that it actually helps with digestion. Juan soaked it all up like a sponge.

The dietitian had prepared a week’s worth of meal plans for Juan, and we spent a lot of time going over that, as well as determining correct portion size. I reached back into the past, to my high school days, trying to recall all the food vocabulary I’d learned back then. To my (pleasant) surprise, it came back, for the most part.

There was so much information to translate (I kept having to stop the dietitian so I could remember what he had said and make sure to translate it all), so much different vocabulary from what I usually translate in an appointment, so many explanations that I’d never had to make before. But the satisfaction of seeing how much Juan learned, and how excited he was to now have these tools, was so worth it.

I don’t know how Juan is doing. Obviously, it’s up to him whether he will use the tools he has acquired. But truly, knowledge is power. And I feel so honored that I had even a small part in helping him gain that power.

*Name and some details have been changed to protect patient privacy.