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A Voice

March 19, 2019

Martha C. Concha

Hello everyone,

The story I am about to tell you, reminds me of a woman who moved to Philadelphia a long time ago. She did not speak English; she was pregnant and went to see her doctor. This is what she recalls from her appoinment: Blah blah blah Doctor, blah blah blah, baby, blah blah blah, bad. She was terrified.

Please keep that in mind as I tell you my story.


It was a hot August afternoon when a request for an interpreter came from the post anesthesia care unit, the PACU. I felt a jolt inside me. We often get requests to interpret patients to consent before surgery, but rarely are we called immediately after. Something was up. I picked up my pace crossing the hot humid bridge from Boyer to the second floor of the hospital.

I walked into the big open unit. Generally there are machines beeping and the usual noises of the hospital, but I was struck by an eerie silence. Across the room I saw three security guards and a crowd of doctors and nurses surrounding a bed. As I walked over, the eerie silence was suddenly broken by the cries of a man.

“No,no, no quiero estar aqui. No soy criminal, yo me voy. Me duele, me duele y ya no me vayan a gritar mas”

“No, no I don’t want to be here. I am not a criminal, I am leaving. It hurts me, it hurts me and don’t go yelling at me anymore”

I squeezed between the tall, strong security guards to see the patient. He was lying on his bed with an IV in his arm, Pulse Ox on his finger, surrounded by all these people. He was wearing a hospital gown, and desperately trying to put on his plaid black and white boxers. It was clear to me he was frantic and wanted to leave. In his haste, he had put both legs in the same side of his underwear, which only seem to add to his frustration and panic. In that moment, he bumped his lower leg neatly bandaged form surgery and cried even more in horrible pain.

The medical team all had the same look in their faces, uncertainty and concern. The patient’s nurse continued talking to him in a kind voice: “Please sir, calm down, you just came out of surgery”… The patient didn’t even look at him; he didn’t acknowledge the nurse at all…

A doctor holding a syringe said that the patient needed to calm down otherwise he will be medicated.

I noticed a pair of stretched out restrainers hanging form he bed rail. Maybe they were use to try to calm him down or maybe when the patient got so agitated they had to let him out.

I introduced myself to the clinicians and turned to the patient, whom I will call Jose. He was still rambling cries of protest and pain. I just started talking to him.

“Buenas tardes José, mi nombre es Martha, soy interprete. Yo repetire todo lo que se diga aqui”

“Good afternoon Jose, my name is Martha, I am an interpreter. I will repeat everything that will be said here”

Jose stopped talking. He turned and looked at me with eyes wide open. Drops of sweat of his forehead rolled down his temples, making their way to his cheeks, where they mixed with his tears. He grabbed his bed sheet and wiped them away.

He gasped and exclaimed: “Senora, Usted habla como yo, Usted me entiende”

“Ma’am, you speak like me, you understand me”

In that instant I felt everyone’s eyes on us. I proceeded to interpret every word that came out of Jose’s mouth. “I am not a criminal, do not keep me here, please leave me alone, and let me leave. I am in pain.”

I interpreted the doctor: “Jose, you are a patient at the hospital; you have just woken up from anesthesia. Perhaps you were confused and did not know where you were. You became very upset.”

Jose begged for security to leave as well as the other doctors and nurses. Jose insisted that he didn’t do anything wrong so there was no need for security to be there. Slowly but surely everyone walked away but his doctor, his nurse and I.

The doctor began to ask questions to Jose about how he was feeling, where was the pain and so on and so forth, Jose answered calmly. The doctor stated his recommendations for treatment, pain management and follow up care; Jose nodded in agreement.

So agitated moments earlier, Jose had become a model patient, a very compliant patient. He also began to show signs of exhaustion. He needed to take medicine, so he did. Then he asked for an extra blanket and as he curled up in bed, Jose looked at us; his eyes filled with tears and began whispering over and over, “gracias, gracias, gracias” — “thank you, thank you, thank you”.

My job was done.

On my way out, I turned my head back to take one more look at the calm place that the PACU had returned to be. I don’t know how long the interpretation was, Fifteen minutes? Twenty tops? I just remembered that it felt as if time had stood still. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for what had just happened.

I didn’t know anything about this man. I didn’t know anything about his medical or social history. Was he too sick? Was he born into silk sheets or received into rags? It didn’t really matter. He was a patient.

This man had been cared for by top surgeons and other medical professionals. He had access to medication, state of the art medical devices and technology worth millions. Despite all that, in that moment, what he really needed was to understand and to be understood, what he really needed was a voice. And I had given him one.

One more thing, the woman who recalls her doctor saying Blah blah blah doctor, blah, blah, blah, baby, blah, blah, blah bad, and was terrified; to this day she wonders what her doctor really said.

That woman was me.