I have been a medical translator for over ten years now. It isn’t my full time gig, but a few weeks out of the year I am called upon to use my Spanish for the medical community. They are always my favorite weeks because I get to see things most people never do without going through fifteen years of medical school. Being a medical translator is both awesome and terrifying, here are six reasons why.
You Hold Lives in Your Hand
Doctors and nurses may have all of the training and medicinal knowledge, but in a bilingual context, it all comes down to how good the translator is. Last week I translated in a clinic we had here in Panama that featured general medicine, optometry and dental care, all for free. At one point I visited the dental area to hear one of our bilingual friends attempting to tell a child, who was about to have a tooth removed, to close her eyes. Instead of saying, “Close your eyes,” she was saying, “Tear out your eyes.” It made for a pretty awkward situation as the child’s soon to be torn out eyes bulged and the dentist raised her hands with a giant needle. Until I corrected the translation the kid was most certainly wondering why the dentist was going to pull her teeth and her eyes.
The same goes with any of the prescriptions. The pharmacists from the States can write down the prescription, but only in English, and the translators have to write the equivalent in Spanish and then explain to the patients how to take it. On top of that, most of the medicines have different names in different countries, and the translator has to hope they have enough knowledge of what the meds are to be able to explain correctly how to take it. And let me tell you something, medicines have some insane side effects! There is nothing quite like attempting to tell a pregnant woman you are giving her something to relax her back muscles, but instead explain to her the pills are going to cause severe anal leakage and melting eyeball syndrome.
You Get to See Weird Things
Boy do I love this part! A few days ago I saw a toenail that was half an inch thick because the nastiest fungus imaginable had taken it over like Venom on Spider-Man. I was once in a village where a little girl had worms coming out of her head like Medusa. The human body is capable of getting some legitimately nasty stuff my friends. Way beyond what most of us can imagine. We don’t hear about it or see it because in places like the U.S. people with weird stuff are usually treated fairly quickly, but not in the wild jungles of the world. It is super embarrassing for most people, but I tend to have a Dr. Cox (from Scrubs) smile on my face when I get to translate for someone with an upside-down face, snake tongue, or front-butt.
It is Not for Fainters
It sure is bloody being around doctors. Last week I watched over twenty teeth get ripped out of people’s faces, and I had to translate for each squirming, moaning one of them. I had to take over for one of our novice medical translators who stepped out because a patient was valcanoing blood everywhere, and his tooth chunks flew out of his mouth and clattered to the floor. Graphic images, I know, but that’s the life! One of my favorite memories was a semi-emergency situation where a teenage boy had one of the gnarliest, infected, ingrown toenails imaginable. It was just a nurse and I called to the orphanage where he was, and we had no tools to work on it. So the nurse found a pair of old rusty pliers from a nearby toolbox and ripped the toenail out with no anesthetic or anything. If you can’t handle stuff like that, you aren’t cut out for this job.
Do it Enough and the Doctors Start to Consult You
“Dear God, what is that?!” I’ve heard that before … from a doctor. Did you know that diseases are not universal? The sicknesses we have in the States are not the same as the ones here in Latin America. Sure some of them are the same, but there are plenty of things out there only seen in certain regions of the world. Even the best doctor in your area can be out of his element in another location. Many times now I have worked with doctors who have never been in a situation like this before, and don’t recognize many of the things that are so common here. In this area for example, most tribal people have what look like bug bites and scars on their legs. A lot of new doctors think they are probably just mosquito bites and chiggers, when in reality, anyone from here knows right away they are either scabies or a certain worm that lives in the soil and burrows into your feet and legs. Doctors with a bit of experience know there will be new things, so they often consult the translators from the area until they get to know what they are dealing with better.
Doctors are Fun
I love doctors. I think I would have been a good one if I hadn’t taken the path I chose in life. Doctors spend all day with sick people, whiny people, complaining people, and don’t generally get much hanging out time. It turns out though, that they can be pretty stinking hilarious to be around. With their disgusting knowledge of the human body and things far beyond what I have ever seen, the jokes and stories they can tell are amazing. Of course there is doctor patient confidentiality, but when you are a translator there is a certain relationship there, because in a sense you are both treating the patients together. You talk about them, converse with the patients, and in the end you often swap stories with the doctors. For myself, there are certain doctors who come down every year and we have become friends, so now it is even more fun. I went to visit one of my doctor friends a few months ago in the States and he and his wife let me and my family stay in his house while I was there. We had a great time! As busy as they are, and as much pain as they often have to inflict, doctors are great to hang out with.
Newbie Doctors Get Sent Overseas to Practice
I’ll bet you didn’t know this! That’s right, doctors have to start somewhere, and even with all the teaching hospitals and practical work they have to do, eventually they have to get their feet wet on their own. If they pull the wrong tooth out on you, or slip and inject you in the eyeball with numbing solution, you will sue them and they lose everything. But if they come into the middle of the jungle they can practice on people who have zero access to medical care, and can’t sue, and also don’t know what that is. Since they have no medical care, it is still far better for a brand new baby doctor to practice on them and make a mistake or two than stay sick and die. Last week I saw a seven year old little boy with a completely exposed canine tooth root. It was black all the way up to the roof of his mouth. There are no dentists in the area. The dentist I was working with, who pulled about eighty teeth in four days fixed it. And you know what, those eighty teeth were the first teeth she had ever pulled. She did it with an assistant who was just beginning in her dental training, had never pulled teeth, and was still learning what the equipment even did. She got so much practice in the week she was here that she can go somewhere like the States and pull your teeth like a pro, and you will never know how she got so good.