Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Night as Medical Interpreter - 3

Continued from October 16. Please read this series in the correct order, starting at October 11.

The ambulance took us to the Hospital de la Ribera at Alzira (see photo).

G. was put into the observation section of the Emergency department and there we waited. From time to time a doctor or a registrar would come to examine him. To each of them I repeated the same information (in Spanish of course):
* G. hadn’t been drinking. He’d been lying on the bedroom floor for 36 hours.
* Physically G. was strong and healthy. His problem was mental. He’d lost part of his long-term memory and his short-term memory was very short. But some things he recalled obsessively.
* He’d been tested in England for Alzheimer’s and the conclusion was that he didn’t have it. An alternative hypothesis was that his brain had been affected by chemicals that were used at a job he’d had and which caused severe physical symptoms at the time. (This was information that B. had given me.) But it was also true that although he wasn’t drunk now, he’d been a heavy drinker in the past.
G.’s dishevelled appearance and stinking clothes were enough to convince anybody that he needed help, but when the medical staff addressed him in Spanish he caused the same confusion as he had with the initial ambulance men (see previous post). So we weren’t getting very far until, around ten in the evening,…

A doctor arrived who wasn’t Spanish but Indian. He spoke perfect English. He was therefore able to converse with G. directly in English for an extended time. At last somebody understood what I was getting at. He ordered an immediate brain scan.

The doctor in charge of the brain scan was Spanish. He said to me, “He must keep perfectly still during the scan. Tell him that if he doesn’t keep still we’ll have to sedate him.” I retorted, “Even if I tell him, he won’t remember for more than two minutes. You’d better sedate him.” The doctor replied testily, “Tell him anyway.” Which I did. But it made me realise that I’d broken two rules:
* Translate everything the doctor says.
* Don’t voice your own opinion as to medical procedure.
I was learning on the job.

Some time after midnight the results of the scan arrived. Nothing wrong there. So they started to focus on G.’s liver, taking many blood samples while I passed on instructions and tried to explain to G. what was happening and keep him calm.

Then nursing assistants came to clean G. up. He reacted by kicking one of the nurses in the chest. That set off the alarm. Security were called and they tied G. down to the bed. It was tough treatment, but it was a blessing in disguise because G. dozed off, and I tried to do likewise in an armchair next to his bed. However, each time he woke up I had to respond to him and sometimes call for help.

When the nurses started their morning round at seven o’clock, it seemed to me that I couldn’t do any more. So I walked out into the crisp air – Alzira is a hill town – and took the bus back to Cullera to tell B. what was happening. That done, I caught the train back to Valencia, coughing all the way.

The following morning I called the hospital to find out how G. was. This time they didn’t even ask me if I was a relative. All I got was, “Sorry, we’re not allowed to give any information over the phone. Protection of Personal Data.”

To be concluded.

La Ribera: Departamento 11 de Salud. In English.

Photo: Ribera Salud.


  1. I have a problem with rule two. What if the procedure is potentially lethal to the patient? Let's say the patient has a history of allergy to aspirin and the doctor is about to use it and the patient is in no way able to tell about allergies? OK, a scan is not invasive but not telling the doctor your opinion on a practical issue related with a medical act to be performed is no sin. The Gods of interpretation are sometimes wrong and they should know about it and have a sock put in their mouth at times. The very fact that you spilled it is proof that a threshold in the realm of what you consider deep inside as inadequate was trespassed. This was not Thatcher meets the Spanish PM at Downing street. You know something that the good doctor doesn't know. If what you say is medically unfounded, the doctor has to make the conclusion and take responsibility for it. The hell with holy rules when something more important is at stake (sorry the Beholder of the holy grail dictators stuck easily in my throat lately. Call the medic).

  2. I hope nobody would apply the rule so blindly as to provoke a life-threatening situation.
    I'll have a bit more to say in the Conclusion.