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Health Department uses interpreters to eliminate language barriers - America Dec 2005

By Phyllis Moore

Miriam Hatch-Torres remembers being the only interpreter when she started working at the Health Department nine years ago.

"The last interpreter had left; it was just me," said the foreign language interpreter, herself originally from Puerto Rico. She moved to Goldsboro in 1971 when her military husband was stationed here.

She said when she began the job, she had to deal with clients who had never been to school, spoke a different dialect or were afraid because of immigration issues.

In many cases, non-English-speaking clients brought someone with them or the Health Department called upon an interpreter service. But today, there are seven interpreters on staff to assist with breaking the language barrier.

They have all been trained and each is bilingual, Mrs. Hatch-Torres said. Two are also going to nursing school.

"We have a lot of medical information that we have to give (patients)," she said. "We have to make sure that they understand."

That means the translator must first understand the medical information to pass it along correctly to the patient. And if the person cannot read or write, the interpreter has to be prepared to do that, too.

With more Hispanics moving to the area because of jobs, and many becoming legal residents, they are also settling here longer. Children are also being born to these families, which makes for ongoing growth to the population.

"Since they're still here, we're becoming busier in all the areas that we work with," Mrs. Hatch-Torres said.

Those areas range from family planning and maternity services to giving children's physicals and immunizations. Dental offices are also in the same building, which is a bonus when it comes to consistency for the clientele.

"A lot of them are scared," Mrs. Hatch-Torres said. "Some have never been to the doctor's office. So, it's fortunate to have all the services in one place."

It is also helpful that the interpreters themselves come from the same countries as some of the patients and are able to translate the different dialects. Mrs. Hatch-Torres said even though none are assigned to specific patients, their presence has done much to allay some of the fears.

"If they have been here before and know us, they feel more comfortable when they talk to a social worker (through us)," she said.

Mrs. Hatch-Torres said she works with a very good group of interpreters who stay quite busy.

"No one sits in one place all day," she said. "We're running all the clinics."

Patients come more regularly, attributing return visits to the fact that interpreters are available, Mrs. Hatch-Torres said.

"They're very appreciative," she said. "We can tell when they come in with a smile on their face that they're relieved to see someone understands them."

If the population growth of Hispanics continues, there could be a need for even more interpreters, she said.

On a daily basis, she said her staff sees a range of good and bad, happy and sad.

"Some of them don't have enough food or their husband left them," she said. "We have to deal with that. We have sad cases like rape, a mother that got pregnant and her husband left her."

They try to accommodate everyone and despite the energy drain at times, the job is rewarding, she said.

"They count on us," she said. "It makes us feel good that you have done something good. You go home and say, 'I helped a client; I feel good.'