It seems that there is an app for just about everything these days. One that can help me find a parking spot and another to tell me how many calories I burn. There are translation apps for just about every language. Recently, I was in the Emergency Room with a young woman who was highly traumatized and needed immediate psychiatric treatment. She was a Spanish speaker and had no English comprehension or verbal skills. As I sat there with her lying in my arms, I wished that I could talk with her. I wanted to tell her that I would stay with her, she would be safe and we would make sure she was taken care of.
When the doctor arrived in the exam room, I was sure that he would call an interpreter so she could understand him and share her feelings. From my experience, when an interpreter arrives the traumatized individual feels a sense of relief because they can begin to communicate their needs. The loneliness and isolation lifts.
What the doctor did next was unexpected – he took out his cell phone and logged into a translation app. He had preprogrammed questions that he would play and wait for the patient’s yes or no responses. Sometimes she would understand the question and sometimes she would look at the doctor with confusion. All I could think of was that whenever I translated Spanish into English on some translation apps ,I would near-gibberish. Obviously, she was having the same experience.
The doctor ended up releasing the patient because she answered all of the yes/no questions. She was not able to express herself, and the doctor was not able to ask her open-ended questions, which might have revealed more of her distress.
One week after we sat in the ER we were back at another ER, this time because she’d tried to harm herself. I often wonder if there had been a professional interpreter who had been able to give voice to this young woman’s trauma, that interpreter would have made a difference in our first ER visit. I guess we will never know the answer to that question. What I do know is that an app on a cell phone cannot give voice to the inner pain, the struggle and the despair that many of my clients go through. For that – only a professional interpreter will do!
Molly Corbett is a board member of VOL and the Executive Director of Asylee Women Enterprise (AWE). AWE is a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing, community and advocacy for women seeking asylum.