Lost in Translation

It’s so easy to be misunderstood. Gender differences, age, and culture all play a role in the way we communicate. Top that off with a different language and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

I volunteered to take care of a Cuban patient because he spoke no English and I thought it would be an interesting challenge. Although my Spanish sounds impressive to my coworkers, it is less than mediocre and sounds pitiful to native speakers. Broken sentences and incorrect grammar were often followed by blank looks of incomprehension when the Cuban answered me at a rate of a thousand words per minute.


I missed the good old days when communication was a whole lot simpler. When I could simply point at objects and say the English word, and the Peruvians would tell me the Spanish word, as neither of us knew each others’ language but we were eager to learn. When I could walk into a room and say “Marhaban!” (translated “welcome”) and the men would look up in surprise because they never expected their white American nurse to know their language (marhaban and the alphabet is all the Arabic I retained from my college days).

Señor, you need to wear your oxígeno because your SpO2 is dropping to 70% which is 22% lower than where we want it to be, and you really need to wear your blood pressure cuff so we can keep an eye on your blood pressure because it’s low and I just finished infusing a bolus of albumin to raise your blood pressure… and please stop taking off your telemetry leads because the doctor wants to monitor your heart. Yes, I know you don’t wear oxygen at home and that wearing it here is your decision, but you’re in the ICU for a reason and if you don’t wear it you’re not going to get any better or be able to go home… How do I translate words like “blood pressure” and “monitor” and other medical words I had never used before?

I could not get the language telephone to work and I was the only one in the entire hospital who spoke Spanish, so I was on my own. I needed to calm him down, figure out what he wanted, and convince him comply with the doctor’s orders. I eventually succeeded, but not without more than a bit of frustration on both sides. I can only imagine how much more frustrated he must have felt.

I decided right then and there that I was not going to repeat that situation again. I am going to learn Spanish like I always said I would. No stopping after six levels of high school Spanish and calling it good, but actually LEARN the language and hopefully become fluent in the near future. Anyone who lives in America should have to learn English. I know that. But I also recognize the great meltingpottedness of our country (+1 for the new word!) and the importance of passing on your heritage and language to your kids.

If anyone has any tips for learning another language, please feel free to share!

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” ~Goethe

the Arabic word "welcome" (marhaban) and random drawings

My college roommate and I frequently practiced writing Arabic – even on bananas when paper was not readily available!


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