Working as a Health Advocate for Health Bridges has really made me realize how much of a barrier language is to access to quality healthcare. To illustrate this point, I want to tell you about an experience I had at the end of one of my shifts.
It was 11:30 am on a Tuesday morning and my shift was winding down. My usual shift partner, the Spanish-speaker for our shift time, was getting ready to leave early in order to make it back to campus on time for another obligation. After she had left, a family came to the registration window with a small child. It soon became evident that neither parent felt comfortable speaking in English and that Spanish was their primary language of communication.
After struggling to communicate with the admitting staff, the family expressed that the child who needed care did not have health insurance. Panic began to set in as I realized that I would have to handle the HPE sign-up with my limited Spanish-speaking ability. (HPE, or Hospital Presumptive Eligibility, is a program offered through Medi-Cal that allows health care providers to sign patients up for a temporary Medi-Cal service that not only covers the cost of their visit but also covers them for an additional month. )
Now granted, I have been taking Spanish ever since 7th grade and grew up in Miami—a city where you hear just as much Spanish being spoken as English. But unfortunately, my Spanish abilities are limited strictly to academic functions—reading literature and writing essays, which are useful in school but not in a practical setting like a hospital.
Quickly, I began to run through phrases in my head in Spanish. Soy voluntario, puedo ayudarse. ¿Tienes seguro medico? As I approached the family I could feel my heart beating in my chest. To my relief, as I explained the HPE sign-up process in my broken Spanish, the family seemed to understand me. While filling out the sign-up form online, I paused as I thought about how to pose my next question.
Although I am quite sure I messed up many times, the family was patient and understanding while I struggled to communicate to them. Because she was so stressed about her son’s illness, the mother cried as I went through the HPE process and I tried my best to console her with my limited Spanish vocabulary. After the child had been approved for HPE, the mother thanked me profusely and said she was so grateful someone could communicate the process to her in Spanish.
Interacting with this family taught me an important lesson about how a language barrier can make seeking quality healthcare so difficult. When I could not communicate to the family exactly what I intended to say, I felt greatly frustrated. And I felt equally frustrated when they said something to me I could not fully understand.
I imagined what it would be like if this was my only interaction with a healthcare provider and I could barely speak enough English to get all my questions answered and understand the doctor’s instructions. I think this experience really drove home to me the importance of the work Health Bridges is doing.
Zoe Zhou is a Health Advocate Coordinator for Health Bridges. She is a sophomore at Pomona College and is majoring in Molecular Biology. Besides being involved in Health Bridges, Zoe is also an intro genetics and writing TA and a sponsor. She is passionate about medicine and healthcare and wants to become a doctor.