Someone to talk to

Someone to talk to

Student group offers Chinese translation service at Shands at UF

By Molly Larmie

David Zhou and Wenyan Wu/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

The patient arrived at Shands at UF for a liver and kidney transplant. He came alone. A native of China, he didn’t speak English.

Luckily for him, Shands has a new program that pairs Mandarin Chinese-speaking patients with an interpreter. Before the patient’s transplant operation and during his recovery, an interpreter helped him translate his paperwork and communicate with his doctors.

“How are you feeling?” the interpreter would ask in Mandarin. “Do you need anything? Is there anything you want to tell the doctors?”

“I’m so grateful that you are here for me,” the patient said. “I had no one to talk to.”

David Zhou, a third-year medical student and former president of the UF Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association, started the interpretation program in 2010. Believing that communication between doctors and patients is essential for quality care, he recruited two undergraduate students who spoke fluent English and Mandarin.

The interpreter who helped the transplant patient, Wenyan Wu, grew up in China. She moved with her parents to Fort Lauderdale in 2005, when she was 14. No one in her family spoke English.

Wu enrolled in an English as second language course in high school, but the rest of students in the class spoke Spanish. She had no one to talk to.

Her father developed skin problems and Wu went with him to the doctor’s office. They couldn’t understand anything the doctor said. Her father couldn’t read the label on his medication.

“And I felt like, if you don’t understand what a provider has to say,” Wu said, “it hinders your recovery,”

Today, Wu, a 21-year-old health science junior, is fluent in English language, including medical terminology. She uses that knowledge to help patients who remind her of how she used to be: unable to communicate.

“That’s why I say I can relate to the patients,” Wu said, “because I have walked in their shoes.”

With training, Wu has learned to interpret physicians’ words verbatim. Some patients try to use family members as interpreters, but untrained interpreters tend to use synonyms, which can distort the doctor’s exact message, she said.

With an interpreter, patients are more likely to open up to physicians, Zhou said. Without an interpreter, there are things a patient wouldn’t — or couldn’t — tell the doctor.

“In the hospital (the patients) are just sort of lost because they can’t communicate with the doctors. They can’t communicate with the nurses who come in and out,” Zhou said. “And so when there is someone there for them, they’re really grateful for it because there is someone who speaks their language and is familiar with their culture.”

Before the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association created the Mandarin interpretation program, physicians used a phone service called Language Line to communicate with Chinese patients who couldn’t speak English. Physicians and patients spoke through a headset, with an interpreter on the line to act as middle man.

Since 2010, about five Mandarin-speaking patients have been paired with an in-person interpreter. Zhou thinks the program is underused. Physicians routinely request an in-person Spanish interpretation service, he said, but they may not be aware that in-person Mandarin interpretation is available, too.

In the future, the group hopes to offer interpretation services in Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines.

For now, it’s just Wu. Her cell phone rings when a patient needs her.

Wu plans to keep interpreting for Shands until she graduates. Then she will apply to medical school, where she hopes to focus on health care disparities that affect the quality of care patients receive. One of these disparities — poor communication — she’s already helping to solve.