When to say NO

Sometimes my first answer is NO if I know I am not qualified to perform a task. However, if the authorities persist due to the nature of an incident, that incident is likely to be documented. It comes down to personal ethics; more precisely, it comes down to ethical behavior on your part as an interpreter. Take, for example, my involvement in a police case a few years ago.

The call from the dispatcher

The call came at 1:45am on a cold morning, the day after Christmas. The police dispatcher asked (always politely!) if I would be available to assist officers on-location with a traffic injury case. I was warned that the  driver was injured, and might have to be taken to the nearest hospital for examination.

As I fumbled to put on my trousers, the warning stopped me dead in  my tracks. I sat on the edge of the bed as I tried to put on the shoes while talking on the phone. I explained to the dispatcher that I  did not feel  I was qualified as a medical interpreter; my first answer was “no” to her request to be at the hospital. She said she understood, but that it was urgent that an interpreter be present at the site of the accident, which had taken place on the highway only a few miles from my home. As the police usually call me when they need someone on-site, I agreed to go to the accident site. Meanwhile, she would try to find someone qualified to interpret for the victim at the hospital. I started the drive to the site.

Note: According to the Office of State Courts Administrator, certified court interpreters in Missouri are not automatically qualified as medical interpreters. At the time I was a community interpreter – no training of any kind. Several years after this incident I got interested in becoming certified as a court interpreter. I continue preparations to be certified by the state, as there is a shortage of certified interpreters in Missouri.

Two miles from home I received another call from the dispatcher. Could I please join the officers at the local hospital emergency room? The victim was already in an ambulance; it was a bad case. I turned around, and explained once again that I was not a qualified medical interpreter. But she was prepared; she explained I would not have to interpret medical procedures. This job would require only that I interpret instructions from medical personnel to the victim as they placed him in new positions to allow an MRI examination.

The dispatcher wanted desperately to confirm that I would be present at the hospital, as there was no time to waste. I again explained my position, knowing the conversation was being recorded. I stopped for a few seconds to record the time on my notebook, and to write down the dispatcher’s name. I was buying a few seconds. I eventually said “…Yes. I will be at the hospital in a few minutes”.

Officers and medical personnel were waiting for me at the entrance to the emergency room. We rushed to the MRI waiting room, while I explained my function. No one in the group knew how to use the services of an interpreter. It took me two minutes to explain; just as I finished explaining, we arrived at the victim’s side. Blood and bandages…IV tubes coming and going…injury…must put these images aside…(not really  — that is another post, at a later time)…

At the MRI room I started jotting down notes as I interpreted back and forth between the victim and the medical personnel.

The doctors want to do some tests on you; they require your approval.
Can you sign your name? The interpreter will read this form to you in Spanish, because it is in English.
Do you have family members we can call?
What is your name?…Please inhale and remain still for a little while; I will let you know when to exhale…
Do you speak English?…They will move your legs a bit…
How old are you?…Sorry about causing you pain…We are preparing to move you a little, again…

Organized mayhem ensued. Following the MRI, doctors requested I stay, to provide additional help as they performed additional procedures, readying the victim for admission. I did.

What did I learn that night?

My Interpreter Notebook has been a constant companion for several years. I have no idea how many I have used. I  must count them some day. I have learned that going back over my notes is reassuring, as I remember details that were only fuzzy the night before. I have learned that I concentrate so hard on the victim (the patient, in this case), that I am oblivious to all details of the procedures being performed (not really — sometimes I live through these again, in my dreams and thoughts). Interpreting instructions from the emergency medical personnel, and the reply from the patient, become paramount for the duration of an emergency case.

In a nutshell, I learned:

I interpreted in a hospital environment. In the end I felt it was OK to do so, as there was no alternative that night. Could the procedures have been performed as efficiently without me? They would have found a way, I believe; but I felt good for assisting to expedite the examination.

Did I help even a little, by simply being there? I believe (hope!) I did. The victim/patient pulled through, recovered, as is now living a normal life.

Sometimes, priorities can change. Those priorities can even make you change a “no” into a “yes”.

How have YOU handled it?

— Have YOU ever been in a similar situation and said “No”?
— Did YOU ever change that No into a Yes?
— Would you be willing to consider changing your answer again, knowing it could be a life or death situation?

I look forward to your comments!

— Al Navas

Image credit:
Image in the article is courtesy
of olovedog at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

0 thoughts on “When to say NO”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Al, learning to say NO is really important. We are so caught up in our desire to help that we retire that word from our active vocabulary. That’s a very dangerous proposition.

    Thank you for posting this.

    1. Al Navas says:

      Thank you, Gio! I bet you are right – our desire to help may sometimes overwhelm us.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Al. I think that in a life-threatening situation, I would change my “no” to “yes” – if no other help was available. But after a lengthy hearing in which I interpreted into a phone for the incarcerated father and into my hand-held microphone for the mother who was in court, I respectfully declined to interpret telephonically for the trial. And “no” was “no”. We have to learn to take care of ourselves, or we will be of no help to anyone else.

    1. Al Navas says:

      You are right, Rosemary. Life-threatening situations change everything. One of our colleagues mentioned that such a situation changes the game completely, and that any help is welcome and crucial in such times.

      Thank you for also bringing up self-care. It is crucial; I will address this in the future.

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