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Helping Those With Life Threatening Illnesses - 2003-10-10

Every year thousands of people from around the world with life-threatening medical conditions come to the United States seeking help from specialists. Often, however, the stress of their ailment is compounded by their inability to communicate in English. One medical center is addressing this problem through specially trained medical interpreters.

On any given day, the doctors and nurses at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center here in Houston deal with patients from as far away as Turkey, Taiwan or Brazil. It is vitally important that the medical practitioners know every detail about their condition, their symptoms and their background.

To make sure that information is conveyed accurately and completely, the hospital maintains a staff of 26 translators who are fluent in 12 languages ranging from Spanish to Arabic and even Hakka, a Taiwanese dialect. Houston is know worldwide for its medical center and it is also a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population. In addition, the city's stature as an oil industry center provides many connections to the Middle East.

Wendeline Jongenburger, Director of the International Program at the M-D Anderson Center, says these professional translators help patients and their families cope with the painful and sometimes emotionally devastating effects of cancer.

"In many hospitals, children or relatives or people directly related to the patient are asked to be the interpreter and, as you can imagine, if you are hearing for the first time that your mother or father has a terminal prognosis-- to understand what that means for you and at the same time interpret it, that can be overwhelming."

Cecilia Garcia is the head of the M-D Anderson Language Assistance Program and supervises the staff members, several of whom are multilingual professional interpreters with years of experience. But she says working with cancer patients requires special training not all interpreters have.

She says, "I got one from another hospital who was considered one of the top medical interpreters in Houston. When she came here, we put her through more training, because we are very specific to a particular disease. She told me it was like starting all over because she did not have all this information."

Ms. Garcia says working with cancer patients also requires a strength of character and emotional stability that can be put to the test every day.

"Although we try to tell people not to get involved emotionally, it does happen. You cannot help but react to the situation. So we try to assist our people by having them work with the psychiatrists we have on staff."

Fortunately, she says, the news is not always bad. As terrible as cancer can be, modern medical technology has made great advances against the disease and sometimes, Ms. Garcia says, interpreters get to deliver good news.

"Just last Friday, I started my day with a patient who was told, "You are in full remission." I tell you, the rest of the day was wonderful, because you share in their success as well as their sadness."

Until a few years ago, the M-D Anderson Cancer Center was treating as many as 15 hundred foreign patients a year. Now the number is down to about a thousand. Wendeline Jongenburger says the decline is linked to the events of September 11, 2001.

"After the terrorist attacks, there was some anxiety about travelling to the United States, but more importantly, with the passage of the Patriot Act, the visa restrictions made it very difficult for patients to get a visa to come to the United States for medical care, so we saw about a 30 percent decline in new patients after September 11," she says.

Ms. Jongenburger says the situation has become especially difficult for the parents of cancer-stricken children in foreign countries. She says the child may obtain a visa, but that often the parents are turned down, making it impossible for them to bring their child to Houston. She says as good as the translators may be, most patients, especially those who are still young, need to have family members with them as they undergo treatment.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is part of the University of Texas system and is located near downtown Houston in the assemblage of hospitals and clinics known as the Texas Medical Center.