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Translators: Providing a common language for a common goal

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young
  • Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
There is an obvious barrier at the expeditionary hospital here.

It's evident in the patient wards between Air Force doctors and their patients, in the operating rooms between Chilean and Air Force surgeons and even in meetings between local Angol officials and Air Force leaders.

The barrier is language, but with the help of dedicated translators, Chilean patients can describe their pain to Air Force doctors, Airmen can explain EMEDS equipment to Chilean medics and local Chilean officials can relay the support they need to meet the medical needs of more than 110,000 people in this community.

The primary translators in the field hospital here support more than 80 Airmen and about 50 Chilean medics and up to 40 Chilean patients. They move from room to room, patient to patient, translating items as simple as asking if a patient needs anything, to something as complex as a surgery procedure.

"I didn't realize how important my job would be here until I was in a surgery, translating between surgeons, a Chilean surgeon on my right ear and an American surgeon on my left ear," said Tech. Sgt. Antonio Andrade, a translator at the EMEDS hospital who is deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. "Communication is key. You can bring all the help you want to another country, but if you don't speak their language, it's going to be very difficult to make the mission happen."

The U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance provided $8.6 million to support an Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support team fully equipped with staff and supplies to provide medical care for the region surrounding Angol. The 190-bed regional hospital previously supporting this community was severely damaged in an 8.8-magnitude earthquake Feb. 27.

For both Sergeant Andrade and his counterpart, Staff Sgt. Abraham Rodriquez, this is their first translating mission.

From the second he enters the EMEDS hospital, he's working, said Sergeant Rodriguez, the NCO in charge for the Defense Institute for Medical Operations at the U. S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks City-Base, Texas.

"It's very hard because as soon as I'm done with a patient, I know I've got something else coming up," Sergeant Rodriguez said. "If I'm inside the EMEDS, 95 percent of the time, I'm translating. There are very few times I can sit down."

The 12-hour shifts, seven days a week in the hospital can be very challenging, but the job is fulfilling, he said.

"(We) have to be very precise in what we do and how we translate," Sergeant Rodriguez said. "Some medications sound similar, so if we say something wrong, it could get bad very quickly."

"I could be in the emergency room helping with trauma care, and I'm responsible for telling the doctor how a child feels," said Sergeant Andrade, a dental assistant assigned to the 366th Dental Squadron. "But, I'm also responsible for answering the parent's questions, 'What kind of medication are you giving my children?' 'How often do they need to take it?' We have to do the best we can and make sure the mission continues."

As the chief of nursing here, Maj. Sharon Walker is responsible for teaching most of the Chilean medics how to use different equipment in the EMEDS hospital.

Without Sergeants Andrade and Rodriguez, the mission wouldn't be successful, she said.

"Whenever we do not have a translator, things are really slow," Major Walker said. "The conversation can go on for about 10 minutes over a very small item like an oxygen mask and until someone makes a gesture that maybe you can understand, we get nowhere. When a translator appears, there is a sign of relief from both sides and we're able to actually communicate because we have someone to translate what's going on."

Although they are the primary translators, Sergeants Andrade and Rodriguez are not the only translators in the facility; some Airmen, like Senior Airman Cassondra Johnson, are serving in their primary job and as translators.

"Not only do I have to translate Spanish the Chileans are speaking, I also have to do my job interviewing the patients," said Airman Johnson, an aerospace medical technician assigned to the 81st Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. "With the language barrier, if someone has a history of a medical problem and we don't translate it correctly, the medical care will be off. Between the translators, we definitely use each other to make sure the patients get the right care."

Both Sergeant Andrade and Sergeant Rodriguez said they are grateful to be part of this operation.

"I think that we're here to support (the Chileans) it's so important because we're all humans, and I feel for them," Sergeant Rodriguez said. "I've been here before and they are great people. They need all the support they can get, especially with the earthquake and I'm here to help as much as I can."

For Sergeant Andrade, this mission is especially important; it's his first deployment in 22 years of service and since he will retire next year, it may be his last.

"When they called me to notify me of this deployment, I thought it was a prank call," he said. "When I realized it was happening, I was very excited to do something this important. To be able to provide humanitarian aid to a country that needed it and just to help people when they really need it; it is amazing."