04/10/07 — Speaking their language

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Speaking their language

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 10, 2007 1:46 PM

Alfie Okano often imagines that she is the patient waiting behind curtains and closed doors -- scared, confused and unable to communicate with the doctors and nurses at her bedside.

She, too, has been that person who could not read, write or speak English, she said.

In reality, Panfilo Hurtado is the lonely one. He sits on a hospital bed next to his wife, Josefina, hiding winces and cringes with his hands.

And then Mrs. Okano walks in.

His eyes light up when, in Spanish, the Wayne Memorial Hospital translator introduces herself and takes his hand.

For Mrs. Okano, breaking the language barrier between doctor and patient is the less important of two jobs she maintains across the hospital grounds.

Becoming a member of each particular family she attends to is the real day's work.

"You try to get close to the family," she said. "Because God forbid, if something turns out bad, I want them to have confidence in me. And then you love them because they need loving."

Hurtado was not in need of much counseling. He had only been involved in a minor car accident and x-rays revealed he would be OK.

Still, he was complaining of severe neck and back pain.

Mrs. Okano knows her job is to translate from patient to doctor and vice versa -- but for now, the attending has gone and it's up to her to ease Hurtado's pain until he returns with some medication.

So she strikes up a conversation with the couple about a Spanish soap opera -- anything, she said, to take their minds off the incident that brought them here.

As she breaks down last night's episode, Hurtado smiles and takes her hand.

"I watch (Spanish) television channels and most of their shows," Mrs. Okano said. "It helps me understand them better. You want to take their mind off things -- to make them feel OK while you're talking."

Being a translator is about much more than helping doctors diagnose Hispanic patients, she said.

Sometimes it is being a shoulder to cry on, too.

But no matter the illness, Mrs. Okano always comes in with that same smile.

"I just put myself in their position," she said. "I want them to feel that I feel for them. I was in their position when I came to this country."

Born in Puerto Rico, Mrs. Okano grew up speaking Spanish and French.

And while she moved to the United States as a 3-year-old, she admits that she is still far from perfect when it comes to speaking English.

"English is the hardest language as far as I'm concerned," Mrs. Okano said. "I'm still learning. Sometimes, a doctor will throw a big word at me and I'll tell him, 'I don't know what you're saying.'

She might not have a medical degree, but over the years she has become an expert at making sure every patient she speaks for is getting the best care possible.

Sometimes she talks to them about her family while they wait to hear from the doctor. With every laugh they share, the trust they have in each other grows.

But Mrs. Okano has learned -- with every baby she has seen delivered without a pulse and every diagnosis of a terminal illness -- that life in the hospital is hardly all smiles.

She admits things get complicated when you get to close to your patients -- but refuses to walk away from the path of compassion she has chosen to follow.

"As soon as they see me crying, they know it's bad news," Mrs. Okano said. "I've seen babies born dead and watched young people just die for no reason. I love my patients, so it can be very hard for me."

Her work doesn't end when the test results come back. She stays with her patients, helping them understand the paperwork they are about to sign and recommending cheap pharmacies before placing a kiss on both of their cheeks.

She knows she might see them again one day and wants them to understand just how much she cares.

And unlike some of the other translators at Wayne Memorial, Mrs. Okano never leaves the facility.

She wants to be nothing more than an elevator ride away from the next ailing Hispanic to walk through the sliding doors.

"I need to be here for them," she said. "If there's a car accident or an emergency, you want to be here."

Nobody seems to notice that she's tired. Mrs. Okano's warm smile hides the pain that comes with connecting to the patients who sometimes lose their battles.

At the end of her 12-hour shift, she packs it up and heads home, often taking a handful of images both triumphant and tragic with her.

"You don't notice how hectic it really is until the day is over. It's draining," she said. "But in time, I'm learning not to take it home with me."

But when the alarm sounds just before 5 the next morning and she makes her way back to Wayne Memorial, she knows it will be hard not to connect with the next patient who will rely on her to be his or her voice.

"I tell them, 'I'm not a nurse. I'm just like you,'" she said. "I love being there for them. I want them to know that I really do care."