Patients Love My Broken Spanish

By Jenkins, Harold S. | Medical Economics, February 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Patients Love My Broken Spanish


Jenkins, Harold S., Medical Economics


This determined ER physician taught himself a second language so he could communicate with all his patients.

Without a doubt, the worst educational advice I ever received came from my high school guidance counselor 40 years ago.

"You're college material, Harold," Mrs. Huckstep told me. "You need to take a foreign language."

Our rural high school offered two. "Which one?" I asked.

"French, of course," she replied. "You'll never use Spanish."

I can't blame Mrs. Huckstep for not fore seeing today's demographic tidal wave. But as an ED physician at a hospital in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, I'm constantly reminded that heeding her advice was not a savvy move. Nobody speaks French here; Spanish is the primary language of 22 percent of our patients.

Little by little, I'm speaking it with them.

It began as a New Year's resolution, born of the frustration of being unable to converse with one-fifth of my patients. Either Spanish-speaking staffers or a tdephone translation service bailed me out, but neither option felt tight. That January, I purchased a Spanish medical textbook and launched into a self-study program-with no syllabi, deadlines, or exams, and no one to show me the next step or insist that I take it.

Every day, I jotted vocabulary words on index cards and studied them before each shift. Commuting to work, I recited road signs and license plate numbers in Spanish. I even rolled my Rs.

By March, I was struck by the impossibility of the whole thing. I should quit now, I told Ysabd, a Spanish-speaking aide who'd beamed when I told her about my studies.

"Nunca," Ysabel said, her jaw jutting out. "Speak Spanish more, to every patient, st?"

So I took her advice. I paused outside of exam rooms, scanned my cue cards, and chose canned lines I hoped would work. Usually they did; sometimes they didn't.

"Aspire profundo," I said, listening to the lungs of a young man.

"No, no! …

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