Four years ago Seydou Sow was living in Harlem, sharing an apartment with a husband and wife who were expecting a baby. Like Sow, the couple is from the Ivory Coast of Africa. Unlike Sow, they do not speak English. When the woman went into labor, Sow tagged along to Harlem Hospital and served as translator throughout the delivery.
"In the hospital, people need an interpreter. If I was not there, the situation could have been very, very different," Sow said. Happily, the woman had a normal labor and gave birth to a healthy girl.
But Sow realized his friends were not the only ones who needed an interpreter. Seeing a need for interpreters for the growing African immigrant community, Sow went back to the hospital the following week and signed up to become a volunteer who could interpret for patients who speak French or Bambara, a language spoken by several million people in Ivory Coast, Mali and other West African countries. He also speaks two other African languages, Djoula and Malinke.
Sow is now one of HHC's skilled and trained interpreters who play a key role in advancing HHC’s patient safety agenda by assisting patients whose English language skills are limited.
"I became an interpreter to facilitate communication between hospital and patient," said Sow, 45. "All patients come to hospital for the same purpose, whether they speak English or not … to seek good, safe care."
In addition to full-time medical interpreters like Sow, there are also hundreds of HHC employees who speak a foreign language and are able to facilitate clear communication, which is vital to reducing medical mistakes.
HHC facilities have had access to telephone interpretation services around the clock for years, and language access coordinators throughout the system since 2003. HHC's Center for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) oversees guidelines for the training and testing of interpreters, and promotes standard measures of interpreter competence and continuing education.
"An interpreter is essential to properly assess the patient's medical needs," said Lucila Jiménez, Director of the Language Assistance Program at Harlem Hospital. "The patient feels encouraged to ask questions, which is what you want them to do. The interpreter understands what the patient's question is. And they are there to understand and interpret the doctor's answer."
Earlier this year at Harlem Hospital, Sow interpreted for an African woman from France who had gone into labor unexpectedly. She and her family were resisting the doctor's prognosis that she needed a Caesarian section, until Sow explained in her language that the procedure was necessary for her own sake and the sake of the baby.
"It's a very good job," Sow said. "Sometimes the patient understands only a few English words. They don't understand what the doctor explains to them. Anytime I help them I see on their face they are very, very happy, and this happiness comes back to me. Anytime I help someone and they're happy, I'm very happy too."