The Road to Better Health Care through Learning Spanish

I’m a family nurse practitioner in a primary-care clinic in New York City. My patients are considered underserved—which isn’t a comment on my abilities, it just means they have little to no resources. Most have Medicaid, and some have no medical insurance at all. Many are immigrants. Others were born in this country but never learned to speak English. Occasionally, my patients get upset that I don’t speak Spanish, which is the most common (but certainly not the only) language that they speak. However, most encourage my battered Spanglish. It’s a combination of words I cobble together based on the limited English most of them know and the very limited Spanish I can work with.

I’ve never had formal training in Spanish and was pretty discouraged to take a class, given my inability to learn French in high school and college. The Spanish words I know I learned from my patients or coworkers, who often act as interpreters for me. Our secretary has had to come up with Spanish words for “gall bladder,” “erection,” “IV drug abuse,” “rectal exam,” and “ectopic pregnancy.” Other times, my patients bring someone with them to interpret. Sometimes, this is their child or sibling. It’s tough to communicate that way because we value people’s privacy in health care. I want my patients to be comfortable and not worry about their daughters asking about their most personal issues.

I received my Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe package in the mail this week, and I’m looking forward to getting started. The contents look really cool—I see already that the company’s thought of things I might not have. For example, there are stickers for my keyboard for characters used in Spanish that we don’t have in English.

So, here we go—wish me luck. I’m going to use TOTALe in the evenings and on weekends. My secretary tried to tell me the word for “weekend” in Spanish while we were getting ready to leave on Friday, but I thought she said “finger banana.” I’ve got a long way to go!

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