Breaking Down the Language Barrier for Cancer Patients

By Steve Blanchard - September 23, 2021

Ana Oliver often delivers complex, complicated news to patients at Moffitt Cancer Center. It’s a job she takes seriously in a position she has held for nearly two years.

But Oliver is not a doctor or a nurse. She’s a certified bilingual medical interpreter.

Oliver is part of Moffitt’s Language Services team, which not only verbally interprets complicated medical news for patients and caregivers, but also translates written information for areas throughout the entire cancer center.

Headshot of Ana Oliver, certified medical interpreter
Ana Oliver, certified medical interpreter

“I love being an interpreter and for me it is a privilege to be in this space,” said Oliver, who was born in Puerto Rico and interprets in Spanish. “On a routine basis I witness miracles of science — amazing science — and moments of infinite grace. That human connection makes all the difference.”

Oliver said that being in the room with a patient who does not speak English as their first language brings calm to a stressful situation. Everything Oliver relays is in the first person. This allows both the patient and the medical experts to hear things directly as they are spoken rather than simply listening to relayed information.

But not all information is relayed verbally for non-English speaking patients.

Patients often receive packets of printed materials to help them navigate their cancer journey. That’s where Translation Services Administrator Manuel Barrera Tellez comes in. He is part of a team that ensures printed materials that are pertinent to patients and team members are translated correctly and are readily available to those who need them.

“Our team works with nurses and support staff, mostly,” said Barrera Tellez, who was born in Cuba and has worked at Moffitt for two years. “For example, we will translate discharge instructions for a patient who may need those handouts in Spanish. It’s all about preparing things for the patient in a way they can better understand.”

Headshot of Manuel Barrera Tellez, Translation Services Administrator
Manuel Barrera Tellez, Translation Services Administrator

While translators don’t often interact directly with patients, Barrera Tellez said he is always thrilled when nurses share how helpful the translated documents were to someone navigating the intricacies of a cancer diagnosis.

“I’m so proud to have this job and it’s super important,” Barrera Tellez said. “It’s amazing to be able to go to a hospital and to get the information you need in a language you understand. I always put myself in the shoes of the patient. Translators and interpreters communicate in the language that’s known to the patient, which makes it easier to digest and understand.”

While both Barrera Tellez and Oliver are Spanish-speaking team members, Spanish is not the only language that Moffitt translates for patients. According to Barrera Tellez, the second most translated language at Moffitt in 2020 was Polish. In 2019 it was Vietnamese.

In those instances where a language other than Spanish is needed, Moffitt utilizes a third-party translation provider. Interpreter services encompass more than 180 languages and are available at any time via phone, video or a live interpreter, depending on the patient’s need.

Oliver said she is amazed by the care and compassion that Moffitt puts into its translation and interpretation services. In fact, she said she sees that daily in her role.

“I assisted a patient a little while ago and the provider asked him how he was feeling,” Oliver said. “He just responded by saying, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, when I come here I always feel better and I think it’s because everyone is so nice to me.’ It’s just so lovely to be in that space. Cancer is a terrible disease and the therapy is difficult and logistically complicated. But because there is such an emphasis on caring, that makes all the difference. And being able to facilitate those connections is just wonderful.”

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