Interpreter Keeps Patients Connected in Spanish

By Steve Blanchard - September 25, 2023

Helping patients navigate the complex medical environment of a cancer center is what Elisa Díaz does best.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Díaz learned both Spanish and English in school. She has used that education throughout her professional career and decided to take things a few steps further by becoming an oncology medical interpreter at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Díaz found her way to Tampa via Boston, where she pursued a hospital career in pharmacy. In the 1990s, she relocated to Tampa to be closer to her family in Puerto Rico and to escape the Northeast’s harsh winters. Her career path eventually shifted and, taking advantage of her language skills, she started working as an interpreter at Moffitt.

“So many people think that if you speak Spanish, you can automatically interpret or translate” said Díaz, who has worked at Moffitt for 15 years. “But it is so much more than that, especially in the medical or legal field.”

"So many people think that if you speak Spanish, you can automatically interpret or translate. But it is so much more than that, especially in the medical or legal field."

- Elisa Díaz, Language Services

Becoming an oncology medical interpreter, one who interprets the spoken language, takes years of training, certification and experience. The same goes for someone who is a translator and works with the written word.

Moffitt offers both through its Language Services program.

“The interpreter is the voice of the patient conveying an accurate and faithful interpretation without addition, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the original intended meaning of the message from the speaker,” she said.

Leaving Emotion Out

Since taking on that full-time role, Díaz has helped guide countless Spanish-speaking patients through their cancer journey and is now a tier 3 interpreter, the highest rank there is.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is leaving emotion out of the interpretation.

“The emotionally intense situations in which you are placed, like conversations about withdrawing life support, are tough to deal with and would be impossible without a medical interpreter,” Díaz said.       

Prado Antolino, left, assists with interpreting during a clinic visit.
Prado Antolino, left, assists with interpreting during a clinic visit.

To help deal with these situations, she relies on the support of her fellow interpreters who have gone through similar encounters.

That’s a big reason why interpreters are preferable to a bilingual family member or an untrained team member in relaying the information to a patient, Díaz said. Medical interpreting is provided without cost to the patient and it is a legal requirement. Engaging an interpreter from the beginning can help the patient and family absorb the large amount of information relayed to them in the early stages of cancer treatment.

“I always tell them that we want their family member who is with them to be engaged in the conversation rather than worrying about interpreting,” Díaz said. “It takes the burden off the family member and puts it on us. We’re trained for that!”

Family members soon realize that they don’t know all the cancer terminology well enough to interpret correctly, which can directly impact the patient’s care. Moffitt offers interpretation services in over 200 languages via video and telephone interpreter vendors, as well as in-person interpreting on most Moffitt campuses.

Critical Need for Awake Craniotomy

Being an interpreter has taken Díaz to every program and department at Moffitt. Recently she provided her services during an awake craniotomy procedure where she guided the patient through pre-op, surgery and post-op recovery. She spent nearly eight hours that day with one patient, making sure he and his family received all the information necessary, as well as interpreting for the doctor and patient during the surgery.

“This was my third time working during an awake craniotomy,” Díaz said. “It’s a rare opportunity to be a part of the surgical team in the operating theater and witness all this technology and innovation. During the procedure they must stimulate the brain and preserve its cognitive functions like motor, speech and language. I was there throughout interpreting instructions for the doctor and sharing the patient’s responses.”

Moffitt’s team of interpreters and translators is available to all patients. Patients and family members can request both services when they schedule their appointment or with their provider. It’s a step that can be vital to any patient who does not speak English as their first language, Díaz said.

“We are a specialized cancer center and when patients hear cancer and get referred to us, their stress level is immediately through the roof,” she said. “For them to come into a complex medical environment with no English language experience or support is very intimidating. When they see we offer language services, you physically see that stress level drop and they are a bit more at ease and relieved.”

An interpreter assists a nurse in the clinic
Josselyn Balcomb, right, interprets for nurse Vicki Vann in the clinic. Becoming an oncology medical interpreter takes years of training, certification and experience.

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