NPR

With Scarce Access To Interpreters, Immigrants Struggle To Understand Doctors' Orders

Despite laws guaranteeing access to health care, non-English speakers in the U.S. often rely on family and friends as ad-hoc interpreters — and may misunderstand what doctors think they're conveying.
Marlon Munoz still becomes emotional when he remembers having to tell his wife Aibi Perez that she had breast cancer because no other interpreter was available to share the news. Source: Ryan Collerd for Undark

Long before he began studying for a career in health care, Marlon Munoz performed one of the most sensitive roles in the field: delivering diagnoses to patients.

As an informal interpreter between English-speaking doctors and his Spanish-speaking family and friends, Marlon knew well the burden that comes with the job. He still becomes emotional when he remembers having to tell his wife Aibi Perez she had breast cancer.

A few days after Perez underwent a routine breast biopsy 17 years ago, Munoz received an unexpected call from her physician. The doctor spoke no Spanish and Perez spoke little English, so they called Marlon, who could act as a go-between. But when the doctor said the biopsy had revealed Stage 1 breast cancer, Marlon hedged.

Without delivering the bad news, he left work and drove to a park near the family's home in Pennsauken, New Jersey. He sat on a bench and sobbed. When he finally mustered the strength to go home, knowing Perez and their children were preparing for the next day's Thanksgiving feast, he struggled to find the words. "You don't have to tell me," Munoz recalls his wife saying. "I already know."

"That's when I broke into tears," says Munoz, who now works in the radiology department — and as a volunteer medical interpreter — at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Perez survived and is cancer-free today, but the family has never been the same. Being the bearer of bad news strained Munoz's relationship with his wife at this most vulnerable time,

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