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Translators help hospital patients

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003

Cliff Shrum still recalls the letter.

"It was very elegant. It was written so eloquently. Even the paper was gorgeous," he said.

The words were written in Vietnamese, addressed to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Roger Wigle following a medical mission trip he took to Southeast Asia last year.

"The girl he had treated was thanking him for helping her to get better and telling him that she had a much better view of America because of him and was going to study to enter the medical field," Shrum said.

Shrum, an overseas veteran who serves on the safety and security staff at Latrobe Area Hospital, translated the letter for Wigle.

Shrum is one of about two dozen volunteers in the hospital's "language bank," who step in when doctors and nurses encounter language barriers with patients. Sometimes they are not fluent in English. Sometimes medication or stress can cause a struggle with the language.

The predicament can range from frustrating to dangerous.

Patients may be unable to communicate their levels of pain. They might not be able to ask important questions or may misunderstand vital health information.

At LAH, the language bank includes volunteers proficient in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, German, Farsi, French, Japanese, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and Portuguese.

Shrum, 54, of Ligonier, grew up in Latrobe. As a youngster, he often accompanied his father on neighborhood visits. "At that time, when you went to someone's home, you spoke the language of the house out of courtesy," he said.

High school French classes preceded his enlistment. He spent a lot of time in Germany, where he picked up Vietnamese, Korean and German, and polished his Russian.

A hospital staff member for two years, he is sometimes summoned at odd hours to help a patient. "You wake up in the middle of the night and someone wants to give you a shot, and you don't know why," he said, which can be traumatic for a patient.

He's also been called to the emergency room to "calm somebody down. That's happened a number of times."

Members of the language bank are more frequently called to help a patient request a certain food, contact a relative or decipher a hospital bill.

Emoke Pellathy, of Unity Township, has helped translate for patients who speak French and Spanish. The native of Hungary is a language teacher at Mt. Pleasant Area High School.

Like Pellathy, Irene Mankovich, of Latrobe, has been called to the Bethlen Home in Ligonier to help aging residents communicate. A native of Austria-Hungary who spoke with her grandmother in their native tongue, Mankovich noted the language has changed along with the times, with new words added and others deleted.

Vera Slezak, of Unity Township, was born in Czechoslovakia. She speaks her native language as well as German, Polish and Slovak.

"When my family came to the United States we didn't speak English," she said. "We were always grateful when someone could translate for us. I just like to return the favor."

Charles Muchnock's father was born in Croatia. To maintain the family heritage, he learned to speak and read Yugoslavian. Requests for his translation service have been infrequent. The Latrobe man also helps to preserve Slavic culture as a longtime member of Duquesne University's Tamburitzans.

David Lane did not learn German as a native language. But while studying chemistry in college, he was required to take a number of German courses. He came to love the language and was fascinated by the culture.

"I just want to help people feel more comfortable if they don't understand English," said Lane, who teaches German at Kiski School, a private boys' boarding school in Saltsburg.

"Coming to the hospital is scary enough," he said. "It is even scarier if you don't speak the language."

Once, a doctor asked him to visit his office to speak with a patient. "What he (the physician) really wanted me to do was explain follow-up care, refilling medication," Lane said.

Another time he was called to the hospital to speak with a German woman who had been stung by bees. Hospital personnel wanted Lane to explain her treatment.

"She was there with her husband, and they were both frightened," he said. "It was not a real emergency. She was fine, she just needed some reassurance, mostly."

Lane has listed himself as a contact for Japanese translation as well.

"We usually have a Japanese student here," he said, referring to the campus where he has taught for 29 years. Once he and a student were summoned, and the boy was able to help a Japanese patient.

Lane said he has sometimes had to take students to hospitals while overseas and has been able to act as translator.

And though the language is not foreign, people who use American Sign Language can find it frustrating trying to communicate with "nonsigners." The hospital's language bank sometimes taps the services of the county's Center for Hearing & Deaf Services, with 15 translators available. Many were raised by deaf parents and learned the language as children.

Additional Information:

How to help

The hospital welcomes more volunteers. Anyone who can speak a foreign language and is willing to work with the language bank can contact community relations at 724-537-1076.

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