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Making a difference

medical center translating

sunny 30 °C

One day in Cabarete, I was walking down the street with a group of girls from the hostel when an elderly lady approached me and asked if any of us spoke Spanish. We told her that I could, and she then proposed a little piece of voluntary work.

The concept:
A group of medical specialists from Canada were coming to the Dominican Republic to work for a week in a building in Callejon de la loma (better known as Callejon, the main Dominican Street as opposed to the main gringo street in town). There would be doctors, dentists, dental hygienists, optometrists, nurses, paediatricians, and pharmacists who would give free care to as many people as possible over a 7 day period of time.

I agreed to do the work, partly because of my love to do work that actually matters and mostly because of my desire to get more experience translating so that I can do more work that actually matters…

I signed up to work for the pharmacist as I was terrified of seeing in people’s mouths, and unwilling to have close contact with super sick people due to my hopeless immune system. However, on the first day I found myself put immediately with the optometrist as the pharmacist didn’t really need translating because the Doctor’s translator was the best person to translate the prescription, rather than doubling up the job.

It was a swap that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened (thank you universe!). Our job involved testing people’s eye sight by giving simple reading tests or wall tests so as to prescribe them the appropriate seeing glasses. I realised how magical what we were doing was as soon as we helped the first person to see – there were tears of joy, hugs, kisses, promises of fresh food delivered to us, and so forth for the rest of the day. On that first day, we helped over 100 people to see life better, it was an amazing feeling. One of doing good for people, of making a difference, and of using whatever we can inside each of us to make the world just that little bit better. And the feeling reminded me of my old job in New Zealand with Applied Theatre of restoring hope in others; of how it used to be before I lost the hope and faith in myself due to the lack of quick results and bureaucracy.
I quickly realised over the following week that my Spanish is now good enough to resume working in my career. Not yet in editing, but most definitely in teaching. I was called upon by doctors and dentists throughout the week to translate when it was a particularly thick accent or someone spoke too fast. Most of the translators were second (or third or fourth) language speakers and I quickly realised how much deeper my comprehension was. The Caribbean accent is very thick and lazy but due to spending so much time here over the last year, I didn’t have any trouble at all and was able to translate efficiently and with smiles all around.

One of the things I learned about translating is that the patient sees me as the doctor, even though I am just the voice. So they will talk to me, they will expect me to be the one to give the magic answer, and they will plead their case with me. And somehow, when that is then translated by me the urgency, the desperation, and the truth of the situation is somehow lost. It just becomes another story amongst many. Yet when that person is talking to you from the depth of their soul about how they need only $3500 pesos ($100NZD) to save their eyesight from cataracts, it is impossible not to feel that impacting your own inner being. We were only able to provide eye glasses as we did not have the equipment nor the time, skills, and space to do operations or medical procedures.

Speaking of space, it sure gave some perspective to the optometrists in the first world. I bet very few of them have worked on one side of a desk with another optometrist and translator seated on the other, both prescribing used eyeglasses from plastic bags after just a simple test. With two dental hygienists within a metre of us, scrubbing and scraping the build up on peoples teeth with translators describing basic dental health. Where behind the hygienists worked two dentists who’s arms were so sore from pulling hundreds and hundreds of rotten teeth all day long that they often needed to stop for rests because they could no longer feel their muscles. Amongst the 6 medical professionals and the 6 accompanying translators were lines and lines of people waiting for their turn, in a room with 30 degree heat, no running water and at most parts of the day - no electricity, meaning no fans! All watching with anxiety, scared to have their teeth pulled or worried that the glasses that would be their prescription may not suit the shapes of their face. There was the little girl who the dentist refused to pull her tooth, he asked me to explain to the mother that she was only 8 years old and far too pretty to live a life without a front tooth. I explained to the mother in the nicest way possible that the tooth wasn’t damaged enough to be pulled and it could be easily saved if she went to a local dentist. And the girls face lit up – both because we had saved her pain, and also because the strange white man who didn’t speak her language had come all the way from Canada and thought she was pretty. I knew she would remember us forever – either at 16 when she looked in the mirror because her mother took her to the real doctor and saved her fate by spending a few pesos wisely, or with kindness because we tried and hatred towards her mother for not listening and giving her the complex of having holes in her smile.

There were the little old men who would light up when I spoke of being in the country to dance bachata and merengue, who told me of their youthful days of dancing to the same music that I have come to love more than any other. There were the teenagers who pouted and lied about their vision until they got the glasses they wanted, the ones that matched their sanky haircuts. I had to laugh as I remembered being in the same situation years ago, spending hours and hours with my own mother as we chose each other glasses – that suited our eyebrow lines of course!

It was an amazing experience and I was so happy and proud to be a part of it. I learned that I need to be doing work that matters, and I also learned that my Spanish is good enough. That maybe I am finally one step closer to bilingualism as I have dreamed about for so long.

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Posted by chasingsummer 09:23 Archived in Dominican Republic

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