How Volunteering Helped Me to Grow as a Medical Interpreter

How Volunteering Helped Me to Grow
as a Medical Interpreter

When I began interpreting, I was terrified. Despite all my training, the countless hours of studying medical terminology, and the mock appointments I’d interpret in class with my classmates, the moment I stepped into the exam room with the first Spanish-speaking patient I was supposed to interpret for, I felt like I was making a mistake. The other interpreter I had shadowed for a few appointments in the free clinic was there in the exam room with me, and she gave me a pep talk beforehand telling me, “You can do this!” I had seen her in action and was thoroughly impressed, so you’d think her glowing endorsement would give me a boost of courage. To be fair, it did, but all that courage drained out of me about as quickly as the color drained from my face. Much to my surprise, I didn’t choke on my words or faint from fear, and I knocked it out of the park. As quickly as my confidence had dipped, by the end of that first encounter, it was soaring to new heights I had never imagined possible. I will never forget that first interpreting experience and how I felt, and how the nonprofit clinic I interpreted at was the perfect environment for me to grow and bloom into a passionate and professional interpreter.

What first began as part of an internship with the interpretation and translation program at my college soon transformed into an ongoing collaboration with multiple nonprofits in my area. Even after my internship ended, I continued volunteering as much as humanly possible as an interpreter to keep my skills fresh. Eventually the relationship that I had formed with the first organization I volunteered with resulted in my first full-time job as a bilingual patient advocate. Over time I discovered my volunteer experience had ignited within me an insatiable urge to interpret, and even though my position at the charitable clinic I was working at did involve interpreting for patients, I simply couldn’t get enough of it. While I was ineligible to volunteer with the clinic I worked at, I continued volunteering as a medical interpreter with other nonprofits that serve the LEP (limited English proficient) community. Eventually I left my position at the clinic to pursue a full-time career in interpreting and, as some of you may already know, I’ve been quite successful in that.

I always felt like someone had my back when I was a volunteer medical interpreter. Some of those people continue to be, to this day, some of my dearest friends!

Thinking back on my volunteer experiences now, I can’t help but smile. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and caring environment for that first interpreting experience. Everyone from my fellow interpreters to the patients, the providers, the nurses, and the rest of the volunteers and staff at the clinic were so kind and warm. I wish I could say all of my experiences as a career medical interpreter in hospitals and clinics were as kind and caring as those I bore witness to as a volunteer interpreter with nonprofit clinics. What many people don’t understand about free and charitable clinics is that the majority of their “staff” are actually volunteers (yes, even the providers) and are donating their time and expertise because they really want to make a difference in people’s lives. I truly miss being a volunteer interpreter, but it’s difficult to find time in my impossibly busy schedule to manage it, so I tell myself that I’ll go back to being a volunteer medical interpreter when I retire!

Beyond providing a supportive, caring environment that was truly conducive to my growth as a medical interpreter, my volunteer experiences not only yielded lifelong friendships, but gave me the type of exposure to different medical specialties that many practicing medical interpreters only dream of. The vast majority of medical interpreters are contractors and as such are often limited by the scope of the contracts the agencies they work with. To give you an example, the agencies I am actively working with at the moment are constantly sending me to developmental-behavioral pediatric facilities, which means a good 99% of my work for the past year or so has been in developmental-behavioral pediatrics. Variety is the spice of life, and this holds true in interpreting. While I certainly love interpreting for the kiddos, there are days that I miss interpreting for ortho, nephrology, endocrinology, diabetes education classes, and even general medicine. I miss the days when I would be interpreting at the free clinic and have back-to-back appointments, all within different medical specialties, because they had a wide variety of providers volunteering under one roof! It was through this that I was able to discover that I enjoy interpreting for oncology, informed the volunteer coordinator of one of the organizations I interpreted for of this, and was prioritized for oncology assignments. This resulted in my interpreting for a few patients throughout their cancer treatment journey, which to this day are some of my most treasured, heartfelt interpreting experiences.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without having been a volunteer with the amazing nonprofits that helped come into my own as a medical interpreter. This is the guiding force behind the creation of IntepreMed’s Ambassador program, which Nanyi and I created to help not only connect our members with volunteer interpreting opportunities, but to also give them additional resources and training to empower them to best serve the LEP community. We’re partnering with nonprofits we believe in and have likely volunteered with ourselves, not just because we’d like to see our members have the same opportunities we’ve had, but because these organizations are often in need and so deserving of our support.

To learn more about the InterpreMed Ambassador Program and how you can make a difference all while gaining valuable experience as an interpreter, click here!

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