Breaking down the language barrier

Interpreters help deliver care to patients in need

Interpreters help deliver care to patients in need

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2011

It's frustrating to not understand what health care workers are asking of you.

David Owen, an 81 year old from Pauingassi First Nation - a small fly-in community about 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has felt that frustration and fear.

"Sometimes the older people just nod yes or no so medical staff will leave them alone, because they don't understand," says George Boulanger, an interpreter and resource worker for the Winnipeg Health Region's Aboriginal Health Programs - Health Services.

Boulanger has seen apprehension from First Nations patients who can't understand what they are being told about their health. He stresses that health-care providers utilizing interpreters for language barrier patients can prevent problems. Time between interpreters and patients is crucial to help patients understand their health and care plans, and to build trust in the rest of the care team.

Owen comes regularly to the Health Sciences Centre dialysis unit, receiving a four-hour treatment, three times a week. Kidney disease completely changed Owen's life.

"I lived a simple life," he says through his interpreter. Having spent his whole life in the community, speaking only Ojibway, it was difficult for him to come to terms with his necessary move to Winnipeg for treatment.

"The first year was the hardest," says Boulanger for Owen. "It was culture shock."

As if dealing with a life-changing disease wasn't enough, Owen was uprooted from his home community and faced a language barrier when he arrived. He moved into subsidized housing at the Quest Inn on Ellice Avenue and has since adjusted to his new routine.

It's been several years now, and while it's still difficult for him to be so far from friends and family, he says he is grateful to be alive. "I'm most thankful for treatment, my subsidized transportation, and my interpreter," says Owen through Boulanger.

Boulanger can relate to his patients. He grew up in Berens River First Nation and relocated to Winnipeg due to a family member's illness back in 1985. Having utilized Ojibway as his first language his whole life, it was a natural fit for him to take an interpreter course at Red River College.

But even with that training, interpreting health care in First Nations languages isn't easy. While the Winnipeg Health Region provides interpreters in Ojibway, Cree, Island Lake dialect and OjiCree, in many cases there are simply no First Nation language words to describe medical procedures and terminology. AHP-Health Service interpreters are trained to verbally break down medical procedures, describing the process to patients. "We're all really careful. It could be a life or death error if we interpret the wrong information," says Boulanger. "We repeat ourselves so they know exactly what is being done."

Apart from interpreting, Boulanger also works with patient's home communities to ensure patients and families have access to appropriate lodging or other necessity items.

"I enjoy it," he says about being a part of a patient's health care team. "When everything goes well you feel you've contributed."

How to access services

Aboriginal language interpreters are on site at Health Sciences Centre, as well as Seven Oaks, Grace and St. Boniface hospitals. Mobile interpreter/ resource workers provide service at the other Winnipeg health centres, Deer Lodge Centre and Riverview Health Centre. They can all be accessed by calling Aboriginal Health Programs at 940-8880.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority acknowledges that it provides health services in facilities located on the original lands of Treaty 1 and on the homelands of the Metis Nation. WRHA respects that the First Nation treaties were made on these territories and acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past, and we dedicate ourselves to collaborate in partnership with First Nation, Metis and Inuit people in the spirit of reconciliation.
Click here to read more about the WRHA's efforts towards reconciliation

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