Business & Tech

On the Job

Interpreter speaks the language of medicine

Quan Bui (left) interpreted for Dr. Omar Eton and a patient at Boston Medical Center.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Quan Bui (left) interpreted for Dr. Omar Eton and a patient at Boston Medical Center.

There’s often a quiet resilience and dignified reserve among the older Vietnamese patients who come to Boston Medical Center. English is not their first language, and navigating the health care system can be confusing. That’s where medical interpreter Quan Bui steps in. One of the first things he does to win their trust is to mention that he’s related to a popular Vietnamese singer, Ha Thanh. Almost immediately, barriers are broken and a conversation starts. “Interpreting words is not enough. I serve as a cultural go-between as well between these immigrant patients and clinicians,” said Bui, one of 65 interpreters at BMC who also translate Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and other languages. Whether it’s explaining surgical procedures, providing family history, or helping decipher a prescription, Bui’s services can help avoid potentially deadly misunderstandings. With health care regulations requiring medical providers ensure equal treatment of limited-English speakers, Bui talked about why language services are an important part of quality care.

“After the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees fled the country. They were victims of concentration camps and other traumas. Many of them ended up here in Boston, especially in the Fields Corner area of Dorchester. If they need medical care, they usually go to DotHouse, a community health center. Then if it is a bigger health issue, they might be sent to Boston Medical Center. There, I am assigned to help them.

“They might say, ‘Dr. Sarah is my doctor.’ In Vietnamese, we don’t use last names because almost everyone is a Nguyen, Tran, or Lê. But because I know most of the physicians at DotHouse, I usually still know who referred the patient.

“Vietnamese is a tonal language, with the meaning of a word depending on how high or low my voice is. And there are over a dozen ways to say ‘you’ in Vietnamese, each one reflecting the relationship between the speakers. I am a quick study to decide which form is appropriate. There are many other nuances I need to be aware of, as I have learned during my 12 years here; now I’m well-versed on medical terminology and also respect privacy laws and ethics.

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“It feels good to help people. One day, for example, a patient was so nervous that it was hard to get accurate CT scan results. I helped him relax by singing a familiar Vietnamese song during the test, then the technicians were able to get a normal reading. It’s all about being there to support and comfort my fellow countrymen.

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“I started as an interpreter when I was just 14, interpreting for my aunt, and now, over three decades later, I am still in that role. I feel I was born to do this.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy.atoji@gmail.com.