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The Heart of BIDMC

Jane Kontrimas, Interpreter Services

A Compassionate Bridge To Understanding



Imagine you're in a foreign country and you get seriously injured. You are taken to a hospital, but since you don't speak the language, you have no idea what the doctor is saying. You are hurt and in an unfamiliar place with strangers you don't understand. The doctor is looking frustrated and you're starting to get nervous.

That's when a woman with a soothing voice tells you not to worry -- you realize she is speaking your language! You breathe a sigh of relief, and so does the doctor.

Jane Kontrimas knows this story well. She has been that soothing voice to thousands of Russian-speaking patients in her 30 years as a Medical Interpreter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"When I started I could walk into an examination room and there would be two people looking at each other with fear, anxiety and terror on their faces," recalls Kontrimas. "They would look at me and smile and take a deep breath and relax. That's a great reception."

Jane interprets for as many as 30 patients at the hospital each week, helping them describe their symptoms and medical history to the hospital staff, interpreting the physician's diagnosis and treatment, and making sure patients' questions are answered in a way they can understand. She says cultural understanding is sometime as important as translating the language.

"For instance, Russian patients often assume the doctor would call to tell them when they should come back for a follow up," says Kontrimas. "That's how it works in their country. But the doctor assumed the patient would call if there was a problem. My job was to create an understanding and explain to each party how they could work it out."

A childhood full of travel taught Jane early on that not everyone in the world speaks English. Her father was a professor at MIT and often took his family along when he was lecturing in foreign countries. Jane had already learned French and Spanish (which she no longer speaks fluently) when she took a high school course on Russian culture. That summer, she joined her father on a business trip to Moscow, and her passion for all things Russian was sealed.

After majoring in Russian at Middlebury College, one of the top Russian programs in the country, Jane fell into a job interpreting between Russians immigrants trying to settle in the United States.

"A lot of the work was going to the hospital and helping people getting their medical checkup," says Jane. "I liked the medical situations best."

That led her to BIDMC. Jane understands that medical interpreting requires a lot more than opening up a Russian dictionary. One wrong interpretation could mean the difference between life and death.

"In Russian, when someone says I had an 'episode of chest pain', the dictionary would translate that to 'heart attack' in English," explains Jane. "But an episode of chest pain is not the same meaning as heart attack, so you have to know more than just what the dictionary says to understand the context of the language."

Jane is one of the 50 full and part-time medical interpreters at BIDMC providing 80,000 face-to-face encounters and another 35,000 telephone encounters with non-English speaking patients. The BIDMC Interpreter Services Department offers interpreters who speak about 30 different languages - everything from Russian to Haitian to Chinese to Sign Language.

The Interpreter Services Department is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Jane has been on the team since its founding and has the distinction of being the first professional Russian staff medical interpreter in Boston. Her work on the former Massachusetts Medical Interpreters Association (now the IMIA) helped to establish Standards of Practice for medical interpreters in Massachusetts and nationwide.

"Jane not only set the foundation for who we are as medical interpreters at BIDMC, but for many around the country," says Shari Gold-Gomez, Director of BIDMC's Interpreter Services Department. "She treats each patient and provider with care and dignity - as we would all wish to be treated if we were in the patient's shoes."

Gomez believes the services Jane and her colleagues in Interpreter Services provide are essential, especially in a hospital setting.

"I believe they add a culturally compassionate 'bridge' so that those unfamiliar with our healthcare system have equal access to quality healthcare," says Gomez.

Jane now teaches others what she has perfected over the years - how to make the hospital experience for patients who speak limited or no English as close to that of a fluent English speaker…or better.

"People are very nice about their appreciation for what I do," says Jane. "I can see that it's useful because I can see that they weren't communicating without me. Right away I feel that I'm helping people."

e content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your own medical care, consult your doctor.

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