Missions of Mercy:Guatemala Translators

You can pretty much expect to see doctors, nurses, health care providers and even religious leaders on medical missions to underprivileged countries. But when WTOC Photographer Bob Wells and I went with the Faith In Practice mission to Guatemala, we learned within a few short days that these healers would not be able to help anyone if it wasn't for some key members of the team who don't have any medical training.

No matter how sick a patient is or how talented these doctors are, all of their skills would be useless without the translators. Many of the people are of Mayan decent and they don't speak Spanish. "There are over 30 different dialects of the Mayan languages that are spoken," explains Sherry LeBlang. "They don't understand each other and many of them don't understand much Spanish. So unless they have someone to translate from their Mayan language to Spanish it's very difficult to communicate with the patient."

To make sure that the right message is being interpreted, assigned to each examining room with the doctors, are two translators - one translates what the doctors are saying from English to Spanish and the other translates the Spanish into one of 30 different Mayan dialects. "Most of these people are not able to read and write any language since they don't understand Spanish and we don't speak Mayan if we don't have the correct Mayan interpreter, we can't diagnose what's wrong with the patient. So we can't offer the help that they need, " adds Sherry.

"Down here, for us to do what we do, the translators are indispensable," says Dr. Larry Ruf. While doctors realize they cannot function without this team of translators, they admit it takes patience and some getting used to.

Dr. Donald Nelson recalls, "A little girl she was Mayan had a cleft lip and palette and we were going to try to take some teeth out. I could speak to the English - Spanish translator. She spoke to a guy who spoke Spanish and Mayan and he talked her grandfather who spoke Mayan and he could talk to her so we had kind of a parlor game going on around the room. You wonder what she was really hearing you know."

The translators are part of every step of the treatment. They accompany the doctors on their rounds to serve as a link between the patient their families and the doctors ensuring that the patients understand what will happen after they are released and what they must do as they recover.

"We have to make sure that these patients understand what the appropriate care is particularly with the babies who have cleft lip and palette repairs it is so extremely important that the mom do exactly what the plastic surgeon needs to have done. And the only thing that we can do is convey this information to the translator and because she cannot read or write, she has to remember everything that the translator tells her and we want to make sure that is done because it is so important that these children receive the care that they need post operatively, " explains Sherry.

While the translators have no medical experience, the experience they do have is proven vital to bridging these two worlds, and bringing the healthcare to the people who so desperately need it.

Talk about key volunteers, the kitchen team was simply amazing. We affectionately called them " Basil Hazel and The Spice Girls". Every morning long before the sun came up Jim Hazel and his team were in the kitchen making sure that the team got the most important meal of the day. They spent most of their days shopping for the team meals and preparing them. I will share their complete story and many others from this unforgettable journey to Guatemala in the weeks to come.

Reported by:Dawn Baker, dbaker@wtoc.com