Interpreting on the Eastern Shore: An Introduction

Today marks the end of my first week working as a Spanish medical interpreter at the Eastern Shore Rural Health (ESRH) System, and I have finally had the chance to write my first blog! Apologies for not writing sooner… I tried, but somehow my various musings didn’t come together until now. In the weeks before I arrived on-site I began some of my preliminary research (reading some literature, reviewing my medical vocabulary, and practicing my Spanish listening skills), but this week is definitely where the action begins.

The Eastern Shore. I live in Exmore (marked "A"), a small town. How small? A website lists "going to Food Lion" as the #3 Thing To Do in Exmore!

So, if you’re like a lot of people, you might be a little confused about what and where the Eastern Shore is (indeed, my roommate got responses from friends who had confused the Eastern Shore for TV’s “Jersey Shore”…oh dear).

The Eastern Shore is that little strip on the side of Virginia; the lowest part of the Delmarva Peninsula, separated from the rest of Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay. It is about two hours from Williamsburg, and can be reached by crossing the 23-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel out of the Norfolk/Newport News area and paying a striking $12 toll each way.

There are almost 50,000 people who live on the Shore, and the overwhelmingly flat terrain is dominated by many types of farming; vegetables, seafood, chicken, soybean, etc. It is the home of Chincoteague, famous for its wild ponies, and Tangier, an island so isolated from mainstream society that its residents speak with their own unique accent:

So….what am I doing here again? As an extension of my Freshman Monroe Project where I began my journey into the world of interpreting, I would like to take my experience to the next level, interpreting as an employee of a rural community health center for Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers. Although the clinic is providing services for one of the most underserved areas of the United States (largely due to both poverty and cultural/language barriers), this has been far different from my experience interpreting for free clinics with a similar aim. ESRH is a large-scale, well-established system that is the chosen health care provider for not just the very poor but for more than 60% of the Shore’s population.

Every day I travel for 40 miles down the Eastern Shore’s main highway to arrive at one of five major clinics, Atlantic Health Center. I work with migrant outreach worker Roberto and (about to return from vacation) interpreter Maria to help with the heavy load of Spanish-speaking patients. Indeed, the experience so far has been thrilling. In just the first week (interpreting myself, observing, and listening to other’s stories), I have encountered children receiving their yearly well-child checks; a child with a wound so deep he couldn’t feel anything because the nerves had burned through; various ear infections, strep, or a combination thereof; a mother who has been insisting that her children receive an ADHD referral though we suspect she just wants to receive state disability money; a story about a possible herpes case; a farmworker woman who had gotten a piece of wood stuck in her finger at work; and a woman who had just finished surgery for a biopsy and needed some final questions to be interpreted over the phone. Whew!

I began by shadowing Roberto as he interpreted, but I am now being called in for cases to interpret on my own. My previous experiences interpreting have set me up for most of the vocabulary I need, but every now and then I will encounter a word I did not previously know and will have to work around it and look it up later (Zipper? El cierro. Hydrogen Peroxide? Agua oxigenada. To kick? Patear. To choke on something? Atragantarse en algo.) Because of the high demand in a rural area, these physicians are packed with patients, and they must work quickly to get through the sheer number of people who come in each day. From both the interpreter and the physician’s perspective, it is quite an art to deal with patients for only 15 or sometimes 30 minutes but still make a positive impact, physically and emotionally. Good communication is essential.

Through all of this experience, I hope to hone in on the question—what makes a good interpreter? My question is intentionally broad, and I hope to answer it through my experiences, observations, and interviews. Although the beginning has been a whirlwind of activity, I have begun to develop a deeper curiosity about these migrant farmworkers themselves. Who are they? What lives do they lead? What challenges do they face? What are their hopes and dreams? Indeed, I have already begun uncovering that story, bit by bit…but I’ll leave that one for my next blog. Until then!